Monday, May 31, 2010

Assembly (2007)

Today is the day in the United States that we remember those who served in the armed forces and fought to keep the country free. In honor of the miltary brotherhood I'm going to talk about a film that concerns a true story about a man who fought for years to make sure that his men were not forgotten and to assure that they were hailed as the heroes that they were. While it is not an American story, or even an American film, the sentiments of the film are, I think, universal for any man or woman who has served in any military and formed a bond with their fellow soldiers. It is in the spirit of that comradery and shared sense of sacrifice I present Assembly.

In 1948 during the Chinese Civil War, a broken company of men is ordered to hold an old mine until the bugler plays assembly. As the battle goes on each man thinks they hear the bugle call, however the captain never does and he refuses to let his men retreat. After the war, the captain, the only survivor and the only one who said he did not hear the bugle call, tries to find their bodies and prove his men died as heroes.

Profoundly moving story of the brotherhood created in war and the need to right an old wrong. Though not quite perfect, this is one of the best war films I've seen, period. Its power comes not from the battles, rather from the humanity of those that fight. This is a film about people and characters first and foremost and its what lifts this toward greatness. I have never seen a film where everyone, on both sides of the battle, are portrayed as human beings. There are no monsters, no stick figures, just people. Even the people in the mass of uniforms are people even if we only see them for an instant. This is a film about the people, and the individuals who fight in times of war. None of the main characters are clichés. Its not like Saving Private Ryan where everyone is a WW2 cliché, here we have people and even if we don't know everything about them we do know that they are individuals. This is a film about the human cost of war.

Ultimately the film works because of Zhang Hanyu as Captain Gu Zidi. Here is a man who is racked with guilt for "killing" all of his men. He wants nothing better than to honor them, and when after being found in the carnage of that final battle he comes to realize that no one believes him, he is forced to not only fight on but also do everything he can to see that the memory of the brave brothers is kept alive. Zhang Hanyu breaks your heart as he tries to both join his men and prove to the world that what they did mattered. It is a portrait of quiet strength and occasional rage that makes you feel for him and for the men who fought with him. Its one of the best performances of the year.

I know for some the first hour of relentless battle (its nasty) will make the more sedate second half something they will have trouble sitting through. I know some will wonder where the guns have gone, but at the same time this is not a story of battle but of people. The horrors of the first hour (filmed in the now standard shaky cam style) make the poignancy of Captain Zidi's quest all the more touching, since he wants to make his mens sacrifice and trip into hell worth something. You really have to be patient and go with the film and let the film reward you in its own way. I suspect that knowing the film shifts gears for the second half helps since you don't have expectations of a two hour battle. I know that my initial attempt at watching this film blind lead me to believe this was going to be wall to wall action, however a friend who borrowed my copy before I could finish it warned me of the tone change and I think it helped me a great deal when I finally watched it from start to finish.

You really should see this film since it ultimately speaks to all people who send their sons and daughters off to war and why we need to remember them.

And as I said at the outset, yes its a true story.

This is currently out on DVD.

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