Story: In the year 1948 Captain Gu Zidi (Zhang Hanyu) fights in the Chinese Civil War on the side of the
People's Liberation Army. On one of his missions Gu's unit is caught in an ambush of the Nationalist Kuomintang
forces, in which his Political Officer gets killed. Gu can beat the enemy, and abandoning himself to an impulse he orders
to make no prisoners. For this order there is taken disciplinary action against him and he has to stay in prison for
a few days. There he meets teacher Wang Jingcun (Yuan Wenkang), who acted everything but brave during one
of his operations.
Gu Zudi is soon sent to the front again, this time to defend an important position at a mine. As his new Political Officer he chooses Wang Jingcun. However, when he arrives at the scene Gu starts to realize that they stand no chance against the Kuomintang-army which doesn't only outnumber them, but is also armed with more heavy artillery than them. One soldier after another fall victim to the enemy, but Gu can't leave the battlefield until he hears the assembly call to retreat. But during the combat Gu lost his hearing and so he has to struggle with different opinions of his soldiers, as some of them claim to have heard the assembly call while others don't. Gu decides to hold the line. Eventually, all of his men fall victim to the enemy's fire. Only Gu survives...
Years later, after he participated in several other combats, Gu finds out that no one knows about the heroic deeds of his former unit. From that day on, Gu fights for the accolade of his men, who have to be seen as what they really were: heroes.
Review: These days there are a lot of (anti-)war movies, which all have some sort of message they want to convey.
Nevertheless, all of them depict the pain and suffering that comes along with killing and being killed. Therefore
we have to ask if there hasn't already been shown everything there is in war films? What can China give us for a lesson with its
vision of a war movie? The answer is simple: Nothing new. That's frustrating since it almost deprives this Chinese
version of "Saving Private Ryan" of any right to exist. Moreover, it's also quite apparent that Feng Xiaogang, who shot
two blockbusters with his former "A World without Thieves" and "The Banquet", solely aimed at creating some commercial
product again, that is appealing to the masses and doesn't enrage the Chinese government with an accusatory message.
"Assembly", in some way, is nothing more than a light-version of a war movie, but thanks to the emotional impact on the
viewer and the character-driven storytelling, it still manages to stand as a movie that is entertaining as well as
The first half of the film throws us directly into a war-zone. The reasons for the war aren't explained, which is in fact odd as the movie also seems to be made for an international audience. The events leading to the war between the Communist People's Liberation Army and the Nationalist Kuomintang will only be known to those, who are a little bit familiar with Chinese history. Those who have read a book or two about Chinese history will know, that China has had a lot of wars within its borders that offer enough material for a lot of war movies to come. Therefore, it's even the more surprising that there are very few movies of this kind from China. One reason for this might be that China didn't have the money for up-to-date production values in the past. Nowadays, the money is flowing more easily, which becomes pretty obvious in "Assembly" as the film doesn't need to hide itsself behind its american counterparts. The sets are gigantic and full of details, which makes the illusion of a bombed town or an abandoned mine that serves as the last line of defense, work out just perfectly.
The movie's pictures are very appealing, if it's appropriate to use this term when it comes to war movies. Furthermore, they don't just resemble the already mentioned Spielberg work with their grey hued looks, but the camera also shakes frantically as we stumble across the war-zone, while dirt gets sprinkled on the camera lense, so that we get to see fast, yet intense impressions of the war, making us believe that we ourselves are part of this madness. Doing so director Feng Xiaogang naturally also doesn't refrain from showing some brutal and lucid pictures of terror and violence. Many of what we get to see seems to be cribbed, but then again there is the saying that goes like this: Better to copy something good than to come up with your own bad ideas.
During this part of the movie the adrenaline is rushing through our veins, and after a small break we are taken on yet another ride. Only when Gu Zidi has lost all of his men there is a small cut in the film. From then on the pacing drops and the drama steps more into the foreground. While we couldn't relate to any of the protagonists before, which is why the dying of all the soldiers didn't really get near to us, unfortuntately, "Assembly" strongly focuses and works on an emotional level later on. And that's where its actual strength lies.
From the very first frame we already know that Gu Zidi seems to be an interesting character. But it takes until the second half of the film that this man gets more depth. "Assembly" would have been a war movie like any other, if it wouldn't had focused on the man Gu Zidi and the drama that depicts his life. By the way, Gu actually is based on a real character, as we get to know at the end. It's this man, who is filled with an immense bitterness, but also strong pride, that becomes the movie's strength. Apart from Hu Jun ("Curiosity kills the Cat", "Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils"), who can be seen in a small supporting role, there are only first-time actors in "Assembly". A good choice by Feng Xiaogang, even the more as Zhang Hanyu does give an amazing performance. We accompany him through many years of his life, learn to understand him with time, and can sympathize with him despite his flaws. Especially during his later years, when he faithfully stands up for his fallen comrades, he can win over our sympathy.
Which brings us to a big sore point. "Assembly" may refrain from showing any direct sort of patriotism or drawing a concept of the enemy, yes, Feng even remains surprisingly objective when it comes to the portrayal of the Koreans and the Americans during the Korean War - even though latter cannot be said to come off well - but the director disappoints with the ending of his story. There is no message the director wants us to take home with us. At first, it seems as if Feng wanted to accuse the government that it has forgotten many heroes of the war, but then the Chinese government suddenly steps in as a loving father figure that grieves for its fallen sons and honors them with all the necessary tribute. Feng Xiaogang deprives his work of a lot of impact and profoundness by taking this road, but he also avoids being banned by the Chinese government for his movie this way. It's not that hard to understand why he didn't have the courage to go all the way with his movie, because naturally he still wants to make films in the future. Nonetheless, this is also why "Assembly" becomes almost trivial commercial cinema. At least this is the good, entertaining and thanks to the character drama also emotionally involving kind of trivial cinema. Feng Xiaogang took the safe path with his work and created a solid and captivating movie, which sadly just lacks that special something.