A David vs. Goliath style war drama in which a small group of Chinese forces hold the line against a much larger, and better equipped Japanese military. The story takes place in 1937 at a warehouse deep within the city of Shanghai, where a Chinese battalion of 420 men (claiming to be at 800 to fool the enemy) and a few captured deserters have ‘bunkered down’ in a last ditch effort to hold the line against the occupying forces of the Japanese. The warehouse borders a river where – on the other side – it is ‘life as usual’ along a Las Vegas style entertainment strip where international protections from the UK and France are preventing Japanese troops from advancing there. As the battle for the warehouse continues, a growing number of onlookers root the Chinese defenders on.
The standoff quickly becomes a center-point of worldwide attention as it is witnessed by not only by the people and visitors of Shanghai, but also by various international news agencies who give a play-by-play accounting of the events from the safety of a large CGI Goodyear blimp lumbering quietly overhead. Chinese sympathizers begin to rally as they watch attempts by the Japanese to take down the warehouse get batted down time and time again. If the battalion can continue its resistance, redemption may appear in the form of greater support from the Chinese people, and international involvement against the Japanese aggressors.
I am curious to find out if the Chinese government had anything to do with the making of this film or if it was just good ol’ fashioned, ‘by God this flag aint never waved truer’ patriotism from the film’s creators. From blatant Iwo Jima ‘inspired’ flag scenes, and cutaways of sappy, ancient Chinese battle folklore, to sideline ‘tear jerk’ scenes of a little girl saluting our battle wary troops from across the river (of course the troops notice her out the thousands standing next to her) and yes, they salute back (Empire of the Sun anyone?), and repeated “Fuck the Japanese” battle cries from both commander and trooper alike . Then of course, the supporting mushy music.
We’ve seen this type of rote jingoism in many war films of the past. Michael Bay’s nauseous ‘Pearl Harbor’ is the most recent I can think of that contains similar, overly patriotic, cheese. The thing is though, that PH is a twenty year old movie, and I like to think we are now trending toward films that are a bit more realistic, and challenging to the audience. Of course, great war films are nothing new. But what makes them great is that they dug a little deeper, such as the effects and trauma of the conflict (Das Boot), or perhaps exploring both sides of the opposition (Letters from Iwo Jima), or are character studies of the men involved (Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket). I really wish the director had taken his inspiration form one of these films, rather than this spoon-feed heap of deliberate, overly idealistic fare for an intended set of agreeable masses.
While much of the acting was quite commendable the film contained few memorable characters, and only one that actually stuck with me. This older, ‘Rambo-like’, battle hardened chap (turned deserter, but then turned into soldier again) had never ‘felt the warmth of a woman’. In one scene he asks a fellow ‘experienced’ soldier what it is like (he never asked anyone until NOW?). His fellow soldier/warrior poet fills him in (no pun intended) with dreamy details, to which our valiant embodiment of armed Chinese virtue replies with, “Perhaps in my next life, I will know what it is like”, then marches toward the enemy, rifle clutched tightly in his hand *cue more mush music, and yet another eye roll.
The overall cinematography is rather nice and the special effects are decent. However the CGI did take me out of the film at times. It also had some very weak battle scenes that felt like they were over-edited to meet time requirements. One in particular involved a steam shovel, apparently armored by the Japanese, this slow and lumbering machine was rolled in to try and level the Chinese’ warehouse. It continued to close in as bullets and grenade shrapnel zinged off the shovel’s metal skin, yet somehow a single gas canister exploding next to its tank-like tracks did the trick. But how? Well that’s a great question! The film does not show this. We can only assume that it did the trick, because although we did not see its destruction, the steam shovel is never seen or heard from again.
That reminds me of another character, or caricature rather. We don’t ever learn of his name in the film, so we will just call him Roastie. Roastie is the only guy in the Chinese Battalion who sports a flame thrower. He really likes his job of incinerating Japanese flesh to preserve Chinese sovereignty. How do we know this? Well, because we see Roastie grin as he marches in with the front lines, flames a roarin’. Incredibly, all of the enemy bullets fired at Roastie and the three large fuel tanks hanging on his back are fired from the Empire. No, not the Japanese Empire…Darth Vader’s empire. Yes, Roastie continues his advance as a wall of bullets find their way into his comrades just fine, with some getting hit multiple times, in dramatic slow-motion fashion). Full disclaimer: I have never been in the military. But I would think that aiming at the mouth of a large swath of fire would be a fairly easy, and highly prioritized shot. Also, Roastie has long hair…perfect for this kind of work.
In all, I found this movie to be a missed opportunity by the directors to tell a great story grounded in historical record. But instead, the narrative felt more propaganda driven, resulting in shallow dialogue, unrealistic battle scenes, and much too long running time. If you want to see a better film, with virtually the same theme, is far more entertaining, and probably about as accurate, just subtract 500 from this movie’s title.