Guan Hu’s new Chinese blockbuster The Eight Hundred excels by both sidestepping and embracing the usual caveats of war epics. It’s been a while since I’ve seen something at the movies so kinetically maximalist, in opposition to the bland spectacles of Marvel.
The film depicts the 1937 Battle of Shanghai, the heroic last stand of an under-equipped division of the National Revolutionary Army against the invading Japanese, carried out to give a morale boost to the nation and increase support from international allies.
Carrying on as almost a continuation of that mission, the film’s action is executed in an intensely absorbing and thrilling fashion, pairing an abundance of “short long takes” (densely choreographed shots cutting through large swathes of space that still only take a manner of seconds) with fast rushing edits, similar to the intricate action of Gareth Evans’ Raid films. This not only makes it easier for the audience to sympathise by placing them in the fray of the battle, but also makes it thrilling and entertaining which accomplishes the same thing: normally this is a bane of war films which tend to be ideologically & morally at odds with themselves by being unclear if they’re glorifying or condemning their subject matter. The Eight Hundred shirks this problem with its unequivocal and bold stance of celebration of the undying spirit of the Chinese people even in the face of insurmountable odds, something it manages to achieve with great nuance as from day to day of the film’s action the political situation keeps changing, calling for new strategies and leading to moral questions and doubts from each member of the ragtag outfit. We see them struggle with the difficulty of killing vs being killed, pondering the national question, and wondering whether it might be worth just giving up. This is further abetted by the constant positioning of the soldiers in the warehouse from the British occupied Shanghai across the river, with further complications abound from the shaky international relations.
This is also the first Chinese film shot on IMAX cameras which adds a further layer to the retrofitting of history taking place here through the use of archival footage shot at the actual battle, calling into question the function of cameras between the event at the time and this current biography. “How will history remember this moment?” is a question repeatedly asked during The Eight Hundred, particularly by journalists who are using their cameras to answer questions about the situation, perhaps foolishly in retrospect since cameras tend to raise more questions than they answer. This is a lesson The Eight Hundred understands, and it embraces the difficulty of doing an event like this justice by foregrounding the historical questions raised by cameras as a strength.