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Che: Part Two (2008)
Part two is a great standalone film, beautifully filmed, inspiring and tragic
I came to watch Guerrilla, part two of Steven Soderbergh's biopic of Che Guevara, without having seen the preceding film and without more than a cursory knowledge of Che's life. At the same time I was rather apprehensive that this would be both a heavy-going history lesson and an unrepentant love-letter to the iconic revolutionary. As it turns out, this film far exceeded my expectations.
Guerrilla works remarkably well as a standalone film. The story of Che's failed attempt to lead a revolution in Bolivia, then under military rule, is a compelling tragedy. The initial impetus brought by Che's arrival incognito to lead the guerrilla war is lost as misfortune follows misfortune. The odds stack up against the revolutionaries. US backing for the Bolivian army, hostile conditions in the rainforest, suspicious locals and Che's failing health are just some of the difficulties which beset the nascent rebellion.
Soderbergh's portrayal of Che is largely uncritical, but this film is no hagiography. The style is refreshingly undramatic, with a subtle and effective soundtrack by Alberto Iglesias adding quiet drama to many scenes. Che is undoubtedly the centre of the film but there are very few close-ups of his face and we are encouraged to see the people fighting alongside him and sometimes against him too. Where Soderbergh wishes to demonstrate Che's virtues we see it in small episodes such as the loyal acolyte who upbraids two fellow guerrillas when they question Che's leadership, and emphasises the sacrifice that he has made in leaving behind Cuba to fight again for revolution.
The direction throughout is superb. Part two feels tightly edited despite its narrow focus and is able to communicate a great deal through images without the need for a narrator to spell things out for the audience. At the start of the film we see a few short clips of lavish parties in post-revolutionary Cuba, immediately furnishing us with ideas as to why Che would sacrifice his old life to fight again in another country. Later on, the portrayal of guerrillas marching through the unending rainforests stands out as a strikingly beautiful scene and helps to create a feeling of the enormity of the task before this tiny band of revolutionaries.
If there is a problem with the film it is the distance between the viewer and Che, which, though it does allow us to appreciate the context of the insurgency and the people around him, makes it hard for us to understand him better as a person. True, Benicio Del Toro is utterly convincing in the lead role so much so that it is difficult to remember that you are watching an actor and not the man himself. However, watching Guerrilla as a standalone film means that we are given precious little insight into what is shaping Che's thoughts, words and actions. It is to be hoped that this is more to the fore in the first part of Soderbergh's biopic (I cannot comment on that yet), and certainly the strength of part two is making me look forward eagerly to seeing the prequel.
Of Time and the City (2008)
Poetical, polemical and romantic
Of Time and the City is a very personal portrait of the city of Liverpool. Created by Liverpool-born director Terence Davies, funded by Northwest Vision and Media and released in the year that the city holds the status of European Capital of Culture, this film charts the tumultuous story of Liverpool in the time-frame of the director's life. The city's story slides from the high hopes of the post-war era to the ominous onset of the Korean War, plunging into the malaise of tower block housing and declining industries before the gradual revival and regeneration of the late twentieth century.
The film consists largely of archive footage from across the past 60 years, book-ended with some new-filmed footage orchestrated by Davies himself. The old film used in Of Time and the City is superbly edited into a continuously evolving story. There are some astonishing images here, from the vibrancy of the absurdly overcrowded 1950's waterfront to the decay and destruction of council housing in subsequent decades. What really sets this film apart, however, is the unique delivery of Davies's commentary. By turns poetical, polemical and romantic, Davies elevates this film beyond a documentary to create a stirring work of art.
Although often bitter and iconoclastic, Davies possesses a terrific dry sense of humour, which he directs against some of Liverpool's most-recognised exports, including the Beatles and the city's famous football club, as well as the current Queen Elizabeth (or 'the Betty Windsor show' as he terms it). But beyond this invective there is great warmth in Davies's film: it is much more a celebration of the people of Liverpool than the known sights and sounds of Liverpool. The emphasis of the film footage old and new is on the lives of the ordinary people living in the city: children playing in crowded streets, families at the seaside, great crowds at sporting events. Davies sets these ordinary goings on to a soundtrack of superb classical music and intersperses them with numerous borrowed lines from literary greats, adapting high art to celebrate the lives of the people in Liverpool. Throughout the film there are also modest fragments of Davies's own story, which emphasises the deeply personal nature of this film.
