Hu Guan’s The Eight Hundred is a tour de force of a war film that showcases heroism at its finest. This brutal film, likes the soldiers in the Shang warehouse, gives no quarters. An awe-inspiring film.
Shanghai, 1937; it’s been three months since Japan launched the invasion of China, and Japanese forces have been ordered to take control of a large central warehouse. Inside, a group of Chinese soldiers hold their ground, defending the city at any cost. 400 soldiers remain, yet they allow invaders and the public to believe there are 800 residing in the warehouse. Confusing the enemy in an exhausting, bloody fight lasting four days and four nights. With the conflict playing out in full view of Chinese civilians and both Americans and Europeans living across the river, the battle of the “Eight Hundred heroes” made world headlines, the first to be broadcast live around the world.
Detailing the heroic efforts from the 524th regiment of the 88th division from the NRA during the Second Sino-Japanese War, we are given a film made for the big screen. Filmed entirely on IMAX, this is a visually astonishing film thanks to how scaled up the special effects are here. The roving camera allows us to see shots from angles we normally wouldn’t see and for a film showing so many battles, non ever feel the same, or at least we are not shown a rinse and repeat style battle. Each battle picks its own place around the warehouse, allowing the camera style to change with the moment.
During these multiple battles, there is so much happening on the camera that you never quite know where to keep your gaze, highlighting the amount of effort put into the picture that the utter chaos of the action overwhelms you. It should also give us the same feelings as the shell shocked soldiers who do not know what to do other than to keep shooting and attacking. The IMAX cameras’ use brings an intensity not quite seen in other war films before, and the film benefits greatly from its inclusion.
Director of photography Yu Cao deserves so much credit for how he has filmed the battles as they look unbelievably complex at times. The starkness in one scene where the Chinese and Japanese soldiers fight it out feet from each other as the camera pans backwards causes goosebumps to rise as the brutal violence continues.
It does have to be said how brutal the violence can be during The Eight Hundred, with some moments lingered upon to give the audience time to realise what has happened. Though pet hate is the continued inclusion of CGI blood as they have never looked as real as they need to be. However, for all of the violence and brutal action, it is the quieter moments with the soldiers that the film shines just as well, and they are perfectly placed to allow the audience a moment or two to collect themselves before the next barrage.
What makes this true story, and thank goodness, for the most part, a lot of the film stays true to the facts, which can be a rarity in factual dramatisations (looking at you, Braveheart). Of course, some moments are stretched to aid the story, but these are not often enough to distract. Though from historical reports, not nearly as many men from the regiment died as depicted here. Thanks to Guan Hu’s direction, the entire piece feels so authentic, be it the rampaged remains of Shanghai to the glistening and vibrant part of the city across the river. It is a wonderful yet haunting juxtaposition to see death’s grim face while life is thriving mere metres from each other.
By having so many people watch the battle from the other side of the river, they effectively become the proxy audience as their shock soon turns to dismay as they witness each passing days horror go by right in front of them. They get to say what we want to and though some are wholly exaggerated versions of what people were saying, they are still effective as being our voice. What works best for the film is that there is no long prologue; we have some information provided and then the characters themselves feed us the information throughout. We are thrown straight into Shanghai’s battle as the group from the countryside comes in to support their country and it works well here. This jarring experience sets up audiences who know the history and those who do not know much or anything of this battle.
However, an issue with this is how often we are thrown back to that side of the river. Simultaneously, moments like the owners of the casino decided to help out or an older bickering couple watching on from their apartment is meant to bring pride to the civilians who decided to help in some way. They take us away from where we need to be focusing, and that is when the men in the warehouse, especially when the film just runs over 2 hours.
Due to the sheer numbers in the cast, there only a few opportunities for some characters to have full arcs and what we get are the stereotypical war ones. Characters who were seen as cowards at the start become heroes as they fight to the end, the proud commander who leads by example to great celebration. We even have a negative view of the enemy. Though in fairness, the Japanese were pretty vile during this time and especially during those last moments of the battle, so it would have been easy to portray them as negatively as they are shown here.
This leaves limited time to give these men the arcs they deserve, and we merely get moments with them as they alter throughout the 2-hour runtime. Of course, this is an unavoidable issue, and happily, it does not affect the film’s overall appeal. While the characters enhance the story, it is their actions that make it. To even get the limited time we do with them is enough and all the more jarring when any are injured or hurt as we, the viewer, fill in the gaps of what has not been told about them.
The Eight Hundred is an astonishing piece of cinema that will have you rooting for our heroes until the end. Then immediately go off to search about the actual events of the battle to gather as much information as possible. In the end, this is a film that needs to be watched on the biggest screen you own. An unmissable war film.
Trinity CineAsia presents The Eight Hundred on DVD from 22nd March and Blu-ray & Digital from 12th April.
I am but a small website in this big wide world. As much as I would love to make this website a big and wonderful entity. That would bring in more costs. So, for now all I hope is to make Upcoming On Screen self sufficient. Well enough to where any website fees are less of a worry for me in the future. You can support the website below…
You can support us in a variety of ways (other than that wonderful word of mouth) and those lovely follows. If you are so inclined to help out then you can support us via Patreon, find our link here! We don’t want to ask much from you, so for now we have limited our tiers to £1.50 and £3.50. These will of course grow the more we plan to do here at Upcoming On Screen.
Thanks for reading, every view helps us out more than you would think (we have fragile egos). Until next time.