Rong Cai. Journal of Contemporary China. Volume 27, Issue 113. September 2018.
War has been a prominent theme in cultural productions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Repeated representations by the socialist cinema and beyond have produced a revolutionary imagination of war that glorifies death and sacrifice, subsuming individual experience of pain and loss under the discourse of the Communist nation-building. This article focuses on a revisionist reading of the revolutionary imagination of war in Feng Xiaogang’s 2007 New Year Film The Assembly. It has a dual focus. First, it discusses the genre practice of war film in the mainland cinema and the relation among war film, representation of violence, heroism, and nation building. Then it examines how Feng’s visceral depiction of combat redirects the focus from the master narrative of nation-building to the individual. Second, focusing on the main character’s quest for honor for his fallen soldiers, this article explores how the film critiques the power structure of the revolutionary honor system that valorizes the revolutionary imagination of war. Ultimately, the discussion proves that the film is as much a confirmation of the revolutionary nation-building as a poignant critique and subversion of the official vision of honor and history.
War and the nation state are closely related in modern world history. The specter of war, in one scholar’s words, ‘hangs like a dark cloud over many nations.’In numerous instances, the modern nation was brought into being as well as maintained through war. China is no exception. From the mid-19th century to the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, China was ravaged by wars with foreign powers and protracted military campaigns between Nationalist (KMT) and Communist (CCP) forces. After 1949, China continued to be mired in conflicts involving its neighbors—the costly war in the Korean peninsula in the early 1950s, small border wars with India in the 1960s, the former Soviet Union in the early 1970s, and the Vietnam War at the end of the 1970s are some examples. War has shaped modern China in such profound ways that further study of warfare in mapping the country’s modern history is called for by historians.
In addition to war affecting those caught in the conflict, recurrent media representations generate a ‘cultural imagination of war,’ or ‘a pattern of thought, a hard-wired set of expectations that condition the very ways we think about war,’ shaping people’s understanding of the nation and its history and making war a staple of public memory. Although many forms of media create public perceptions of war and history, films arguably produce the greatest impact. Historian and theorist Robert Rosenstone notes that since the twentieth century, film and television have become indispensable in our understanding of the past. ‘To leave them out of the equation when we think of the meaning of the past,’ he argues, ‘is to condemn ourselves to ignore the way a huge segment of the population has come to understand the events and the people that comprise history.’
Since its advent at the turn of the twentieth century, Chinese cinema has played an active role in constructing people’s perceptions of war and the development of modern China. Many war-related films were produced by generations of filmmakers to voice personal convictions or official positions. The socialist cinema in the Mao era is perhaps the most salient example. Armed struggle and war heroics are the cornerstones of the founding myth of the PRC and continue to adorn movie and television screens even today. But society’s sense of war and history is not static; it is a dynamic and evolutionary process. New representations under changing social conditions and circumstance with the help of more advanced technology can question existing patterns of thinking and introduce new perspectives.
This article discusses Feng Xiaogang’s revisionist reading of the socialist cultural imagination of war in his 2007 New Year film The Assembly. It has a dual focus. First, it looks into how war film is categorized in the mainland cinema to explore the relation between cinema, politics, representation of war, violence and the nation. It then examines how the film’s new image of combat experience enriches and complicates a common understanding of war molded to a great extent by the socialist representations. Feng’s visceral depiction of combat redirects the focus from the master narrative of nation-building to the individual. In sharp contrast with previous strategies used in film, Feng’s approach uncovers the artificiality of the socialist vision of battle experience and its ideological and technical limitations. Second, focusing on the main character’s quest for honor for his fallen soldiers, this article discusses how the film critiques the power structure of the honor system underlying the revolutionary imagination of war. Two specific aspects of the honor system that sustain the socialist vision serve as the reference points in the analysis: the practice and institutionalization of the worship of heroism and martyrdom. Many critics applaud The Assembly as a successful blend of popular entertainment with the ‘main melody’ of state ideology in support of Communist nation-building. The author contends that the depiction of the circumstances surrounding the soldiers’ deaths and the protagonist’s arduous journey to win official recognition for his fallen comrades reveals the hegemonic nature of the revolutionary discourse of nation-building and the honor system that valorizes it. In the movie, heroism is not voluntary nor is it within the individual’s agency as portrayed in socialist literature. The state controls public memories of heroism and sacrifice, monopolizing the power for defining and conferring the honor. Ultimately, this article will prove that the film is as much a confirmation of the revolutionary nation-building as a poignant critique and subversion of the official vision of honor and history.
