Based on a true story, Assembly is set during the Chinese Civil War, when communist troops battled fiercely against nationalists. In the bitter winter of 1948, Captain Gu Zidi and an infantry unit of just forty-six men are called on to defend the south bank of the Wen River. They are ordered to fight until the retreat assembly call is charged. Amidst a brutal battle, several men claim to hear the call but Gu Zidi, deafened by artillery fire, hears nothing and refuses to retreat. Three years later, a guilt ridden Gu Zidi is the only survivor of that fateful day. After serving in the Korean War, he returns home to find his dead comrades listed as merely missing in action, a situation which leaves their families disgraced and entitled to only meagre rice rations. Gu Zidi returns to the battle site, determined to prove his men fought and died with honour.
Somewhat predictably tagged a Chinese Saving Private Ryan (1998), Assembly utilizes that familiar gritty, grey, frame-jumping style that has become the universal language for war movies. It’s an atypical project for director Fang Xiaogang, who is celebrated in China for his satirical comedies, yet until recently hasn’t had the same international profile as his peers Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou. Xiaogang made the jump with The Banquet (2006), an ambitious but ill-received reworking of Hamlet starring Zhang Ziyi, and continues to flex his filmmaking muscles. Assembly’s battle scenes offer a gut-wrenching array of shock explosions, gory wounds and flying bodies, with soldiers crushed, blown apart and burned alive.
However, Xiaogang flings us in at the deep end, with characters we barely get to know before they’re blown to bits. Only a few soldiers under Gu Zidi’s command make any impression, including Wang Jingchun (Yuan Wenkang), a former schoolteacher imprisoned for wetting himself in battle. There is an All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)-moment, with a soldier shot whilst reaching for a dead man’s wristwatch, but Xiaogang mostly assembles his drama in visceral vignettes that pass so abruptly it’s sometimes hard to stay involved. Also the Kuomintang (nationalists) remain a faceless enemy and aren’t examined at all. It’s a film of two halves, and while some critics felt otherwise, the story of Gu Zidi’s efforts to vindicate his men proves more compelling. The sudden flash-forward to the Korean War is disorientating, but the lengthy minefield sequence establishes the relationship between Gu Zidi and his younger, superior officer Zhao Erdou (Deng Chao). Their friendship is warmly drawn and emboldens the tale, as Gu Zidi plays matchmaker between Zhao Erdu and Jingchun’s widow, Sun Guoqin (Yan Tang). Slowly losing his sight, he selflessly refuses pursuing her himself (“It’s wrong to waste her beauty on a blind man”). Zhang Hanyu gives a performance of quiet dignity. Even though Gu Zidi (named after the millet field where he was found as an orphan) remains something of a cipher, we feel all the agony and elation in his attempts to set right an injustice.