In 1998, Steven Spielberg gave the historical war genre a bit of a facelift with Saving Private Ryan. Blending shaky camera movement, a bleak color palette, and plenty of densely textured grime, it captures the environment with a cool precision that evokes both the intensity and the bleakness of the scenario. However, the real reason to see it comes in its ability to render compelling characters, transforming into one of the better character films of the second half of the century. I ramble on about Spielberg's picture because it also established a benchmark, spawning imitators that stretch from US domestic releases to international films, such as Korea's fantastic Taegukgi (Brotherhood of War). Another successful offshoot comes in China's Assembly, a depiction of the Chinese Civil War through the eyes of one particular soldier, which carries the same sensibilities as its influences -- explosive and well performed, yet familiar.
The story itself focuses on Gu Zidi, a captain of the People's Liberation Army, as he and his comrades battle against the Revolutionary Army. It follows his struggles with authority and war-time hunger for vengeance, showcasing the repercussions that crop up when bloodlust takes over a soldier. Detail also focuses on the soldiers' willingness to retreat or stand strong, as the Chinese captain and his falling platoon keep an ear open for the retreat "assembly" bugle during a volatile battle. However, it's only in the second and third acts, when Gu Zidi is captured as a POW by his own army and fights years later to convince the army of what happened to his fallen platoon, that a real sense of dramatic pull is discovered within the film.
Based off of a non-fiction novel and directed by Feng Xiaogang of A World Without Thieves and The Banquet (Ye yan, aka The Legend of the Black Scorpion for US audiences), Assembly latches onto a familiar cinematic tone within the first reel. The essence of brotherhood between common, fetching soldiers on the battlefield becomes its early emotional draw, which then drags them tooth and nail through the harrows of war. It ratchets through several different archetypes -- the shy, pacifist type of scholarly soldier, the gung-ho bloodthirsty type, and the conflicted yet headstrong authority figure -- and leaves its audience hanging on the notion that these soldiers might either meet a demise or survive the ordeals. However, it doesn't convey quite the same level of character development as other films of its type, focusing mostly on Gu Zidi and using his soldiers as weights on his conscience instead of substantial entities.
It walks along a very dangerous line because of its character construction, between likenesses to other gritty war depictions that handle the same dynamic and a proud projection of this compelling story. Assembly handles this balance with gusto, largely because of the precision behind executing its controlled yet gory battle sequences. Large-scale design, fueled by a wealth of digital and physical artists and photographed by To Live (Huózhe) cinematographer Lü Yue, emphasizes the sprawling nature of the Chinese battlefields through beautifully cold cinematography. It's thrilling because of them, with volatility around many corners throughout the telling of Gu Zidi's time with his military company. Naturally, it's this boisterousness that also emphasizes the quieter moments, as the soldiers await their next move behind mangled walls that barely stop bullets and other artillery.
Where Feng Xiaogang really delivers a punch in Assembly comes in his telling of the events that unfold once Gu Zidi is rediscovered by his army, building into a captain's strife in fighting for his soldier's recognition. Gu's mental breakdown, fueled by relentless questioning and internal strife, is handled with wide-eyed emotionality by Zhang Hanyu. He plays to the conflicted military type well enough at the start, but the real strength behind his showing arises when his ratchets down from optimism to cynical stubbornness after he wrestles with the army about the fate of his soldiers -- especially when the matter of food stipends come into the picture over their status. Gu Zidi's relationship with the widow of one of his fallen comrades also heightens the dramatic potency, as well as adding a bit of hope to the dour tone, along with his life-altering tour through the Korean War.
At times, it's hard to critique war films due to their thematic nature, especially when they highlight compelling narratives handled in fine fashion. Assembly tells a wondrous and heartbreaking story of a man who's dragged through a multitude of tribulations during China's politically-raveged time period, and it's told in a proficient and tense fashion. However, its similarities to other films -- both thematically and from a purely cinematic point of view -- aren't really debatable, which gives it a bit of the "been there, done that" feeling when weaving through explosions and gunfire in nearly black-and-white fashion. It goes without saying, though, that war film aficionados will find a resonant piece of work with Feng Xiaogang's picture, one that trumpets its story along with bombastic tension and swelling heart at its close.
Video and Audio:
Assembly arrives on Blu-ray from Tai Seng (sourced from MEgaStar) in a 2.35:1 1080p AVC encode that preserves the film's theatrical distribution, which looks rather good in this low-color, high-contrast image. The cinematography leans towards dense textures and color timing that teeters close to starkly cold blue -- with extremely subtle hints of a reddish/pinkish hues here and there. Tai Seng's image preserves these elements with plenty of attractive oomph, yet it falters by being somewhat flat, noisy, and sporting a fair level of dust and debris across the print. On top of that, close inspection also reveals a bit of edge enhancement in a few sequences, prevalent during intense, dark-on-white exterior shots. Though worth mentioning, these negatives aren't prevalent enough to be fuming detractors from this otherwise pleasing image. The attractiveness in Lü Yue's icy, intense cinematography is still certainly there, even if it's not presented in pitch-perfect fashion.
Naturally, war films benefit heavily on the sound side of things with high-definition tracks, yet Assembly's DTS HD Master Audio track leaves a bit to be desired. Many of the explosions express quite a blast to the lower-frequency channels, while the onslaught of gunfire impresses with its crispness and clarity. However, there's a continually thin, metallic sound that slims the track down, almost making it sound like it's passing through a straw in getting to the listening stage. The dialogue remains clear and blips/distortion don't really come into the picture, but the original sound design -- which can be made out from this track -- deserves to sprawl out a bit more than this track offers. It's fine and services the film well enough, yet also disappointing. Subtitles are available in optional English and Chinese languages, which default to the Chinese language track without subtitles upon bootup if another language isn't selected at the start-up sequence.
Aside from a few Previews for Assembly and other Tai Seng films, we've also got three B-Rolls (SD) -- none of which have English subtitles -- that mostly compile behind-the-scenes footage together.
Assembly is Feng Xiaogang's mostly successful attempt at a heroic wartime story, constructed in a fashion that clearly owes due diligence to a decade's worth of predecessors. Mixed with top-heavy momentum on the action front at the beginning and a deeper emotional core that follows, it cobbles together elements from other productions in crafting its tone and visual essence. That not to say it's unoriginal in either storytelling or composition, which it more than proves that it carries its own weight by way of immaculate construction, a thorough level of drama, and a fine performance from Zhang Hanyu as the main character. Tai Seng have offered up Assembly in a high-definition presentation that's satisfying, if slightly lacking, in the audio visual department, earning it a modest Recommendation both for the content and the way the film looks.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site