Due to their importance to modern nation-building, Chinese war-related films have attracted much attention from Chinese scholars and film historians. Although scholarship on Chinese cinema in English has grown in the past twenty years, war-related films and the cultural imagination of war engendered by the socialist cinema is yet to be explored in much detail. Similarly, though quite a number of studies are devoted to Feng Xiaogang’s success in making entertainment-oriented crowd pleasers for China’s changing film market, The Assembly, Feng’s first war film, has not received much critical attention among Western scholars. The socialist imagination of war and armed struggle on screen has long had a symbiotic relationship to PRC state formation and the creation of a Communist vision among the populace. The following discussion of Feng’s epic war spectacle may help initiate an investigation of the evolving imagination of war in modern and contemporary China.
The Assembly (2007) tells the story of heroic sacrifice made by a company of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during the civil war in 1948 and the herculean efforts by Captain Gu Zidi to win the title of revolutionary martyr for his fallen comrades. Enraged by the loss of his soldiers in a battle with KMT troops, Gu refuses to acknowledge the surrender of the enemy, causing the death of a KMT officer. He is disciplined after the battle and the company with its forty-seven survivors is dispatched to hold off the enemy’s advance at the Wenhe River to gain time for the retreat of other CCP troops. Gu and his men are given a specific order to only withdraw when they hear the bugle call to regroup. The call is not heard, and Gu and his soldiers fight to the bitter end. Gu alone survives. Upon returning to the Wenhe battle site after being discharged after the Korean War, Gu finds out that his fallen soldiers are listed as ‘missing in action’ rather than as ‘revolutionary martyrs’ because their bodies were never recovered. Intense bombardment during the Wenhe battle has collapsed the mine shaft where Gu has hid the soldiers’ bodies. Regrouping of the troops after the battle also makes it hard for him to find the whereabouts of his regiment. Feeling responsible for the deaths of his soldiers, Gu sets out to track down his former regiment commander for him to prove that his soldiers died in action. Gu finally locates the bugler of his former regiment, Xiao Liang, and learns that his commander, who has since died, had decided not to sound the bugle; Gu’s company was to be sacrificed to ensure the safe withdrawal of other soldiers. With official confirmation that the soldiers did fight to death in the battle, Gu’s soldiers are finally honored as revolutionary martyrs at a military ceremony ten years after their death.
The Assembly premiered on 19 December 2007 and ran for 75 days after its release, the longest first engagement to date for a domestic film, grossing 250 million RMB, among the highest of New Year films at the time. Several factors are behind the popularity of the film. It is one of a string of Chinese blockbusters that successfully competed with the Hollywood imports in the domestic market in the first decade of the new century. With the help of a South Korean technical crew and state-of-the-art technology, Feng let his Chinese audience view a blockbuster combat experience never before seen in Chinese cinema. But the attraction of The Assembly does not reside only in its visual appeals. The revolutionary war theme and the happy ending have won official approval. China’s national broadcaster, China Central Television, covered the film in its primetime Headline News on 21 December 2007. Many audiences, however, read something else into the film. Although the revolutionary war film—a popular genre in Chinese cinema—has been revamped in the post-Mao era with more realistic and humanistic portrayals, viewers found the handling of the individual sacrifice in The Assembly captivating. The depiction of the deception and betrayal by the cause for which the soldiers were fighting exposed a little-discussed aspect of PRC revolutionary history. Whether intentional or not, the conclusion drawn by many viewers was that the Party organization cannot be trusted—using history to echo the public’s frustration and disgust with wide-spread official corruption in contemporary times. The Assembly thus succeeded in appealing to a variety of audiences: the war spectacles attracted those who enjoyed blockbuster sensations; the portrayal of the revolutionary war was taken to be a confirmation of the official ideology by the state authorities; and the twist in plot echoed public disillusionment with the Party’s governance.
