Feng Xiaogang's fiercely patriotic war picture, is set to become a blockbuster at home, offering China its own Private Ryan. But while the film standards may be technically impeccable, it could do with more story and characters to carry its audience through a considerable journey. Based on a real event first recounted in a story by Yang Jinyuan entitled The Law Suit, Liu Heng's script badly stumbles, struggling to convey ideas in a couple of hours.
Starting with an extended, pyrotechnically virtuoso battle sequence, this is the tale of the feisty, impulsive and uncompromising company commander who devotes his life to obtain full recognition of his men's acts of bravery.
It displays the spirit and attitude of post-Second World War movies produced by Soviet cinema, but is told with the technical sophistication of the post-Spielberg era. Feng's great professional skills far exceed the interest he has in his human protagonists which are mostly cardboard characters devoid of much personality.
Chinese audiences may sympathise with the story enough to confirm the film's constant claim to mass appeal, but once it steps out of its own territory, it will be an uphill battle all the way.
Cpt Gu Zidi (Zhang Hanyu) of the Chinese Liberation Army has been reprimanded for what would be considered in today's terms a heinous crime (he orders his men to shoot POWs because his political officer had been killed in action) but is reinstated at the head of his company before the battle of Huai Hai, one of the bloodiest in China's War of Liberation in the winter of 1948.
He is ordered to take hold of a position and keep it at any cost, never to budge an inch unless he hears the bugle calling Assembly (therefore the title), which would indicate he has permission to withdraw.
Decimated, as they try to stop tanks and heavy artillery mostly by improvised means, some of his men claim they have heard the bugle and should retreat.
Gu refuses to believe them and goes on fighting until all his men are killed, one after the other, except him.
Badly wounded, he is taken prisoner by the enemy, then recaptured by the his own side, but by the time this happens, his unit does not exist any more and he can't even establish his own identity let alone prove what his unit did on the battlefield.
They had all (including himself) been classified as Missing in Action and as such denied the honors they deserved as heroes of their country
Once released from hospital, he goes back to serve as a simple foot soldier and once again is severely injured while saving the life of his commander in an act of rare bravery.
His sight is by now perilously impaired and he can no longer be an active soldier but he refuses to rest and obstinately persists on pestering the authorities, battling bureaucracy and indifference, sending reports and demanding full recognition for his fellow soldiers, for whose death he feels partly responsible. Had he given the order to draw back at the time, some of them, at least, might have been saved.
Needless to say, his stubborn insistence finally pays off and eight years later, all the company is posthumously decorated, and a monument is put up in their memory.
Spectacularly shot by Lu Yue (a director in his own right), the colour is almost entirely drained out of the film's early sequences, leaving it black and white, grim, gritty and dark, with occasional flashes of red and yellow flames.
As the film progresses, color gradually seeps back in, reaching a full palette before the end.
Expertly cut to particularly in the action scenes, its reputedly $10m budget is all very visible and effectively put on the screen with smashing special effects action scenes provided by a top-notch Korean team under Park Ju-chun.
The moves, acts and shorthand communications under fire suggest many hours of watching American genre films before launching on this one. The stalwart characters resemble very much Russian war epics and Zhang Hanyu faithfully delivers a bigger than life performance in the lead role.
Though there is a vague insinuation of criticism at the army not paying enough attention to its heroes, no sensitive toes are stepped on in the process.
Huayi Brothers (China)
MK Pictures (China)
(82) 2 2193 2002
Liu Heng adapted from 'Guansi' (The Law Suit) by Yang Jingyuan