The Eight Hundred (Ba bai)

China (2020) Dir. Guan Hu

“The nature of war is always politics.”

I’ve always wondered what the phrase “Theatre of War” meant, assuming it was a poetic term for the drama that plays out on the battlefield. Instead, it refers to any area where warfare takes place. If we were to take this big budget affair from China as gospel, my interpretation is actually closer…

October 1937 and the Second Sino-Japanese War is in full swing with the invading army making their way across China to Nanking. Suffering defeats in the Battle of Shanghai, the Chinese army is outnumbered and outclassed on the artillery front, the number of surviving soldiers running low. To boost national morale and encourage international support, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek has a plan.

400 remaining soldiers from the National Revolution Army (NRA) are sent on a suicide mission to defend Sihang Warehouse against 20,000 Japanese soldiers. Led by Colonel Xie Jinyuan (Du Chun), the under-equipped, mainly volunteer soldiers give their lives to defend to warehouse, putting up a robust fight whilst their numbers dwindle and their morale hits rock bottom.

So, where does the theatre aspect come into it? Shockingly, this entire mission was a show for the people of China to see how brave their soldiers were, and to have other countries add their might to the beleaguered Chinese army. It sounds horrifically cynical and it is – the above quote is from the scene where Xie Jinyuan learns his men’s efforts were essentially all for show.

And we’re supposed to be rooting for the Chinese here! It’s an odd dichotomy for us westerners to get our heads around but not for domestic audiences – The Eight Hundred was THE box office juggernaut of 2020, wiping out all comers including Tenet. A decade long labour of love for director Guan Hu, it is China’s most expensive film to date, costing $80 million (USD) and the first to be shot in IMAX, proving an immersive visual feast if nothing else.

Yet, it is with tremendous irony this tale of reckless politicking was hampered by politics itself. Moments before its festival premiere in 2019, the film was pulled with “technical reasons” cited. The truth, however, is since 2019 was the 70th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) uprising against the NRA, Chinese censors objected to the glorifying of the NRA as heroes, contrasting their revisionist narrative of the NRA as evil oppressors.

Fearing this positive representation would be incendiary, 13 minutes were cut to ensure the film’s release, though it is still 2 ½ hours long. Whatever was cut must have been substantial enough to render many characters and subplots lacking in depth. There is no singular protagonist, just a few people spotlighted whose arcs suitably delineate the suffering and sacrifices of this event, and even they aren’t even properly introduced.

The most awkward casualty comes at the expense of a crucial moment in the story, when the squad receive a flag to fly to show the Japanese they won’t be chastened. Unfortunately, this was the NLA flag (now the Taiwanese flag) and of course the censors objected so whilst we see the soldiers dying, the symbol of their cause, and their loyalty is never shown in close-up. Again, the irony would be risible if it wasn’t so blinkered.

Luckily, the general substance of the story can’t be whitewashed by petty interference, and regardless of where you are from, sympathising with these brave men is easy, and Hu does an excellent job in creating a hopeless environment they are not long for. The futility of war can never be understated, illustrated here by two farmer brothers, the youngest just 13, his older sibling conned into seeing the bright lights of Shanghai.  

Many of the soldiers are recruited via similar ways, others are deserters from other ranks who feel they have a better chance of survival holed up in the warehouse than on the front line – except deserters are viewed as lower than the enemy in the army. Again, this isn’t given any time to be explored given the gravity of the situation, just enough to lay the foundations.

Possibly the most egregious aspect is what happens on the other side of the Suzhou River. In contrast to the dank, crumbling conditions of the warehouse, it is all neon lit signs, luxury and entertainment, basically life going on as usual. Right on cue, they stop to watch the battles and cheer their side on, donating food and medical supplies, whilst international reporters cover the chaos from afar (some in a blimp) but the implication is the war is not really their problem.

No doubt some of this ended up on the cutting room floor, but enough remains for the nationalism and jingoism of how awesome China is to come through with sledgehammer blows. Thankfully, the presentation is top notch and immensely compelling that we can forget this whilst we witness the immaculately staged battle sequences, boasting Hollywood level special effects and superb camerawork. On the big screen, this must have been a true spectacle to behold.

With this being an ensemble piece, no one actor stands out – everyone fulfils their roles with aplomb no matter how big or small; in fact, it is probably the extras being shot to pieces who are the real stars. Even with the dramatised narrative, the authenticity Hu delivers is efficaciously palpable. There are some parts in English which weren’t subtitled so I have no idea of their importance or relevance, whilst the Japanese are essentially the unseen enemy, with only a couple of soldiers featured.

Hu’s good intentions and genuine passion in making this tribute to these brave men is not so undermined by its partisan tone that The Eight Hundred can’t be easily accessible as a hard-hitting, emotionally driven, action packed, and visually stunning epic war drama. However, knowledge of the retroactive fact tampering will likely make its political misgivings more pronounced for the more cynical viewer.

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