Of Time and the City is not a methodical history of Liverpool's post-war history such a film would have to run for a lot longer and it is shot through with Davies's strong opinions and acerbic wit. His delivery is often challenging to follow, but it makes for a vivid and engrossing film whose depth and complexity merits repeated viewing.
Provocative, vivid and engrossing, but at times it gets close to hagiography
Hunger is a powerful and disturbing feature-film debut for the visual artist Steve McQueen. The film takes place almost exclusively within the confines of a high-security prison in Northern Ireland, where many members of the Irish Republican Army are interned. The small confines of the prison serve as a microcosm of the wider Troubles in Ireland. The conflict between the British wardens and the Irish inmates escalates steadily, with each indignity and abuse inevitably leading to another.
The conditions revealed in the prison are deeply disturbing, with the inmates fouling the jail with effluent and the guards responding with ritual humiliation and savage beatings. McQueen's camera is an unflinching witness to the squalor and cruelty, and with the vivid imagery and forceful sounds it is almost possible to smell and feel the frightening environs of the film.
Although the focus of the film ultimately falls on Bobby Sands, the IRA member and inmate who leads a fatal hunger strike within the prison, we are not introduced to the main protagonist until a third of the way through the film. This approach works remarkably well in setting the scene for the main narrative, but it is disappointing that the different perspectives on each side are somewhat sidelined thereafter, as Sands's personal struggle takes centre stage.
The terrible squalor of the prison cells provides some of the film's most powerful images, but it is the second third of the film that is the most gripping, as Sands converses and argues with a visiting Catholic priest. An unmoving camera is trained upon these two protagonists for what must be nearly half an hour, as Sands reveals his plan for a new hunger strike and defends his methods of achieving political goals, ultimately berating what he sees as the priest's despondency and inertia. This is an utterly compelling piece of cinema.
However, at the end of this gripping conversation, the director sees fit to insert a somewhat tortured analogy as Sands recalls for the priest a defining moment of his boyhood. This is an unnecessary effort to inject conventional beauty into Sands's story, and sits awkwardly with the general tone of the film.
In the final third of the film, the hunger strike is depicted in by now characteristically brutal detail. Lead man Michael Fassbender clearly underwent a very painful regime to portray the wasting and withering of Bobby Sands in his last days. Unfortunately, amidst the impressive attention to detail, McQueen goes further in romanticising his main protagonist through a series of flashbacks to Sands's childhood. This again jars with the realistic feel of the rest of the film, and points to McQueen's obsession with Sands, which he has admitted to having had since a young age.
Although at times steering a little close to hagiography, McQueen's directorial debut is still a bold and engrossing film that cultivates an understanding for the very different people caught in up in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It will be fascinating to see what his next project will be.
Bes vakit (2006)
Relentlessly engaging; a beautifully filmed study of a divided society
Times and Winds is a portrait of family life in rural Turkey centred on the lives of three young children: Omer, Yakup and Yildiz. The village that they live in is a slightly ramshackle affair; many houses are showing their age and the cobble roads are worn and wonky. The surroundings, on the other hand, are sumptuously beautiful, ranging from lush green woodland to spectacular rocky cliffs and the gloriously shining sea. Director Reha Erdem uses Steadycam to track the characters as they travel through the village and the countryside, creating a sense that the little settlement and its grand surroundings are a seamless, congruous whole.
The village, however, is not a harmonious place: there is great distrust between different generations, from the oldest to the youngest, and Omer, Yakup and Yildiz are caught up in this. The three young children all earn the displeasure and disappointment of their elders, and in turn become disillusioned and resentful.
Omer's father, a local imam, is ever disappointed with his eldest son, and does little to hide his preference for Ali, Omer's bright younger brother. Omer begins to devise ways of killing his father, who is already suffering under the effects of a disease. Meanwhile, Yakup, Omer's close friend, is upbraided by his father, the muezzin, for trying to steal cigarettes, but finds to his dismay that he is being lectured by a moral hypocrite. The women in the village are not free from this futile cycle where the old alienate the young and the young resent the old: Yildiz, an intelligent young girl, has to look after her baby sibling on behalf of her mother, and suffers increasingly under the stress of this responsibility.
It is no wonder that in their complicated, unrewarding family lives these children yearn for an escape, and so they gather together in the wilderness around their village to plot and play and dream. Recurring images show the young children lying prone dead or asleep out in the wilderness, a sad reflection of a world where they already feel like a disappointment.
