Beginning in 1948, the film, which is based on a true story, follows Gu Zidi (Zhang Hangyu), a soldier fighting in the PLA (Peoples Liberation Army) during the Chinese civil war. The opening setpiece establishes the films gritty tone and Gu's character. Involved in standoff in a rubble of a town with the opposing KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party) forces, Gu announces over a bullhorn to the opposing side that they have two choices, they can "Get the bullets or get the dumplings." As Gu's men move in, they are blasted to Hell, and Gu argues with a fellow officer over whether they should retreat shortly before the KMT forces surrender.
Gu, who was pushing to retreat, and watched the officer calling him a coward get blown to buts shortly thereafter, is filled with angry doubt over his seemingly poor decision making. During his post battle fit, he executes a surrendered KMT officer and receives a light three day prison reprimand that he views more as a vacation. While in prison, he befriends a soldier schoolteacher, Wang Jincun (Yuan Weakang), a meek, bookish man, who in jail for his in battle cowardice and lack of fighting mettle.
Gu's next assignment is to protect a mine, and he agrees, asking that Wang be made his Political Officer. This again, shows Gu's personality, Wang is a bad soldier but a good, intelligent man, so Gu's stance of his soldiers having comradery is forefront on his mind (Wang is good to bounce ideas off of, and can write letters home for the mostly illiterate crew). Gu is told to listen for a bugle call that will signal it is safe for them retreat. No call, no retreat, even if that means their destruction. His battalion manages to repel the enemies first wave, but are left with less than twenty men and many wounded among that lot. Some of his men insist they heard the bugle call, but the half deaf Gu did not and reluctantly orders them to stay and fight it out.
In the cruelest twist of fate, only Gu survives. Dressing in the enemies clothing, a shellshocked Gu is taken prisoner by his own forces, and during his convalescence he eventually reveals his true identity. Gu makes it thought the Civil War and fighting in North Korea, and the film embarks on it's last half. 1958, now almost completely deaf and half blind, Gu struggles with guilt over that bugle and, worst of all, the fact that his men were declared MIA and not war heroes/martyrs. The mine area was closed off and buried in a mound of coal. Gu tries to make his voice heard but is eventually left to prove it on his own, in the basest way possible, digging all by his lonesome at the site, hoping to uncover the bodies of his comrades and prove what happened that fateful day.
Assembly largely circumvents politics. While there is mention of the post war aftermath and muddled bureaucracy getting in the way of recognizing the soldiers contribution, really this is a story of survivors guilt, of Gu's struggle to come to terms with how everyone died under his leadership. Finding the actual answer to "Did the retreat bugle call or not?" is more complex than yes or no. One way or the other, Gu would know if he was right to feel guilty, but what he discovers is a more muddled, interesting, and heartbreaking truth.
This is a two part film, the first largely dealing with establishing Gu and a couple of Saving Private Ryanstyle action set-pieces. I know it sounds lazy to make the comparison, but really, Ryan's drained look and handheld cinematography opened the door to many war films, Assembly included, aping this style. Its thrilling stuff, appropriately messy and harsh. While Gu is the central character, its actually a tad too focal on him. That is, in the last half, we are supposed to feel his woe over losing his beloved men, he was closer to them than many military commanders would be, but really these men, aside from Wang, are mostly, even as caricatures, a barely-defined lot. Zhang Hangyu is excellent as Gu, largely shouldering the entire film. Assembly's only nagging points are that the script could have supported Gu a bit more by embellishing those around him, notably his fighting compatriots, and not skimped over a few key transitions in his life with basic text info.
The DVD: Tai Seng.
Well, you will never run into anyone who saw the film claiming it to be "colorful." It is a very stark number. As such, you have to take into account the intentionally muted and desaturated look. As such, the color (lack of), grain (lots of), and contrast are in line with its rough feel. The Anamorphic Widescreen transfer is relatively free from any severe artifacts with the only missive being some slightly dull sharpness details (but again, maybe that was the look).
Four audio options include Mandarin DTS, Mandarin, Cantonese, and English 5.1 Surround tracks, as well as Chinese (traditional and Simplified) and English subtitles. I was actually a tad let down by the mix. Its not bad, but in this day and age, you expect your war films and action scenes to have more bombast than I felt this film offered. Everything sounded really midrange, like the treble and bass were EQ'd straight up the middle, and this diminished the crack of the gunfire and thud of the explosives. Subtitles, while well-translated, play a tad fast during some scenes
A second disc of extras includes the film's trailer, a "making of" featurette (55:04), and behind the scenes footage (roughly 6 mins).
Conclusion: Its all right there on the surface, no underlying subtext, just straightforward, cut to the quick drama with the usual war/period film touching points.