The number in the title is the number of Chinese soldiers who were in the 524th Regiment of what was clearly a very under-equipped 88th Division of the National Revolutionary Army. Led by Lt.Col. Xie Jinyuan (Chun Du), at the point where they holed up and attempted to defend the Sihang Warehouse, in Shanghai, from being seriously battered by the the 3rd Imperial Japanese Division who had 20,000 soldiers, they had just 452 amongst their number. You know this was going to be a far-from-easy situation from which to recover, and so they had to give it their all.
Before watching this and the trailer, I wasn’t familiar with this situation, and for the purposes of storytelling, it does select a few of the soldiers and follow their ‘progress’ – for want of a better word – throughout the siege, such as the long-haired accountant being referred to as Old Abacus, although I didn’t catch everyone’s name, unfortunately, so I can’t detail them here.
For the siege, itself, it lasted four days at the end of a period where the Chinese army had tried to defend themselves from the Japanese onslaught. The youngest soldier inside was Xiao Hubei (Zhang Junyi), aged just 13, and there are many sights which such a young lad shouldn’t have to see such as opposite the warehouse, as we can see that some of the Chinese soldiers captured by the Japanese have been hung, drawn and quartered.
If you want to keep an eye on time during the rather long, but necessary, film, then over the four days – bringing the soldiers to the end of a three-month campaign, almost 20 minutes are taken with an introduction to what’s happening, followed by approximately 30 minutes or so for each of those four days.
However, there is some occasional distractions for them, since many of the soldiers are obsessed with a singer who’s on the balcony of the bar on the pedestrianised area (the South Bank) which is teeming with clubs and bars, so they become part of the story, either watching on, or with reporters filming some of what’s going on. There’s also a number of references to a famous actress known as Miss Lu, who also turns up at one point.
There are some slow moments during this film – albeit not many, but when the action gets going, it’s in full effect. Also, it did take me a bit of time to get to grips with all of the soldiers on whose journeys we were taken, so perhaps a second viewing would help now I’m more familiar with them.
Plus, the action includes gunfights – shooting across the way between the two sides, Japanese planes dive-bombing and firing at the warehouse, with some gunfire spilling out towards the public side of the water.
In fact, at times, it feels like Sniper Elite 2: The Movie, albeit without the first-person killcam shots, since that game had a segment where a firefight carried out across a town square. Here, there’s water between the warehouse and the South Bank, but it feels the same kind of situation.
In addition, there’s another trick performed that’s often used in modern gaming. In this case, a Chinese and Japanese soldier are each protected by brick walls, so trying to fire at each other isn’t working. However, the latter has left his foot showing from behind the wall, so the former takes his chance to shoot the man in the foot, the man falls forward, and then the Chinese soldier can complete the task with a bullet to the head.
As shown in the trailer, hence I can mention it here, and since the building is surrounded by more Japanese soldiers than they can cope with, one of the 800, Chen Shusheng (Ryan Zheng), takes matters into his own hands. He hands another soldier a piece of cloth with a message in blood upon it, and tells him to deliver it to his mother. Then he about-turns, puts a couple of grenade bags around his neck, looking rather like two sandbags tied together with string, walks towards a huge hole in the wall that’s been shelled open, pulls the cord to activate the grenades, jumps out, crashes through the shield barrier – which the Japanese are holding above them – and hits the ground, leaving those soldiers barely a second to attempt to register what’s just happened before the grenades explode.
As is also shown, this leads to a number of other soldiers doing the same, queueing up to do so, and each calling out their name before they jump, and we can see the pained reaction from those on the South Bank.
There’s also a scene where a number of the soldiers are trying to hold up the Chinese flag and stop it from falling, making them look very much like those soldiers doing the same for the American flag in the United States Marine Corps War Memorial, aka the Iwo Jima Memorial. However, I did feel their time would be better spent actually fighting, rather than holding up a flag and since there are several soldiers in one spot, they just become cannon fodder for the Japanese.
It’s particularly harrowing when you realise that the soldiers can’t win, but they are going to try their best, and the film’s story is told in a very patriotic tone, although it does rather over-egg the pudding at times, erring on the side of being a bit mawkish when their final stand is coming and one says to his fellow soldiers, “See you in the next life”. Maybe that was done to appeal to the American market, as they’ll do that a lot with such films.
Well, most likely in 2018/19 when the film was made.
As the film comes to a close – and this is not a spoiler, so don’t panic – we get to see comparison shots of the warehouse between then and now, set amongst modern Shanghai. As the credits roll, there’s also some footage that was filmed at the time by one of the reporters.
In addition, and rather oddly, both the opening and closing text segments – whilst in the Chinese language, are not translated into English. So, when it came up at the start, I thought, “Uh oh…”, but then the dialogue/narration began and thankfully, it was translated. I’d still like to know what I missed, though.
I had a similar scare in 1992 when I was interrailing in Europe with a friend. We saw Freejack in a cinema in Prague. I’d already seen it back in the UK, but the first trailer that popped up before the film was dubbed into Czech and with no subtitles… but all the others did have subtitles. The film was in English with Czech subtitles – which didn’t really help during the scene where Rene Russo speaks Japanese, and so they were overlaid on top of the film’s burnt-in English subtitles.
