'The Eight Hundred' ('Babai'): Film Review

The Eight Hundred
Courtesy of Blossoms Entertainment

'The Eight Hundred'

A war epic with lots of guts falling just shy of glory.

Guan Hu’s controversial, oft-delayed and visually stunning war epic finally makes its way to theaters, much to the delight of exhibitors.

When the Japanese Imperial Army laid siege to an innocuous warehouse in 1937’s Battle of Shanghai, the skirmish ultimately became a flashpoint that galvanized a nation. China lost that battle but won the war, and the resistance of the Eight Hundred Heroes earned the legendary status it retains to this day.

Sixth-generation director Guan Hu’s retelling of that moment in contemporary Chinese history, The Eight Hundred, is finally making its way to cinemas after drama of its own. Suddenly, and mysteriously, yanked from its opening-night slot at last year’s Shanghai International Film Festival — for “technical reasons” — it was subsequently pulled from general release in July. Theories for the cancellation largely hinged on the film’s reverence for Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang and Nationalist Revolutionary Army, not Mao Zedong’s Communist Party. Industry rumors suggest that at the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, anything stealing the spotlight from the CCP and Beijing’s active reimagining of history was unwelcome. The final postponement came as a result of COVID-19-related theater closures.

To outside viewers, the film’s issues may have been hard to spot, but to China’s increasingly controlling censors it was enough to send Guan and his editors back to the cutting board twice. Guan shot to prominence for 1994’s glum music drama Dirt and the popular crime drama Mr. Six, and it’s likely his contribution to the $290 million-grossing propaganda pic My People, My Country led to his first mainstream crowd-pleaser.

Guan certainly sticks to historical details (dramatic license aside) that would seem to be party-approved: The government and the military have only the best interests of the people at heart; the residents of the foreign concession are soft and unprepared for the reality of war; Western politicking condemned Shanghai. An epilogue points out that China became an “anti-fascist battleground” and the war was ultimately won by a “Communist-led” resistance.

However, Guan and co-writer Ge Rui’s willingness to paint some of the NRA soldiers as bullies and cowards, and the prominence placed on the national flag (now Taiwan’s flag), could have raised eyebrows. It’s clearly been edited around, and early posts on mainland review site Douban indicate viewers disapprove of “brushing over the corruption of the KMT leadership,” despite the siege still being regarded as a beacon in China’s resistance to Japanese invasion.

So with 13 minutes excised, The Eight Hundred launched with an impressive $115 million debut in Chinese cinemas reopening at 50 percent capacity; North America is next at the end of August. The first Chinese feature shot entirely in Imax, the film boasts an unprecedented $80 million budget that's entirely on the screen. Stacked with a sprawling (at times too sprawling) cast and Hollywood standard production values, the film was, unsurprisingly, a hit. The combination of summer blockbuster visuals and a chance to get out of the house should keep it afloat domestically for some time, and its polish and true resistance story could lure braver overseas audiences tired of middling Netflix originals out to cinemas. But the mixed messaging could be a challenge for international audiences in light of shifted geopolitical attitudes.

The story unfolds shortly after the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Under siege for roughly five days, a vastly outnumbered 524th Regiment of NRA defended the strategically located Sihang Warehouse to provide cover for the retreating forces and serve as a buffer for Shanghai’s foreign concessions across the Suzhou River. The motley crew of veteran soldiers, civilians and so-called deserters totals just over 400, rather than the 800 they allow everyone to believe. The numbers dwindle as the siege carries on and the soldiers are mowed down by Japanese.

The Eight Hundred rivals Dunkirk and 1917 for mud-soaked, blood-splattered gruesomeness expected of a war epic, some of it realized with assistance from international heavy hitters. Visual effects came courtesy of Tim Crosbie (X-Men: Apocalypse) and Jason Troughton (A Bigger Splash), and veteran action coordinator Glenn Boswell (The Hobbit) chipped in with battle choreography. Brit Rupert Gregson-Williams (Wonder Woman) wrote the theme (reminiscent of “Danny Boy”) to complement Andrew Kawczynski’s (a contributor to the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick) score, which sidesteps both excessively inspirational and on-the-nose.

The film deftly balances frantic combat with clarity — the characters may feel anonymous, but we always know what’s happening — and cinematographer Cao Yu repeats the war-torn, bleak-beautiful images he created for Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death (about the Rape of Nanking). Ironically, calm grasslands and the rubbly gray/sepia of leveled cities are outdone only by the contrast between neon in the foreign concession and the muted dustiness of the collapsing warehouse. It suggests a more critical examination of wartime relations that never comes.

But like the ambitious The Wandering Earth, the last Chinese epic to make a play for international glory, and indeed Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, The Eight Hundred is thin on characterization, and too often slips into rote narrative and war movie cliches (really, a runaway white horse?). And that's despite eight writers working on the script. The sheer volume of men fighting and dying in the face of overwhelming odds and stellar technical spectacle step into the gap where emotional connection should be.

The closest the film comes to protagonists are 13-year-old Xiao Hubei (newcomer Zhang Junyi) and his brother Duan Wu (Ou Hao, The Captain); the cowardly Lao Tie (Jiang Wen’s brother Jiang Wu) and his pseudo-pal Yang Guai (Wang Qiangyuan, Shadow); and commanders Xie Jinyuan (television actor Du Chun) and Lao Hulu (Huang Zhizhong, Our Time Will Come). The rest of the men (there are a half-dozen women, none with substantial dialogue) are functional sketches designed to earmark key moments in the battle.

Production company: Huayi Brothers, The Seventh Arts Pictures, Tencent Pictures, Beijing Enlight Media, Alibaba Pictures
U.S. distributor: CMC Pictures
Cast: Ou Hao, Du Chun, Huang Zhizhong, Zhang Junyi, Wang Qianyuan, Jiang Wu, Zhang Yi, Wei Chen, Li Chen, Yu Haoming, Zheng Kai, Cao Lu
Director: Guan Hu
Screenwriter: Guan Hu, Ge Rui
Producer: Zhu Wenjiu
Executive producer: Zhang Dajun
Director of photography: Cao Yu
Production designer: Lin Mu
Costume designer: Li Zhou
Editor: Tu Yiran, He Yongyi
Music: Andrew Kawczynski
Casting: Can Zi
World sales: Blossoms Entertainment

In Putonghua
No rating, 148 minutes