Before this article tackles Feng’s vision, a brief discussion of how ‘war film’ is defined in Hollywood and in the mainland cinema is in order. In Western scholarship ‘war film’ is used loosely to refer to movies portraying various aspects of war—everything from military battles abroad, to espionage, and war efforts on the home-front. The term ‘combat film’ has been adopted by film scholars to distinguish war film as a specific genre from other genres which may contain war themes such as comedy, melodrama, spy films, and suspense. The combat film ‘depict[s] the activities of uniformed American military forces with uniformed enemy forces’ in actual battles. WWII combat films, the archetype of this genre, helped set the patterns for later war films that are often discussed by critics in historical cycles. The discourse of genre is different in Chinese scholarship. ‘Combat film,’ which can be translated as zhandou pian, is not treated as a specific genre on its own. It is embedded in war and war-related films, zhanzhengpian, by Chinese film historians and critics. But zhanzhengpian, ‘war film,’ itself seems an elusive label and categorized differently by Chinese scholars. In her study of Chinese film genres, Wu Qiong puts war film under ‘revolutionary historical film’ (geming lishipian), identifying revolutionary hero narratives and war films as the most important components of ‘revolutionary historical film’ because of their role in producing ‘a fundamental founding myth of the new China.’ In Dangdai Zhongguo dianying fazhanshi (History of the development of contemporary Chinese cinema), developed as a standard college textbook, war film is classified under ‘military theme film’ (junshi dianying). The authors define ‘military theme film’ as ‘pan-military theme film’ (fan junshi dianying) that covers all aspects related to activities of the People’s Liberation Army, including but not limited to the ‘pure combat film’ in Hollywood genres. Clearly, ‘Revolutionary historical film’ and ‘military theme film’ are both much broader in scope than the ‘combat film,’ or even the loosely used term ‘war film’ in Western scholarship. The former features practically everything about the Communist revolution before the founding of the PRC, whether it involves military activities or not. Though related with the army, ‘military theme film’ as discussed by the authors does not have to have a wartime setting. As long as a film focuses on the military (wartime or not), militia activities, and even civilians whose work and life is associated with the revolutionary army, it can be classified as a ‘military theme film.’ A major difference between ‘revolutionary historical film’ and ‘military theme film’ is that ‘revolutionary historical film’ is about the pre-PRC era while the latter covers both the past and present.
Huangfu Yichuan takes a third approach in his book, Zhongguo zhanzheng dianyingshi (History of Chinese war films). As the book title suggests, wartime setting is the primary criterion for defining ‘war film.’ Huangfu’s inventory includes all films going back to the 1930s whose plot is set in the war. Whether the films have anything to do with the military or actual battles or whether they are associated with the Communist revolution do not appear to be considerations for inclusion. In fact, the majority of the 1930s and 1940s films discussed by the author do not portray military activities; they focus instead on war’s impact on civilian lives.
