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The Eight Hundred (2020) (Blu-ray) (Hong Kong Version)
Guan Hu (Director, Writer) | Jiang Wu (Actor) | Oho Ou (Actor) | Wang Qian Yuan (Actor)
The Eight Hundred (2020) (Blu-ray) (Hong Kong Version)
Chinese director Guan Hu (The Chef, the Actor, the Scoundrel, Mr. Six) takes a major leap forward as a filmmaker with The Eight Hundred, one of the biggest Chinese productions of all time. Staging the famous 1937 Defense of Sihang Warehouse in Shanghai with technical prowess and impeccable filmmaking craft, Guan's violent and unflinching vision of the hellish battle will surely be remembered as one of the best Chinese war films ever made.

During the early days of the Sino-Japanese War, the Sihang Warehouse was the site of an intense five-day siege in which over 400 Chinese soldiers fended off the relentless attacks of the Japanese Imperial Army. Comparable to the Alamo siege or the Dunkirk retreat, the Sihang Warehouse battle was a display of brave soldiers taking a heroic last stand against formidable foes and seemingly impossible odds. The battle was previously dramatized cinematically in 1938 as 800 Heroes by director Ying Yunwei and in 1977 by director Ting Shan-hsi, but Guan's version will likely remain the definitive version of the story for years to come.

The Eight Hundred opens on October 25, 1937. Chinese Resistance Army (NRA) soldiers from Hubei, Hubei and Zhejiang are ordered to join a regiment in Shanghai to defend the six-story Sihang Warehouse from Japanese forces while NRA troops retreat out of the falling city. Located in the Zhubei district, the warehouse is just across the Suzhou River from the city's international concession, which had been left untouched by the Japanese to avoid a diplomatic scandal. With international journalists and civilians given a front-row seat to the battle, the siege ended up becoming more than a symbolic gesture for the NRA – it rallied foreign support for the Chinese war effort.

Breaking the battle down in chapters (marked by each day of the battle), Guan and cinematographer Cao Yu (City of Life and Death) stage multiple impressive set pieces – including a nighttime attack in which Japanese soldiers wielding swords sneak in from the waterway below, a series of desperate suicide bombings by the Chinese to stop their enemies from climbing the walls, and an aerial attack following the famous raising of the KMT flag – with the technical gusto that one can expect from a film that costs US$80 million to produce. There are too many characters for audiences to latch onto for more than a few minutes, but Guan effectively plants the viewers in the middle of the intense action with seamless editing by Tu Yiran and a bombastic sound mix. The first Chinese film to be fully shot with an IMAX digital camera, The Eight Hundred is a perfect defender for the sanctity of the theatrical experience.

Equally impressive is the film's depiction of life across the river. The idea of the glamorous privileged in the international concession looking on at the bloody slaughter across the river with indifference feels eerily timely, but those same characters' growing sympathy for the besieged soldiers over the course of the story also culminates in the film's moving (though not exactly historically accurate) denouement. Fans of Chinese entertainment will also be pleasantly surprised to spot some big-name actors making cameos as spectators on the opposite shore.

Putting aside the burden of the typical nationalistic agenda that most war films carry, The Eight Hundred is undoubtedly serious-minded blockbuster entertainment at its best. Staging such a colossal production is a challenge of any filmmaker's patience, but Guan and his team have overcome insurmountable odds and created an awe-inspiring cinematic experience that marks an important milestone in the filmmaker's career. At a time when blockbuster Chinese films seem almost too eager to show off their budget with extraneous elements and stylistic touches, here comes a grandiose Chinese production in which not a single cent felt wasted.

by Kevin Ma

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