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

Updated: Nov 12


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: 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. Compradores of the foreign confessions witness the battle across the Suzhou Creek; foreign Military attachés monitor the situation from their airship.


ACT2 (Day2; Day3)

FILE PHOTO: Foreign Military Attachés observing the battle in The Eight Hundred (2020) ©Huayi Brothers

Complication: The estimated-three hour battle starts. Japanese forces try setting dynamites in the warehouse while covering them with several arrays of steel plates. One of 88th Division soldiers Shusheng Chen (Zheng Kai) sacrifices himself as a suicidal bomber to intercept the Japanese attempt from the upper layer of the warehouse. Many of them follow him in this way. The three-hour battle turns out to be a Japanese failure.

Midpoint: A German journalist and others from the foreign concession bring telephone lines in the midst of Japanese sniping. Xie Jinyuan, commander of 88th Division receives order from Chiang Kai-shek that they have to defend the warehouse til the end in order to gain international support from the western countries at Nine Power Treaty Conference.

End of ACT2: Raising the national banner on the roof of the warehouse unavoidably instigates Japanese air assaults from carrier-based fighters Mitsubishi A5M. Chinese force uses anti-air guns, Solothurn ST-5 and an infantry regiment to counter the air strikes.


ACT3 (Day4)

FILE PHOTO: The Last Order by Commander Xie Jinyuan in The Eight Hundred (2020) ©Huayi Brothers

Final Confrontation: A Japanese commander meets Xie Jinyuan to warn him the final attack by the Japanese side is imminent, and they have full knowledge of their planned withdrawal. A commissioner from Nationalist government sends new order from Chiang Kai-shek that 88th Division has to retreat to the foreign concession by using defectors as human shields for the mission due to the accidental failure of diplomatic efforts at Nine Power Treaty Conference. Xie Jinyuan has no choice but to accept it.

Solution: Residents and UK army help retreat of 88th Division to the foreign concession. The battle on the Garbage Bridge starts.

End of ACT3: Xie Jinyuan gets severely injured but orders full withdrawal. Many of them successfully get into the foreign concession but we don't know what would happen next.


Comment: Although audience are bombarded by dusts and bullets of war imageries for 147 mins, the basic plots of the three act structure are confirmed on this film here. Editing of this film could have been more shortened by omitting too many meticulous details that lost balance on time ratio between different DAYs. As the result, dullness on narrative pacing comes even while seeing intensified, fast-pacing war shots and scenes. I saw several audience checked their wrist watches frequently during IMAX screening.


FILE PHOTO: HK IMAX Screening of The Eight Hundred (2020) ©Ryota Nakanishi


COMMENT



How should we treat the war and the historical tragedy of Chinese politically? Trotsky perfectly answered it in 1937 at the time of Battle of Shanghai.


We do not and never have put all wars on the same plane. Marx and Engels supported the revolutionary struggle of the Irish against Great Britain, of the Poles against the tsar, even though in these two nationalist wars the leaders were, for the most part, members of the bourgeoisie and even at times of the feudal aristocracy ... at all events, Catholic reactionaries. When Abdel-Krim rose up against France, the democrats and Social Democrats spoke with hate of the struggle of a “savage tyrant” against the “democracy.” The party of Leon Blum supported this point of view. But we, Marxists and Bolsheviks, considered the struggle of the Riffians against imperialist domination as a progressive war. Lenin wrote hundreds of pages demonstrating the primary necessity of distinguishing between imperialist nations and the colonial and semicolonial nations which comprise the great majority of humanity. To speak of “revolutionary defeatism” in general, without distinguishing between exploiter and exploited countries, is to make a miserable caricature of Bolshevism and to put that caricature at the service of the imperialists. (4)


This was and still is broadly misunderstood by Japanese leftists and rightwing that ''correct'' leftist approach to a war is wrongly interpreted as dogmatically applied “revolutionary defeatism.In practice, it will be a total disaster for national and foreign wars if we don't thoroughly distinguish the fundamental difference among them. Wars against foreign imperialists by semi-colonial or colonial countries are justifiable, and wars for independence are patriotic even under the most reactionary rightwing dictatorship of the bourgeoisie or religious leaders or aristocrats. This is the proper attitude towards Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and any other wars of today. Japanese invaders had to be defeated by Chinese patriots during WW2. It's not about which side was stronger but it's all about which side was right or wrong. Japan was obviously wrong. In conclusion, this film is not any kind of KMT propaganda because it does not approve Chiang Kai-shek's leadership.





NOTES



1.Leon Trotsky, On the Sino-Japanese War (September 1937), Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2009.

2.Worldometers, WORLD / COUNTRIES / CHINA, October 30, 2020, 08:13 GMT.

3. National Institute for Defense Studies, Japanese Imperial Navy - Operations in China 1938 Part1, Asagumo Shimbunsha Inc., January 1, 1974; ASIN: B000J9E2MO, p.213.

4.Leon Trotsky, On the Sino-Japanese War (September 1937), Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2009.


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