That is not to say that this is a wholly bleak portrait of life in rural Turkey. It is cheering to see the work done by the village committee members, who gather together to discuss pressing local issues. They condemn the beating of a local shepherd boy by his acting father and they organise the building of a new roof for an elderly lady as the winter sets in. There are also some very funny moments in Times and Winds, including the scenes where the children giggle over procreating animals. Even these scenes, however, are ultimately permeated with the same sadness found throughout the film: the boys catch the girls watching a pair of copulating horses and chase them away, in the belief that girls should not be allowed to see such things. In a place where religious figures such as the imam and the muezzin fall far short of the lofty ideals to which they aspire it is sad to see the wrong-headed behaviour inspired in these children.
The film finds the perfect accompaniment in the music of Finnish composer Arvo Part. The sombre, haunting strings that swell periodically throughout Times and Winds mingle with the sounds of nature and of everyday life, and fittingly reflect the torment of human relationships against the most serene and beautiful of backdrops. Though nearly two hours long and driven by only the loosest of plots, Times and Winds does not feel like a slow film. There are so many characters and incidents that the film can be a little confusing in places, but it is relentlessly engaging. Times and Winds is all the more remarkable film for having come seemingly out of nowhere and it will hopefully win some much-deserved attention for new Turkish cinema.
Somers Town (2008)
Funny and poignant - a great British film
Shane Meadows' new release, Somers Town, has received mixed reviews in the British press. The film has received criticism for its source of funding, having been developed with the funding of Eurostar from a promotional short to a fully-fledged feature. But beyond this, Somers Town has been criticised for being short, inconclusive and too whimsical in handling its grim subject matter. I would contend that although the style of Meadows sits rather awkwardly with the involvement of Eurostar, the film itself is a triumph: funny, intelligent and poignant.
Set in an area of inner city London near the construction site of the new Eurostar train terminal, the film follows the fortunes of two young boys from troubled backgrounds. Tomo, played by Thomas Thurgoose, arrives in London on a train from Nottingham, having run away from home. He never lets on about where he came from, and when asked he says that there is 'nothing' there. When Tomo reaches London he is soon set upon by a gang of youths. The camera moves uncomfortably close to Tomo and the bullying youths and the subsequent chase and beating set a dark undertone for the rest of the film. Thurgoose is superb in this lead role, cheeky, rude even, but charming and disarming a far cry from the youths who attack him in the film's opening.
Tomo crosses paths with Marek (played by Piotr Jagiello), a young Polish immigrant living with his father, Marius. Marius is working long hours on the building site of the future Eurostar terminal and Marek is listless in his absence, roving the streets of London with his camera until he bumps into the disruptive Tomo. The two boys, though from very different backgrounds, are essentially rootless, and soon become friends. Together they vie for the attention of Maria, the beautiful waitress working in a local café, leading to some of the happiest scenes in the film. They also help out budding salesman Graham, a slightly absurd and very amusing Del Boy character.
The dialogue amongst the characters in Somers Town is excellent, often hilarious but at times sad and moving. Thurgoose delivers his lines with a sharp wit and the film is at its funniest when the two boys compete for the affection of Maria. The darker scenes in the film, including the attack on Tomo and the falling-out between Marek and Marius, are believably portrayed and equally engaging. Where the dialogue flags is where the new Eurostar terminal and the accompanying ideas of travel and escape work their way into the story. It is difficult to disregard the source of funding for the film and it is at these points in the film that there is a vague whiff of product placement.
Nevertheless, it seems that Shane Meadows has used the creative licence afforded to him to re-work the original short film idea into a distinctive work. Although his film runs to only 75 minutes it does not feel insubstantial or inconclusive quite the contrary. The wistful, poignant ending throws light on the preceding film and affirms the themes of rootlessness, despair and dreams of escape.
With the wealth of Hollywood blockbusters and fine foreign-language films being produced this year it has been easy to overlook the films emerging closer to home, but this superb film has made me sit up and look for more British cinema.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
An enthralling allegorical tragedy
The story at the heart of Picnic at Hanging Rock is outlined at the film's very beginning: an introductory text describes the mysterious disappearance of three schoolgirls and their teacher in the Australian outback. Yet for all that we know about what will happen, this is an utterly enthralling film, combining a moving, mysterious human drama with rich and haunting symbolism.