Clearly, defining war film, and film genres for that matter, is a different business in Hollywood and Chinese cinema. Rick Altman’s study on film genre shows that the construction and naming of a genre is a complicated endeavor involving more than the study of textual properties and the production-distribution-consumption process that enables a film to be made, designated and accepted as a specific type. A fluid operation, the origin, development, and reception of a genre may be affected by many factors and players over time. Altman offers a particularly relevant insight into cases where film production receives financial support from the government. ‘In countries that provide financial support for film production, a list of authorized genres often appears on official documents.’ In this practice, ‘official genres are not only specifically identified, but also carefully defined by the government.’ The mainland cinema is such a case. In both the socialist and reform eras, the state has the power to set the priority and boundaries for film production through subsidies and censorship. In the socialist era, cultural productions (including movies) were under strict state control. Though policies loosened up to a certain extent and government funding has been reduced in the reform era, the state still has the final say in granting permits for production, distribution, and exhibition. The all-time favorite ‘official genre’ in the socialist cinema is no doubt the war film. Many of the first feature films made in the People’s Republic are directly about war, and the number of movies with battle scenes increased dramatically after 1949. Among the 600 or so feature films produced before the Cultural Revolution, a great many were devoted to various wars in modern Chinese history. As Yingjin Zhang argues, although artistically speaking the war film may be the most accomplished and popular genre in the 1950s and 1960s, ‘filmmakers were attracted to it in part because it offered them a comparatively safe subject matter in the increasingly repressive political environment.’ The fascination with armed struggle continued in the post-socialist era. Revolutionary epics, many of which had government financial support, appeared on both big and small screens in the post-Tiananmen patriotic campaign as a way to overcome doubts about the regime after the bloody crackdown of the June 4th movement. Since the late 1990s, TV dramas about Communist war veterans such as Lishi de tiankong (Sky of history, 2004) and Liang jian (Pulling the sword, 2005) came into vogue. New television adaptations of works of the Red Classics—a collection of literary and cinematic works featuring Communist armed struggle produced between 1949 and 1966—constituted another major source of war stories for public consumption. In recent years, television programming has been so saturated with TV dramas on the War of Resistance against Japan that the now State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), issued directives to curb excessive violence and unrealistic portrayals in such productions. Given that the armed struggle is a lynch pin in the official vision of history and the regime’s legitimacy, it is little wonder that Chinese scholars conflate war films with ‘revolutionary historical film’ and ‘military theme film.’ The significance of war film is recognized in the larger context of the Party’s prolonged armed struggle for power. The decision to include war film in these two categories is obviously driven, above other factors, by national politics and ideology.
The Cultural Imagination of War: Armed Struggle, Violence, and Hero Worship
The predominance of war-themed productions is a reflection of both modern Chinese history and the CCP’s approach to historiography. The repeated depictions of war created a socialist ‘imagination of war.’ Westwell explains the media’s role in constructing an imagination of war for the public:
[The cultural imagination of war] is shaped by a myriad of representations of war appearing in numerous contexts, ranging from television news broadcasts, newspaper articles, photojournalism and magazine features to film and television documentaries, comic books, novels, web pages, art exhibitions and war memorials. These representations provide the common ground upon which a collective, shared sense of war is worked out, articulated and sometimes contested.
Although digital media such as television and the internet were not available in the socialist era, the state used other tools to successfully instill a collective and ‘collected’ sense of war for the populace. While a comprehensive discussion of the fluid and complex cultural imagination of war is beyond the scope of this paper, highlighted below are a few features—the Communist reification of violence and armed struggle, and the attendant discourse of heroism and martyrdom—to pave way for a discussion of Feng Xiaogang’s revisionist vision.
Due to a lack of democratic tradition, the KMT and the CCP engaged each other in nearly two decades of violent struggle in their fight for power in the first half of the twentieth century. The Communist reasoning that defines violence as collective and political action of class struggle between the rich and poor, Stevan Harrel points out, ‘rule[s] out on theoretical grounds any other social divisions’ when motivations of violence in Chinese society ‘may have been more mixed and whose cleavages were more complex.’ The two interconnected narratives—the national humiliation narrative that stresses China’s mistreatment by foreign powers and the victor narrative that focuses on the Party’s role in leading the country to overcome victimhood— remain central in the CCP’s historiography. The victim-turned-victor rhetoric presents class struggle as cause and effect, giving the revolutionaries the license to use violence against their oppressors without feeling guilty. Over time, violence came to dominate not only the understanding of the past and future but it also became a way to organize political and social life in the PRC.