Another thing to note with this film is that the version doing the rounds has had 11 minutes cut out by the Chinese government, leaving us with 149 minutes. I don’t know exactly what was cut out, but there at least two things for which I couldn’t account (see the spoiler section below). Then again, how much can you trust the Chinese government when their response in wanting to quell the riots in Beijing is to release a deadly virus which spreads across the globe.
Overall, this is a great experience and if you can still see it in a cinema, then do so, but it is a very limited release. I saw it in the Vue Printworks IMAX where the picture opens up to 2.11:1 (what an odd ratio), rather than the usual 2.39:1. I do hope the eventual Blu-ray is in 2.11:1 AND is the full version.
One last bit: Hopefully, Vue Printworks have finally got the lighting correct for end credits. Before, they’ve whacked up ALL the lights at the end of a film, but this time, they just put on the side lights – same as they are on before a film when the trailers are showing, and so I could watch the credits without having them blanked out by the bright, white light.
In addition, this film was so badly-attended, even without the COVID19 pandemic, that up until the last minute, I was the ONLY person in the IMAX cinema – which has several hundred seats – but then just as the last trailer came to an end, one man walked in and sat down a few rows in front. Okay, I would actually have liked a LOT of people to see this film, but… to be on my own in there would’ve been cool. It has happened a few other times in my life, albeit not for an IMAX. My first time was for the 1994 comedy/drama Angie, starring Geena Davis. It’s a great film, and turned out to be on the last day of its three-week run at Manchester Showcase Cinemas.
As for what I didn’t see answered in this film, though, and here’s a spoiler section. If you can answer these, please comment below, but begin with “SPOILERS!” so no-one chances across it by accident:
The Blu-ray and DVD is out now, and the extras begin with four brief featurettes, starting with Big Production (2:23), where we can see the entire landscape is one huge set, including all the buildings and the river, and all 1:1 with the original layout! They also used 400 extras, and talk about how it was filmed in IMAX, but there’s no-one to tell us why we miss out on the full spectacle on the home version.
Mixing film clips with on-set footage, the others folow the same style with Hero (2:29), Southside (2:03), and Wolf, Dog, Cat (1:58).
Next up comes the Music Video (5:35): the film’s main theme, Remembering (Chinese Version), which is set to the same tune as Danny Boy, mixing film clips and performed by Na Ying and Andrea Bocelli. It’s a very beautiful and evocative song, especially when used in this film’s context.
Finally, there’s the International Trailer (2:25) and Theatrical Trailer (1:30).
The menu features a very short pinch of Remembering, with a motion CGI graphic of the set, subtitles are in Chinese Simplified, Chinese Traditional and English and chapters are a very limited (for this length of film) number of 12.
However, if there’s one aspect of this release which, sad to say, is a massive disappointment, it’s that Cine Asia have gone for the regular theatrical ratio of 2.35:1, rather than the IMAX ratio which was opened up to 2.11:1. I saw it in IMAX and it’s clear that the film was framed for that aspect ratio (even though 2.11:1 is a rather odd number), so to crop it for no reason whatsoever is very disappointing.
I expected this release to be the standard theatrical length of 149 minutes, so I can only hope that one day, we get the full uncut 160-minute version, and in 2.11:1 and with a much stronger set of extras. I would love it if Cine Asia could respond to tell me why they went with the 2.35:1 ratio.
Running time: 149 minutes
Cinema Release date: September 16th 2020
Cinema Review date: September 25th 2020
Home release date: April 26th 2021
Studio: GEM Entertainment / Cine Asia
Format: 2.11:1 (IMAX version); 2.35:1 (ARRIRAW (3.4K) (6.5K))
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: Chinese Simplified, Chinese Traditional, English
Format: 2.35:1 (ARRIRAW (3.4K) (6.5K))
Director: Hu Guan
Producer: Wenjiu Zhu
Screenplay: Hu Guan, Rui Ge, Huang Dongbin, Kun Hu
Music: Rupert Gregson-Williams, Andrew Kawczynski
Lao Hulu: Zhi-zhong Huang
Little Hubei: Zhang Junyi
Duan Wu: Hao Ou
Lao Tie: Wu Jiang
Lao Suanpan: Yi Zhang
Yang Guai: Qianyuan Wang
Lei Xiong: Cheng Zhang
Yang Ruifu: Siyu Lu
Xie Jinyuan: Chun Du
Zhu Shengzhong: Vision Wei
Xiao Qiyue: Youhao Zhang
Yang Huimin: Yixin Tang
Dao Zi: Jiuxiao Li
Qi Jiaming, the Shandong Soldier: Chen Li
Professor: Yong Hou
Fang Xingwen: Bai Qing Xin
Wife of Professor: Jing Liang
Eva Li: Augusta Xu-Holland
Theatre Manager: Jingwu Ma
Shangguan Zhibiao: Haoming Yu
Sister Rong: Xiaoqing Liu
He Xiangning: Chen Yao
Luoyang Chan: Ailei Yu
Chen Shusheng: Ryan Zheng
Messager: Xiaoming Huang
Hubei Officer: Xiaoguang Hu
Miss Lu: Miyi Huang
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.