The 1900 period setting is impeccable. The grandiose school for girls rises out of the vast Australian wilderness, a tiny outpost of Empire in a strange land. The costumes, from Victorian schoolgirl outfits to white imperial soldier uniforms, are brilliantly realised. Very soon we see that the schoolgirls are stifled. Some of them strain against the confines of their cosseted environment and the strict Victorian values imposed by Mrs Appleyard, the headmistress of the school. It becomes apparent that beautiful Mirandah and the orphaned Sarah have fallen in love, but Mrs Appleyard intervenes: when the girls set out for the 'Hanging Rock' for an end-of-term picnic she sees to it that Sarah is kept behind whilst Mirandah and the others set out.
It is at the Hanging Rock that we see just how alien the Australian landscape is to the Victorian ideals of colonial society and vice versa. When Mirandah and three other girls separate from the main party to view the Hanging Rock up close they venture into an otherworldly place, where strange animals and bizarre rock formations abound. The rhapsody of the young women in the unfamiliar landscape is cleverly conveyed through the blurring between images of human faces and the great expanses of the landscape. As the girls ascend and disappear from view into the upper reaches of the rock it is hard not to feel a glimmer of their atavistic impulses.
The disappearance of the schoolgirls and the school governess are witnessed only by Edith, another schoolgirl, and we can but wonder how accurate her subsequent account is. The disappearance is ultimately a mystery: this is not a film to provide a neat ending or anything much in the way of answers to our questions. What makes the film so captivating is the combination of a moving human tragedy with powerful symbolism.
The school and the adjoining town can be viewed are an encapsulation of colonial society with its Victorian ideals. Despite the strictures of the school headmistress, the new generation are already drifting away from a society that has been newly imposed upon an ancient landscape. The Hanging Rock, an enormous rocky outcrop of volcanic origin, has stood for a million years and is described as a 'recent' geological feature. Inscrutable and uncaring, the rock embodies the timeless nature of the foreign landscape. For the transplanted society, time is running out: it is an anachronism in this land. It is no wonder that all the watches stop at 12 o'clock when the party reaches the rock.
In parallel to the vast, uncaring entity in the natural landscape is the imperial society itself. With its Victorian ideals and its ruthless enforcers such as Mrs Appleyard, this society rides roughshod over the happiness of its inhabitants. Mirandah's and Sarah's is a doomed love from the beginning of the film, but there is a further tragedy in Sarah's life: as a young orphan she was separated from her brother and whisked away to the school. Minnie, a servant to Mrs Appleyard, quite rightly remarks with pity of the poor girls at the school.
A few points of light are set against this dark tone. Michael and Albert, a young aristocrat and a young servant, present at the rock at the time of the disappearances, become furtive friends despite their very different class backgrounds. And, though in many ways a tragedy, the mysterious disappearance of the girls has a certain beauty to it. The three ascend out of oppressive surroundings into a new and unfamiliar place. Their action heralds the beginning of the end for a world that tried to smother them.
La graine et le mulet (2007)
A long, intense and masterfully produced family drama
Cous Cous is set on the coast of Southern France in a coastal community where traditional industries are dying away. The void opening up with the decline of fishing and boat making industries is considerable, and the sprinkling of tourist interest in the area does little to salve these wounds. The malaise and despondency of the community is encapsulated in the person of Slimane, a taciturn divorcée who is told at the start of this film that he will henceforth receive only part-time employment at the scrapyard where he makes his living.
In the early stages of the film we are also introduced to Slimane's large and diverse family. The family minus Slimane is first brought together for a meal of fish and couscous at the household of Souad, Slimane's former wife. This is the first of several long and engrossing commensal scenes. The rapid, witty dialogue and the skillful close-up camera-work filmed around and among the diners create a remarkable intimacy between the actors and the viewer, so that very soon we are immersed in the family's intrigues and laughing at their bawdy humour.
However, the family is more often in disharmony. The children yearn for Slimane and Souad to resolve their differences, but Slimane is living in a hotel elsewhere in town. The proprietor of the hotel is his new partner and her daughter, Rym, is a close friend. Slimane's children disapprove openly of this situation, but at the same time they have their own problems to face up to, especially the wayward behaviour of Hamid, one of Slimane's sons, who frequently cheats on his fragile wife.