‘The cult of the red martyr’ and revolutionary heroism go hand in hand with the discourse of class struggle. In his study of the Red Cult Chang-tai Hung points out that the ‘cult of the red martyr’ started with Mao’s famous eulogy of Zhang Side in 1944 and became institutionalized after 1949. Mnemonic sites, such as museums and memorials, glorify martyrs and war heroes to ‘tell tales of glorious martial victories and tragic defeats that contribute to the narrating of the nation’s coming into being.’ Literature and art also help recycle stories of the Communist struggle, reminding people of their indebtedness to the fallen, and conveying to the readers desirable qualities and subject positions of the most ideal citizen. Though the CCP’s focus on heroes and martyrs is a continuation of the Confucian heritage which relies heavily on exemplary models and cautionary foils for effective governing, one key difference between the Communist discourse and the practices in the past is the degree of control exerted by the socialist state. In traditional China, popular heroes and martyrs did not always receive official endorsement during their times. In socialist China, those at the grassroots no longer enjoyed the pleasure of worshipping role models according to individual moral standards, at least not publicly. Revolutionary heroes and martyrs were chosen by the state to embody the proper Communist outlook and behaviors, and conferring the title of revolutionary heroes and martyrs remained the privilege of official organs at various levels. A coordinated and centrally planned act, material and non-material mnemonic projects were integrated into citizen training through formal education and a myriad of leisure activities. Synchronized national campaigns featuring the revolutionary heroes made sure that there was no distraction, and no confusion or divergent interpretations, turning the stories and names of revolutionary heroes and martyrs into household names and part of the cultural capital of every PRC citizen.
The models for pubic emulation are not limited to real people. Literature, cinema, and the visual arts also create a large contingent of fictional heroes and martyrs to demonstrate heroic behaviors in an array of situations. Granted that hero narratives had a long history in China, but Chinese intellectuals gradually lost the power to define the heroic figure after their own ideals in the socialist era, and the hero in revolutionary literature and art increasingly became an echo chamber of the Party’s ideology and propaganda. Individual circumstances may vary in revolutionary stories, but there is seldom any moral ambiguity. The heroes and martyrs, both men and women, usually share some common characteristics—for example, impeccable class background, profound hatred for the class enemy, indomitable fighting spirit, physical strength, resourcefulness, and total dedication to the revolutionary cause. Underlined below are a few features most pertinent to the discussion of how The Assembly questioned the conventional hero narrative analyzed in the next section.
The first requirement that defines a true revolutionary hero is that the hero must suffer. Unbreakable under torture, the hero usually has an extremely high threshold for pain and mental distress. In fiction as well as material memory sites, suffering and death is romanticized and glorified. Second, suffering and death must be a willing choice. War heroes, peacetime model citizens, and martyrs demonstrate the same willingness to stand hardships and face death. The hero prioritizes the revolutionary cause in all situations, whether trivial or important. Sacrifice and heroism are highlighted, but rarely loss and bereavement. In Sheridan’s words, ‘The images used to portray heroes’ deaths extract all ugliness and transpose such events to the realms of ecstasy and glory.’ Third, the revolutionary discourse makes heroism within reach of the common people. Traditional stories of war and hero focus on army generals and extraordinary warriors who are endowed with natural abilities. The battlefield is ‘a place for display of magnificent equipment and the personal prowess of combating generals.’ Revolutionary literature, in contrast, privileges the common people who are usually peasants and peasants-turned-soldiers, placing the peasant at ‘the centre of the stage as a dramatic figure in his own right.’ Because the Communist hero is not naturally endowed with abilities, he or she must strive to be a hero, often through the crucible of armed struggle. Aspiration to heroism is a common narrative device in revolutionary literature. Fourth, the revolutionary heroes are very vocal in their devotion to the Communist cause. In his study of the promotion of PLA heroes in the 1960s, Sheridan identifies the use of diaries and second person eye-witness testimonies as an invention and key feature of the campaigns. The soul searching by the heroes in their own words in the diaries provides convincing personal examples, lending credence to the propaganda. For those who did not leave behind diaries, literature based on their deeds ensures that the reader/audience does not miss out. For example, in the novel Ouyang Hai zhi ge (Song of Ouyang Hai, 1966) based on the life of Ouyang Hai, a PLA hero promoted in the 1960s, the author details what Ouyang Hai might have thought, heard, seen, and said in the four seconds before he is hit by a train as he pushes a horse off the railway tracks to prevent a greater accident. The oration lasts three full pages. Improbability notwithstanding, the dramatization of the hero’s possible elaborate thoughts fulfills the propagandistic purpose for the benefit of the audience. Similarly, in stories of fictional heroes and martyrs ample narrative space is often given to the Communist fighters’ commitment to the revolution in direct speeches or letters left behind for their family. The voices of these revolutionary martyrs and heroes are loud and clear.
