Assembly opens on the battlefield in 1948 during China’s Civil War. The Ninth Company of the People’s Liberation Army led by brash Captain Gu Zidi are sent out to defend a mine from the advancing Kuomintang troops. On one of his missions Gu’s unit is caught in an ambush of the Nationalist Kuomintang forces, in which his Political Officer gets killed. Assembly refers to the call of the bugle to retreat and regroup, and this is the call that Captain Gu Zidi (Zhang Hanyu) and his 47 men of the 9th Company, 3rd Batallion, 139th Regiment, are keenly listening out for, as they go about their mission in ill-equipped fashion, holding fort on a strategic plain.
Feng Xiaogang’s Assembly was the opening film at last year’s Pusan International Film Festival, and tickets were sold out in record time once they were made available online. These days there are a lot of war movies, which all have some sort of message they want to convey. Nevertheless, all of them depict the pain and suffering that comes along with killing and being killed. Feng Xiaogang’s The Assembly, has been touted as China’s answer to Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan, with the most obvious comparison being the film’s battle sequences. Steven Spielberg needn’t look in his rearview mirror, but he may want to sit up and at least give a nod. The battle sequences in The Assembly are cinematically riveting, and garner most of the attention during the film’s first half. Told with grey-green hued cinematography, copious shaky cam, tons of flying mud and dirt, and mostly implied or innocuous gore, the sequences are technically accomplished in all their kinetic glory.
The first half of the film throws us directly into a war-zone. The reasons for the war aren’t explained, which is in fact odd as the movie also seems to be made for an international audience. Given an essentially impossible task, the vastly outnumbered Ninth Company are ordered to hold their positions until they hear the bugle assembly call. But that call never comes, or at least not to the injured ears of Gu, as casualties pile and hope run dries. Of the 48 members of the Ninth Company, Gu alone survives the devastating defeat, only to find that he has become a forgotten man, written off as missing in action, just like his fallen comrades. From then on the pacing drops and the drama steps more into the foreground.
Ultimately, Assembly is an ambitious film. It combines drama and action, and in both aspects, doesn’t hold back in bringing about the best it probably could. And after watching this, you’ll probably won’t hesitate to watch another war movie coming out of China, if they meet the benchmark set by Feng Xiaogang. With the film’s narrative drama largely tabled, Assembly falls a bit short, ultimately becoming a respectable and involving, but not truly great war film. In Assembly, war is never really portrayed as a “cause”. The human element is the main focus here, and the sacrifices made by soldiers are to be honored because they’re people, and not members of one side or the other. The trade-off is that the emotions are safe, and no message exists that raises Assembly to the Saving Private Ryan level of intense human drama.