▶︎ The Eight Hundred is in UK cinemas.

The Si-Hang (‘Four Banks’) Warehouse on the north bank of Suzhou Creek in Shanghai came under siege from the invading Japanese army for four days in late October 1937. Chiang Kaishek’s KMT (Nationalist) government had ordered a regiment of its 88th army division to defend the building; 400-odd men under commander Xie Jinyuan occupied it, their ranks swelled by a rag-tag group of ‘deserters’ and stragglers picked up during their overland trek to Shanghai.

When the Japanese first tried to storm the warehouse on the night of 27 October, the defenders’ success in repelling them turned the siege into a national (and, soon, international) cause célèbre for the anti-Japanese resistance, prompting Xie to claim for propaganda reasons that his men numbered 800. The British concession lay on the opposite bank of the river, flanked by the city’s other foreign concessions, giving the world’s reporters and newsreel cameramen a grandstand view of the siege and the resistance.

The episode was first filmed very soon after it happened by left-wing filmmakers who had fled the bombardment of the Chinese sector of the city along the Yangtze River to Wuhan and subsequently other points west. Ying Yunwei’s Eight Hundred Heroes (Ba Bai Zhuangshi, 1938), recently rediscovered and preserved by the Hong Kong Film Archive, is a morale-boosting masterpiece starring the great Yuan Muzhi as Xie Jinyuan, shot silent in extremely primitive conditions but arranged for live musical and vocal accompaniment.

At the time, it was not a problem for the pro-communist filmmakers that the valiant defenders of the warehouse were KMT troops or that the most famous incident in the siege was Xie’s decision to invite further Japanese attacks by raising the KMT flag on the roof. That was obviously no problem either for the KMT’s own remake of the film (also called Ba Bai Zhuangshi, directed by Ding Shanxi in Taiwan in 1976, the year of Mao Zedong’s death). But it turned out to be a huge problem for this bombastic, CGI-heavy remake by one-time indie director Guan Hu which was abruptly pulled from its scheduled Shanghai Film Festival premiere in 2019 without explanation from the Film Bureau. It now emerges some 11 minutes shorter than it used to be and with that pesky KMT flag relegated to an almost off-screen role.

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The Eight Hundred (Ba Bai, 2020)

It’s possible, if unlikely, that the original version of Guan’s film resisted the Xi Jinping regime’s push for neo-nationalist euphoria in the way that Lu Chuan’s account of the Nanjing massacre in City of Life and Death (Nanjing! Nanjing!, 2009) did. The film as now released doesn’t have the rabid China-is-top-dog quality of the Wolf Warrior movies (which have lent their name to one strand of China’s recent ‘diplomacy’) but its spirit is resolutely neo-nationalist. The visual style is steroidal, ramped up from the music-video aesthetic of Guan’s early indie films: dozens of drone shots, sweeping tracking-shots, carefully art-directed vignettes of triumph and defeat. A symbolic white horse gallops through every so often.

To be fair, though, there are some surprises. The opening hour has an unexpected focus on the cowardice and lack of commitment to the anti-Japanese struggle among a gang of featured character actors (Jiang Wu, Zhang Junyi, Zhang Yi et al) whose story arcs turn out to be less than conventionally inspiring. And Guan makes the most of the warehouse’s view of the sybaritic life on the opposite bank and vice versa. The shift from curiosity to engaged support on the part of the ex-pats and ‘apolitical’ Chinese is well enough staged, despite some very dodgy line-readings by some of the extras. The cloth-eared subtitles are crammed with anachronistically modern American slang and profanities.

Originally published: 17 September 2020