Film Review: The Eight Hundred (China, 2020) 影評 《八佰》- In Defence of Chinese Patriotism

Updated: Jul 24


FILE PHOTO: Film Review of The Eight Hundred (2020) ©Huayi Brothers; Composite© Ryota Nakanishi
FILE PHOTO: Film Review of The Eight Hundred (2020) ©Huayi Brothers; Composite© Ryota Nakanishi
In the Far East we have a classic example. China is a semicolonial country which Japan is transforming, under our very eyes, into a colonial country. Japan’s struggle is imperialist and reactionary. China’s struggle is emancipatory and progressive.
- Leon Trotsky (1)

IMPORTANT


China's ''Battleship Potemkin''


Dir. Guan Hu (1968-)'s blockbuster film The Eight Hundred (his masterpiece; China, 2020) already became the biggest box office hit (over 3 billion RMB; see the live box office data at ENDATA) for the Chinese film market 2020 after the China's successful containment of COVID-19 epidemic in April 2020. (2)


First of all, during Battle of Shanghai (August 13, 1937 – November 26, 1937) in Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), Defense of Sihang Warehouse (October 26 – November 1, 1937) was not only a victory for the Chinese 88th Division (National Revolutionary Army) but also it was a victory for the Shanghai Navy Marines of Japan in terms of completion of missions of both sides. 88th Division successfully retreated into the foreign concession in Shanghai; Shanghai Navy Marines conquered the last bastion of National Revolutionary Army in Shanghai. This limited conflict was part of Battle of Shanghai even though netizens are unwilling to accept the objective historical result. Moreover, 88th Division was unexpectedly detained and disarmed by UK soldiers after their retreat to the foreign concession. This is why the film suddenly ends in the middle of the tactical withdrawal on the bridge of the Suzhou Creek.


Cinematic comparison with The Battleship Potemkin (1925) is mostly precise for this film. Dialectic inner development and transformation of defectors, cowards and individualists of 88th Division into the Chinese patriots ''true Chinese'' at ''the hell'' Sihang Warehouse visually affected corrupted, decadent bystanders, compradors in the ''paradise'' foreign concession just only across the Suzhou Creek behind the warehouse. Sihang Warehouse can be seen as battleship Potemkin; the foreign concession can be equalised with the port city of Odessa. The most memorable moments of both The Eight Hundred (2020) and The Battleship Potemkin (1925) are that complacent residents and armed officers of the establishment finally turn to the side of oppressed people and class by taking up weapons or sending aids against the tyranny. This highly contagious patriotic and revolutionary passion of characters is rarely seen in Chinese and Soviet propaganda films. It can only be expressed in the collectivist realist approach to the historical events. A sheer contrast to capitalist individualist heroism in ''mainstream'' Hong Kong films. The revolutionary passion of mass can't be expressed in the individualist, capitalist ''success'' story paradigm. ''A capitalist superhero solving everything, governs his henchmen and becomes more rich and famous.'' The definition of individual ''success'' in capitalist society is not only doubted but it's even denied in this film at the end. Furthermore, the cinematic solutions to the ending of both films are quite similar in the historic context. After the ending of The Battleship Potemkin (1925), seamen surrendered to the establishment, and they were detained; 88th Division was arrested after completion of the mission by UK. This must be mentioned that how to end the film in the historical context emphasises the inner meaning of the real event and art creation simultaneously. It's the moment of realisation of essential function of the art and art of film editing.


For depiction of Japanese side, it is opposite of the cinematic approach of Letters from Iwo Jima (2006). Total dehumanisation of Japanese imperial solders means total exclusion of dramatic inner development of the Japanese characters. Unlike Alexander Nevsky (1937), The Eight Hundred (2020) even went extreme. Although a few Japanese roles are played by relatively unknown actors for Japanese audience, in the most of the scenes, they are faceless, and native Japanese acting is only audible. In other words, the majority of Japanese soldiers of this film are played by Chinese extras not native Japanese thus dialogues are dubbed with native Japanese voices. Unfortunately yakuza-like 3rd Battalion solders in the sewerage are especially ridiculous and strange, they totally alienated Japanese characters.


FILM AND REALITY


Historically 3rd Battalion did not involve in Battle of Shanghai! According to War History Series, Japanese Imperial Navy - Operations in China 1938 Part1 (中国方面海軍作戦 〈1〉 昭和十三年三月まで ; written by War History Office of National Institute for Defense Studies; published by Asagumo Shimbunsha Inc. on January 1, 1974; ASIN: B000J9E2MO), we can only confirm the involvement of Shanghai Navy Marines not Army's 3rd Battalion. (3)


Therefore Chinese filmmaking needs professional Japanese cooperation in order to avoid historical inaccuracies and ''not native'' Japanese depiction. After more than seventy years of anti-Japanese propaganda film production in Greater China, it's still hard to convince Japanese audience on historical, cultural and ethnical accuracies on screen. However foreign Japanese market is not in their sight from the beginning, the film is sincerely made for Chinese audience. That's their strategic priority thus it's meaningless to point out the importance of multilateral mutual understanding and objective accuracies of depiction of aliens on this purely domestic-oriented Chinese blockbuster film.


NARRATIVE STRUCTURE


Mainland Chinese blockbusters have the three act structure. No matter what kind of narrative format they choose. Even ensemble films have the same feature if they are professional works.


ACT1 (Day 1; Day2)

FILE PHOTO: ACT1 of The Eight Hundred (2020) ©Huayi Brothers
FILE PHOTO: The Foreign Concession and Sihang Warehouse in The Eight Hundred (2020) ©Huayi Brothers

Exposition: In 1937, National Revolutionary Army starts losing battle of Shanghai against Japanese invaders. During strategic withdrawal, Chiang Kai-shek's army brutally executes defectors. Later Chinese defectors who survive butcheries of both sides gathered at Sihang Warehouse and recruited for 88th Division (total 452 young National Revolutionary Army officers and soldiers).

Inciting Incident: After the mustard gas attack and night assault by Japanese 3rd Division, Japanese forces declare taking the Sihang Warehouse within three hours.

End of ACT1: Japanese forces surround Sihang Warehouse with Type 94 tankette unit and Excavators. Compradors of the foreign confessions witness the battle across the Suzhou Creek; foreign Military attachés monitor the situation from their airship.