Curiously, although the presentations of martyrdom and heroism in the Communist struggle often involve acts of vengeance and violence, little direct brutality against the enemy’s body is displayed in the socialist cinema. The enemy usually dies in military conflicts rather than as a result of physical mishandling by the revolutionaries, who presumably do not resort to torture. In contrast, the revolutionary’s body is the object of abuse. In the film The Red Detachment of Women, the close-ups of the bruised body of the slave girl Qionghua and the blood-stained torso of the Communist hero Hong Changqing (before he is burned to death) maximize the visual impact of the enemy’s brutality for the audience. Scenes of torture are often enacted to suture viewers with the revolutionaries, invoking admiration for the heroes and hatred for the enemies. However, images of the direct impact on the body (always of the revolutionary) tend to be absent and is often inferred through the before and after views of violence. In combat scenes, death comes either very slowly while the hero engages in lengthy heroic remarks, or too quickly when the body simply falls after being hit by a bullet or explosive. Death is too neat to be real. The lack of realistic details can be attributed to both ideological and technical reasons. Ideologically, the ‘politics of looking good’ may have prevented revealing the revolutionary’s body in undignified postures or humiliating situations. The lack of technology is another key factor. The socialist cinema had neither the technology nor the imagination to simulate the destruction of the body perfected by Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan (1998). Though the post-Mao era introduced more sophisticated war films, directors still tend to adopt a humanistic approach and highlight realistic details such as individual emotions, personal relationships, or macro military strategies.
Quest for Truth: Rethinking the Combat Experience and Honor
The rather muted image of violence and war was to change dramatically when The Assembly came along in 2007. Unlike previous war films, The Assembly succeeds in capturing the true dimensions of war by presenting the audience with a new visual experience thereby reshaping their sense of combat, taking realism to a whole new level. None of the post-Mao war films can compare when it comes to showing what war does to the human body. The opening sequence—about ten minutes devoted exclusively to the siege of a KMT holdout by Captain Gu Zidi and his soldiers—lands the audience in the midst of a battle, compelling the viewer to face the horror of war. The battle sequence is brutal and unremitting, bringing the experience of combat to the forefront. Skillful use of lighting, color, sound tracks, camera movements, shots and editing captures the full impact of war as a corporal experience. The opening sequence is primarily comprised of close-up and medium shots of PLA soldiers in battle captured with handheld cameras with shaky movements that simulate the disorientation and confusion of the battleground. Point of view shots from the perspective of PLA soldiers and the absence of non-diegetic sounds in many scenes force the viewer to identify with the soldiers both visually and aurally. The strategic use of silence creates intense suspense, which is broken by burst of action and an adroit combination of diegetic and non-diegetic soundtracks. Low key lighting, desaturated color, and fast cutting all work together to intensify the combat experience.
