War films are challenging.
War is horrifying, arguably one of the most horrific experiences one could face, whether as an innocent bystander or in combat. As such, as important as it is to show the jingoism and chaos of war, one still needs characters to lead the audience through the carnage. A good war film needs perspective, grounding, something to anchor and guide the audience. Apocalypse Now has Martin Sheen’s Capt. Benjamin J Willard, Letters from Iwo Jima has Ken Watanabe’s General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, and Come and See has Aleksey Kravchenko Florya. Dunkirk notably balances the battle of Dunkirk from three perspectives, on the land (Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles), sea (Cillian Murphy and Mark Rylance) and in the air (Tom Hardy). The Eight Hundred focus the Chinese soldiers who fought during the standoff at the Sihang Warehouse during the Battle of Shanghai, telling their story through through spectacle and bombast. While the film’s technical feats are unquestionably stupendous, it unfortunately lacks in character.
The Eight Hundred tells the true story of the 1937 Battle of Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War, a standoff during the Imperial Japanese Army’s invasion of Shanghai. 452 members of the Chinese army, held up in a Sihang Warehouse, fought around 20,000 members of 3rd Imperial Japanese Division from invading the International Settlement in Shanghai just across from the Suzhou Creek. Commander Xie Jinyuan (Du Chun) exaggerated the number of the Chinese army in order to downplay the strength of the Japanese. The Chinese soldiers faced both the Japanese army and the hazing from their own superior officers, all to protect the Settlement across the river.
From a production standpoint, the film is top-notch. The action hits hard, making you feel like you’re caught in the chaos, with bullets flying by your head. The Eight Hundred is the first Chinese film shot in IMAX, and the director, Guan Hu, takes full advantage of the IMAX technology. He knows how to build tension in his action scenes, making the warzone feel like a warzone. Anyone can get killed at any time, and each death feels earned, never out of place. The shock of death is amplified by how Hu depicts the horrific treatment and conditions of the soldiers, sometimes by their own superiors. The hazing and trauma these soldiers experience in the film is hard to watch, as they are pushed further into a corner by the Japanese military and pressure from their own superiors. One of the notable issues the Chinese soldiers face is desertion, as many soldiers are burnt out and homesick. Addressing desertion is a clever and emotionally charged way to makes the soldiers relatable.
The innocent bystanders across the Suzhou Creek add motivation to fight and the promise of escape for the soldiers. The front-row-seats for the civilians provide the ability for the audience to watch the soldiers fight, and keep the soldiers focused on what they are fighting for. It helps build tension and provide emotional weight to the conflict, especially as the film visually illustrates how close the Japanese military are to wiping out the settlement.
Despite the film’s unique story and impressive production work, the film lacks the necessary element of character. I really couldn’t tell you much of anything about any of the characters in the movie. The characters aren’t bland, the filmmakers just did not develop or explore them. They are more focused on the story and action than the soldiers themselves. We are given hints of character for a few soldiers, but not enough to fully invest in their journey. There are few moments where the soldiers just sit down and talk, reflecting on their battles and pasts. Whenever there isn’t fighting there is some sort of hazing or attempted escape from warehouse. This lack of character development made the story difficult to invest in, plus it hurt the pacing. By the end of the film, I felt drained, not helped by the film’s crushingly unnecessary length.
The film is more set-piece oriented than character-oriented. The emotional resonance comes from the battle itself rather than individual character arcs. This sometimes works given how the battle is shot, but due to the lack of real character investment, the film doesn’t hit as hard as it could. Your enjoyment and investment of the movie will be based on how invested you are in the war itself. Fans of history and war films will probably really enjoy the film for its production and attention to detail on the experiences these soldiers face. To me, it still feels like a missed opportunity.