The Chinese Civil War was a significant 20th-century conflict that’s received very little Western attention over the years. While Europe, North America, and Africa were distracted by the troubling state of affairs in Germany during the ‘30s and ‘40s, the Soviet-supported Chinese Communist Party (CCP) spent twenty-three years fighting the Western-supported Chinese Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang or KMT) for ideological control of mainland China. By the time the dust settled in May of 1950, the country’s modern Communist regime was established, the Cold War had begun to redefine traditional war, and the Chinese people were struggling to dig their country out of decades of turmoil.
Director Feng Ziaogang’s ‘Assembly’ tells the true tale of a CCP army captain named Gu Zidi (Hanyu Zhang) who survives a series of KMT attacks during one of the Chinese Civil War’s final and bloodiest campaigns. After serving a three-day punishment for executing a surrendering enemy soldier, Gu is sent to the front lines to hold a strategic position with dwindling supplies and a mere forty-seven men. However, his Colonel (Hu Jun) tells the captain he is allowed to retreat if he hears a bugle call that signals the regiment’s reassembly. While Gu commands his unit as instructed, he’s forced to watch as all of his men are killed by wave after wave of KMT tanks and soldiers. When the war ends and the CCP are victorious, Gu is confused for a POW and taken into custody. Since no one is left alive to verify his account of the battle, the former captain is racked with guilt and labeled a madman as he sets out to prove the men in his company died loyal, heroic deaths in service to their country.
Before watching ‘Assembly,’ I knew very little about the Chinese Civil War and the establishment of communism in mainland China. In fact, I can’t think of any recent American or European film that’s given any serious attention to the conflict. I suppose I can understand -- the rise of a Communist Empire doesn’t exactly leave much room for Western romanticism. As a result, I was intrigued by the perspective reversal that ‘Assembly’ afforded a Westerner like myself. In my limited view of historical geopolitical developments, communism equaled bad and democracy equaled good. I had nearly forgotten that it can’t possibly be that simple. While ideological debates are often forged by controlling powers or feuding factions, the soldiers tasked with defending these positions are simply pawns in larger, transitory struggles. Captain Gu never struck me as a communist fighter upholding immoral principals, he struck me as a human being who overcomes adversity in the face of an extraordinarily dangerous assignment. His fight for justification and respect becomes the central focus of the film, rather than his country’s adoption of communism.
I also appreciated how much screen time Ziaogang committed to Gu’s life after the war. While the first hour of the film is loaded with spellbindingly intense battle scenes (which probably deserve a paragraph all their own), the second hour is a quieter experience that sees the hardened Chinese captain working through an emotional series of outbursts and breakdowns. The character’s internal struggles and intrinsic survivor’s guilt register as very real conflicts that supersede the war itself -- Gu’s remorse and regret blot out his soul, leaving him little more than a shell of his former self. Of course, none of that would matter if the character wasn’t anchored to an actor who could handle such subtle complexities. Thankfully, Hanyu Zhang handles it all with effortless composure and craft, allowing his character to evolve into a wartorn everyman whose very existence perpetuates his crippling depression. I hate to overstate things, but I believe Zhang’s performance even outclasses Tom Hanks’ deft portrayal of the beleaguered captain in ‘Saving Private Ryan.’
Easily one of my top ten war films of all time, ‘Assembly’ is a rare, wonderfully-orchestrated film that features a series of outstanding performances, raw and emotionally-charged battle scenes, and the heart-wrenching tale of a soldier drowning in regret. The story reveals perspectives and glimpses into China’s recent history that I haven’t encountered anywhere else. ‘Assembly’ is the very definition of a must-have Blu-ray import as it’s not the sort of film that’s guaranteed to get a major release in the States anytime soon.
While it will certainly draw comparisons to Warner’s BD release of ‘Letters from Iwo Jima,’ ‘Assembly’s 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer is simply breathtaking. Fine object detail is incredibly revealing, highlighting every coarse texture, blood spurt, and fleck of debris that flings across the screen. In fact, the film’s numerous battle scenes offer too much detail to dig through in one sitting -- I could easily see the tattered rust on the soldiers’ weapons, individual strands of yarn in Wang Jincun’s scarf, and the browning weeds sprouting up between the rocks on the wartorn battlefields. Director Xiaogang Feng’s intentionally undersaturated, sepia-hued cinematography doesn’t deliver a wealth of vibrant colors (aside from a healthy collection of reds), but the transfer remains strong and stable in spite of his bleak palette. Contrast and skintones are also impressive. Even though mid-battle shots are frequently overblown, the picture is quite attractive and comfortably stark throughout.
Noise is kept to a minimum as well. ‘Assembly’ is understandably grainy, but doesn’t suffer from any major artifacting, edge enhancement, or source noise. While a bit of errant banding and print damage sneaks into the presentation, such blemishes never become a distraction. The only complaint I can muster is that black levels in nighttime shots occasionally fail to have the inky resolve of the best looking scenes in the film. Otherwise, ‘Assembly’ looks fantastic and should definitely satisfy importers hoping to find a top-notch video transfer.
The UK import edition of ‘Assembly’ sounds just as good as it looks. Presented with a resonant, bass-heavy Mandarin DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track, the film’s explosions and gunfire are just as deafening as one would expect from such a visceral experience. The LFE channel offers plenty of theater-shaking thooms and a welcome variety of low-end pulses to compliment the track’s immersive soundfield. Likewise, the rear speakers get a rigorous workout since nearly every scene is packed with ambient details and realistic acoustics. Battles deliver sonic assaults on the ears, erupting in the soundfield with a ferocity that doesn’t seem manufactured or artificial. Dialogue is crisp, perfectly prioritized, and evenly distributed across the speakers in a way that makes each line sound as if it’s a part of the on-screen action, rather than a product of a post-production mix.
Directionality is flawless, pans are clean and transparent, and I didn’t catch any problems with the looped dialogue and air hiss issues I’ve encountered with other imported war films. All in all, the UK Blu-ray edition of ‘Assembly’ delivers phenomenal audio that pairs with the disc’s striking video transfer to make this import worth every penny.
While this UK import includes a 70-minute behind-the-scenes documentary and a theatrical trailer, my region A BD players encountered a variety of problems that made playback impossible. Rest assured, the film itself is region free and will play in any domestic player.
I can’t recommend ‘Assembly’ enough. The film itself is a gut-punch war epic loaded with amazing performances, all-too-realistic battle sequences, and a resounding story of courage in the face of insurmountable odds. This UK BD import is an easy sell as well. While Region A importers will have problems viewing the special features included on the disc, the movie is presented with a gorgeous video transfer and a theater-shaking Master Audio track. In the end, anyone who has any interest in importing Blu-ray releases should bump this one to the top of your list.
Thanks to both Randy Gresham and Josh Veronee for providing me with copies of 'Assembly' for review!
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.