BOTTOM LINE: Chinese war epic that humanizes an officer on the horns of a dilemma between loyalty and obedience.

Pusan International Film Festival

"Assembly" is billed as the most expensive war epic made in China. In its dramatization of a communist army captain's fight to validate his unit's unacknowledged martyrdom, the film aspires to Hollywood standard-bearers like "Saving Private Ryan" by striving to be superior to any Chinese film in the same genre. The real challenge is not technical but rather the ability to navigate the ideological minefield of a subject considered highly sensitive in China.

Director Feng Xiaogang, whose commercial savvy has made him China's reigning boxoffice king, gets it right most of the time. With neither an internationally recognizable cast nor the allure of an Oriental palace saga like in his previous blockbuster, "The Banquet," the film's overseas marketing needs to find new selling points. It does not hurt that "Assembly" was the opening-night film at the Pusan International Film Festival.

The film begins in 1948, the tail end of the civil war. The audience is immediately plunged into a graphic battle between the People's Liberation Army's Ninth Company Infantry, led by Capt. Guzidi (Zhang Hanyu), and the Nationalist KMT.

After a PLA victory, Guzidi is disciplined for misconduct. He is ordered to lead his unit in holding off another offensive from a nearby coal mine and to fight until the retreat assembly call is sounded. Guzidi, whose hearing was im¬paired in the last battle, is unsure if he heard the bugle. All 47 of his men are killed.
The subsequent segments -- set a few days after the battle, in 1950 and in 1968, respectively -- follow Guzidi's crusade against bureaucracy to get his dead comrades commemorated as "revolutionary heroes." It's a shift into Feng's expert territory of intimate personal relationships.

Zhang was eclipsed by superstars Ge You and Andy Lau when he played a supporting role as the cop in "World Without Thieves." In "Assembly," he has ample screen time to develop a remarkable character. As the narrative spans 20 years, Zhang shows different faces and mannerisms of his character at various stages in his life and gives a convincing response when he confronts the bugle blower and finds out what really happened.

For the action choreography, explosions, sound effects and makeup, the production has enlisted the Korean technical team behind MK Pictures' record-holding hit "Brotherhood." Pumped to Krakatoan levels are sound effects that become integral to the enigma of Guzidi's hearing, which continues to haunt him. Although the action is not as fluid as in "Brotherhood," Feng packs the money shots into the first two segments.

"Assembly's" ending is nothing if not orthodox. Rumor has it that the director had mulled over a darker, alternative ending. Instead, Feng works within his country's set of rules called zhuxuanlu ("main rhythm," a government-endorsed theater category). Nevertheless, he has crafted several touching moments of esprit de corps, while implicitly questioning the infallibility of the canonized PLA and hinting at its culpability in casualties during the civil war.

Huayi Brothers Media & Co./Media Asia Films/Huayi Brothers Pictures/MK Pictures
Director: Feng Xiaogang
Screenwriter: Liu Heng
Based on the short story by: Yang Jingyuan
Producer: Wang Zhongjun
Executive producer: Chen Kuofu
Director of photography: Lu Yue
Production designers: Zhang Chunhe, Zhao Jing, Zheng Xiaofeng
Music: Wang Liguang
Co-producers: Shirley Lau, Xu Pengle, Lou Zhongfu
Costume designer: Zhao Hai; Editor: Liu Miaomiao
Capt. Guzidi: Zhang Hanyu
Zhao Erdou: Deng Chao
Wang Jincun: Yuen Wenkang
Sun Guiqin: Tang Yan

Running time -- 123 minutes
No MPAA rating