Slimane's despondency intensifies in the wake of his enforced semi-retirement from the scrapyard: he regrets that his family is divided and wishes that he had used his life to create something, to create a legacy for his children. It is in the face of this despair and with the help of Rym, the daughter of the hotel proprietor, that Slimane resolves to create a restaurant on a derelict boat a restaurant for which his ex-wife will cook and which his children will serve in. Rather than turning the rest of the film into a modern-day fairytale, director Abdel Kechiche remains levelheaded and keeps his camera trained on the complex and often strained web of relationships amongst the family members of Slimane's divided family. It is a slow and difficult struggle for Slimane to realise his goal, but Kechiche shows little of the construction of this ship in this long (two and a half hours) film.
In the final stages of the film Slimane is desperate to secure funding for his project and decides to host a grand opening of the restaurant with many eminent local personalities on the guestlist. The dramas and calamities in the protracted finale seem somewhat at odds with the first two-thirds of the film, which is low on drama and feels unstaged (indeed there are many non-professional actors in the cast and probably a considerable amount of improvisation). Nevertheless, as Slimane struggles to ensure that the dinner reaches the diners and the grand opening morphs awkwardly into a long-drawn-out party, the film climbs to a thrilling crescendo and a devastatingly abrupt ending.
Sanxia haoren (2006)
Achingly slow, but still an eye-opening insight into the severe side-effects of Progress
Chinese director Zhang Ke Jia's latest film contains a wealth of fascinating real-life imagery. Still Life was filmed during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China and it reveals to Western audiences the astonishing destruction that this entailed. The submersion of the scenery and settlements of the valley floors proceeds in phases during the film. White lines are painted on buildings and cliff-faces to forewarn of the next projected rise in water levels; residents are forced from their homes at short notice. Buildings are torn down using sledgehammers and hard human labour, creating a bizarre landscape of broken masonry. Rubble, the raw material of the future, is carted along narrow city streets by overloaded lorries and dumped onto a fleet of cargo ships. In the wake of all this activity there lie towns and communities divided literally in two by the swelling waters.
Still Life is an amazing documentary of the construction of the Dam, but its narrative is disappointingly weak. So many of the characters that fill the screen are isolated or antagonistic or exploitative, from the man hawking foreign currencies to the architect proudly admiring the new bridge across town. Jia chooses to focus on two main characters, creating two loosely intertwined plots. In the first, a husband and father searches for his wife and daughter who left him some fifteen years previously, whilst in the second an abandoned wife searches for her missing husband.
These are potentially interesting stories, but they proceed at a pace that is slow even by the standards of Jia's other films. Much of the drama in these stories precedes the film itself and the camera often lingers on unmoving, unspeaking subjects. The effect is one of inertia, at first strangely engrossing, but eventually frustrating. Possibly in an attempt to alleviate the slow, slow pacing of Still Life, Jia introduces some quirky asides (watch out for the spaceship taking off), but these jar with his documentary-like approach to film-making. Rather more effective are the 'still life' moments that crop up periodically throughout the film, momentarily framing day-to-day objects such as cigarettes or tea.
Although achingly slow at times, Still Life does make some interesting observations. It is intriguing to see how pop culture, transmitted by television and radio, now provides the icons for young Chinese people, where once one might have expected the songs, the sayings and the thinking to derive from Communist figureheads. The boy singing romantic pop ballads and the young man imitating a TV cop show character are symbolic of a very different culture among the young people of China. As with Jia's other films, the ideology and rhetoric of the Communist Party are largely absent, making a sort of cameo appearance when an old-fashioned workers' song plays as the ring tone on one character's mobile phone.
On the other hand, we see very little protest against the construction of the dam under the gaze of the Communist Party. This is not a slight against Jia, however, since it would have been very difficult to portray this without the government intervening against his film. The unflattering portrayal of the Dam's construction and its debilitating influence on people are a wake-up call to the severe side effects of Progress.
La antena (2007)
A reinvention of the silent movie and a powerful cautionary tale
La Antena, an audacious film by Argentine director Esteban Sapir, succeeds both as a reinvention of the silent movie genre and a gripping cautionary tale. The setting is a city in thrall to mindless television, its people deprived of the power of speech except for a solitary and mysterious screen presence known simply as The Voice. In a bid to cement their grip on power the marvellously villainous duo of television mogul Mr. TV and mad scientist Dr. Y set out to kidnap The Voice and turn her unique talent towards their own dastardly ends. It is up to a young family and The Voice's nameless, eyeless son to stop this evil scheme. The result is a roller coaster of a story that is bewildering on occasion but never less than engrossing.
