The Eight Hundred Review

The Eight Hundred

Guan Hu’s The Eight Hundred has gone through a myriad of problems on its way to its August release this year. The film was mysteriously yanked from its opening-night slot at last year’s Shanghai International Film Festival because of “technical reasons.” Next, it was pulled from its general release in July, and the final postponement came as a result of COVID-19-related theater closures. It’s been a long journey, but The Eight Hundred has finally arrived.

Long before its release, the Chinese media compared The Eight Hundred to Christopher Nolan’s war epic, Dunkirk. It’s easy to see why. Guan’s film may not be as compelling as Dunkirk, but there are a lot of similarities between the two — both good and bad. Both films share similar themes about the soldiers’ survival, grit, and triumph in the face of defeat — a central theme that runs consistently in Guan’s work. 

The war epic also immerses audiences in both the enormity and intimacy of the brutal Sino-Japanese War. The film forces the characters to make difficult choices based on their virtues. For example, deserters must decide between escaping or alerting their fellow soldiers of incoming danger. Not to mention, there’s also a situation where civilians must choose between bringing much-needed aid to the soldier or getting killed by the crossfire.

The Eight Hundred

Unfortunately, The Eight Hundred is thin on characterization and relies too often on war movie cliches. A lot of the carnage is choreographed and edited at an incredibly fast pace resulting in an exhilarating sensory overload. The drama that stems from soldiers fighting and dying in the face of overwhelming odds replaces the niche where the emotional connection should be. Of course, an enormous work such as this requires an ensemble cast. Guan has put together a large cast of up-and-coming actors. 

However, the character roster is so bloated that it’s hard to keep up with their character arcs. The screenplay by Guan and Ge Rui is full of story punctuated by a dramatic climax after each day. Not to mention, the film features soldiers with varying personalities — they range from brave to cowardly to teenage soldiers. The Eight Hundred recognizes all the sacrifices and bravery shown by the soldiers. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t necessarily show the camaraderie between these heroes. The connection between the soldiers feels contrived at best. We in the West are used to war films where we emotionally connect with the soldiers before they die in combat. In the end, it becomes a situation where you don’t care deeply about the characters because there’s just so much going on. 

The filmmakers also jam the film with a lot of blunt symbolism. The Eight Hundred continuously alternates between the soldiers and the bystanders on the other side of Suzhou Creek. The idea of two worlds separated by a river is a blatant symbol of social divides. The Shanghai side of the river is full of aristocrats and international diplomats, but the warehouse side contains all of the lower-class soldiers. Their constant appearance and becomes repetitive, weakening the momentum of the film and the narrative as a whole. It’s also absolutely clear that the purpose of these characters is strictly for nationalistic propaganda purposes.

Overall, The Eight Hundred is a serviceable war epic, but it fails to implement a key element in every successful war epic. The Eight Hundred fails to show the empathy and emotional connection that audiences require to bond with these soldiers. But the individual heroism is set aside to showcase the collective heroism of the 800 as a whole. It’s just unfortunate that the result is a hollow cinematic experience. 

Rating: 3/5 atoms

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