This is a silent movie that wears many of its influences on its sleeve; the overt references to silent movie greats such as George Melies and Fritz Lang will be readily apparent to anyone with a passing familiarity of their work. But more subtle references and symbolism lie behind such tributes. I particularly like the fact that Mr. TV and his henchman drive around in typical 1930s gangster cars, drawn from the decade when the silent movie era died away and a very different industry began to emerge.
La Antena mines the clichéd plot devices and theatrical over-acting common to so many silent films, albeit in a very knowing and humorous way. It is the astonishing visual style of La Antena that really sets it apart from the movies that it pays homage to. From the hypnotic TV logo to the menacing hilltop transmission station, this film abounds with dazzling visual inventiveness that is the rival of a Studio Ghibli animation and all this using real actors and handmade sets.
Moreover, though the style is often intentionally corny and theatrical, this is still an unsettling, provocative and emotional picture. The use of religious symbolism throughout La Antena lends added resonance to the struggle between the TV Empire and the waning power of words. At the same time, many of the most powerful images are original ones, including the hypnotic swirl of the television sets and the nightmarish TV food factory.
I hate to end this review on a sour note, but I feel that the English-language release of La Antena is let down by the subtitles. The original Spanish subtitles are used to great effect, with much playing around with words on screen. However, the English-language subtitles that accompany the original dialogue are frustratingly incomplete, with omissions and mistakes at times leaving the viewer to piece things together for themselves. La Antena is nevertheless a striking piece of cinema; a visually breathtaking experience that displays great energy and humour whilst narrating a powerful cautionary tale.
Ji jie hao (2007)
A gripping Chinese war film, by turns brutal, moving and provocative
Assembly is a gripping film about the Chinese civil war and its aftermath, recounted through the story of a doomed company of Communist soldiers and the subsequent struggle of their commander, Gu Zidi, to win recognition for their sacrifice. Hanyu Zhang is superb in the role of Gu Zidi, carrying the memory of his lost and forgotten comrades, and is the focus for a film that is by turns brutal, moving and provocative.
The opening battle scene is Assembly is startlingly violent and throughout the film the portrayal of modern weaponry and its effect upon human bodies is truly frightening. The battles are impressively staged and meticulously detailed, from the soldiers' uniforms to the networks of defensive trenches. There are some eye-opening details about the nature of warfare in the Chinese civil war, including the deployment of 'political officers' to encourage Communist troops to act in line with Party doctrine.
Admittedly, much of the film's appeal stems from its foreign origins. The Chinese civil war and the subsequent war in Korea are not often portrayed in the cinema, and it is even more rare to get a Chinese perspective on these events. Certainly this makes it difficult to find a point of reference by which to assess the success of Assembly. Nevertheless, I did have some reservations, including the camera-work. The battle scenes cut frantically between different shots, unlike, for instance, the opening scenes in Saving Private Ryan, where the action relentlessly tracks the soldiers' landing on the D-Day beach. This repeated cutting and changing conveys some sense of the chaos of warfare, but I feel that the shaky camera-work was overplayed and found this a bit irksome after the first few battle scenes.
A more general problem is that this film focuses almost exclusively on the actions of the Communist soldiers. It would have been interesting to learn more about the Nationalist Guomindang soldiers, but they are barely afforded any speaking roles. Although Assembly is written from the perspective of the winning side, it does not begin to examine why the Communists were at one time so short of munitions and especially men in fighting the war against the Nationalists. The story of Gu Zidi's company of men is a battle against the odds, but the film does not delve into the root causes of their desperation.
But although Assembly is a portrait of one side in a long military conflict there is surprising depth to this portrait. The film does not follow a straightforward triumphalist narrative about Communist war heroes, but instead builds a complex tale of an individual (Gu Zidi) who struggles for the posthumous recognition of individual soldiers who made an individual sacrifice. These were soldiers who were scared and sometimes balked at the dangers before them as would anyone but they made the ultimate sacrifice and Gu Zidi strives to have their efforts recognised as a unique contribution to the war effort. That it is such a great struggle for Gu Zidi to secure a memorial for these fallen comrades is at least partly an indictment of post-war society and government in China.
Assembly achieves a remarkable amount in less than two hours. It is a vivid reconstruction of struggles during and after the war and is moreover a deeply moving experience, especially in its final frames. And if part of the appeal lies in the fact that this is a foreign film about a little-known war, then that is all the more reason to seek it out.