The corporality of combat is also achieved by graphic depictions of death and injury. Flying body parts and the splashing of blood and blood-soiled earth after an explosion are quite common in the film’s two battle sequences. For example, a close-up in the opening sequence shows a bullet exploding on a KMT soldier’s wrist and ripping it off completely as the man is poised to throw a grenade. The camera then cuts to a shot of the severed hand and grenade traveling through the air and falling on the ground next to him. The Assembly achieves the same immersive filmmaking as Saving Private Ryan, but with a subversive force against the glorified image of the revolutionary war. Through realist details, the movie presents the war for what it is, showing the devastation in full scope without filtering it through a political lens and forcing the audience to see war on a human level. Soldiers are cut down by bullets on both sides. Death is indiscriminate, random, instant, and bloody. Ideology and slogans pale in front of a candid look at death as both physical and psychological experience. Westwell argues that the focus on psychological experience of individual trauma in Hollywood combat films leads to limited understanding of history. ‘This trope,’ he opines, ‘ensures that historical events are thoroughly psychologized thereby eliding the contradictions, ambiguities and difficulties of history,’ such as doubts about United States’ involvement in Vietnam and atrocities committed by American soldiers. The socialist imagination takes an opposite approach. Historical frameworks are never absent in revolutionary war narratives. Soldiers within the frame and the spectators outside of it are constantly reminded of the reasons they are fighting. The stress of class struggle and nation-building interprets war as collective trauma, displacing, sublimating and glorifying individual pain and loss. Instead of emphasizing psychological effect on those facing death in combat, the revolutionary narratives downplay war’s psychological damage to the individual. Fear is shameful and punishable by death, as the audience finds out from the story of the character Wang Jincun in The Assembly. Accused of being cowardly for urinating on himself, Wang, who was paralyzed by fear from lack of battle experience, is put in the detention center to be executed. In the Chinese context, by showing gruesome details of the destructive power of war and the ravaged human body, The Assembly rescues individual experience from history, beckoning the audience to reevaluate violence and destruction as a legitimate means for power.
In addition to critiquing the romanticized vision of war, The Assembly can also be read as a counter narrative to the revolutionary hero worship and martyrdom. Hero worship and martyrdom predicates on ‘the pleasure of being on the right side of destructive power as a result of being in allegiance with the ideology or worldview endorsed by the media.’ Such a pleasure rests on siding with the Communist nation-building based on a fundamental duality of ‘us’ against ‘them.’ This ideological pleasure is, however, frustrated by the second half of the film. The Assembly is part combat film, and part something else. If there is a sense of ‘us’ (revolutionary soldiers) against ‘them’ (KMT troops) in the combat scenes, the second half, a quest narrative, subverts the conventional binary. Despite intense battle spectacles, the film is as much about fighting as about a personal quest for honor. The second half of the film is a quest and investigative narrative rolled into one. The Wenhe battle fought by Captain Gu and his company is pivotal in weaving the two narratives together since the battle sets the quest in motion and the quest reveals the truth of the battle.
At the center of the quest/investigative narrative is recognizing PLA soldiers as martyrs and conferring the honor. The Assembly is adapted from a short story, ‘Lawsuit’ (Guansi), published by Yang Jinyuan in 2002 with added components. The opening battle sequence is new to the story. The combat scene should not be seen simply as an addition for the filmmaker to exhibit technical virtuosity for a spectacular combat action. It has thematic import. The opening scene shows the soldiers’ valor and courage under enemy fire and explains the circumstances of Gu’s violation of the rules of engagement. Gu’s serious misconduct in the heat of the battle contributes a personal significance to the quest in that it motivates him to redeem himself by completing a dangerous mission at the Wenhe River. The protagonist’s name is another difference between the movie and the story. The character Old Gu in the story acquires a more specific name, Gu Zidi, in the film. The epilog of the film reveals that Gu is found abandoned as a baby in a millet field and given the name Gu Zidi (literally, millet field). This is significant in several ways. Millet is considered coarse grain consumed by the poor in Northern China in the early twentieth century when the character grows up. The association between the character and millet points to his humble origin, making Gu the representative of the rank and file of the Communist revolution and a prime candidate to be made into a hero and his experience in the movie more ironic. In addition, Gu’s personal history makes it clear that ‘Gu’ is adopted as a surname out of convenience. Instead of delineating a family line, Gu Zidi’s name is a constant reminder of his abandonment and lack of family. The absence of kinship makes the PLA company more important to Gu; the revolutionary army replaces the missing family and void in his life. Most important, without a family to anchor his personal identity, being a PLA soldier becomes the most significant part of Gu’s life, perhaps his sole identity. Throughout the film the character never steps out of his role as a PLA soldier. Gu’s full identification with this identity is clear in the fact that he takes the disciplinary actions against him without any complaint and very willingly accepts the ill-fated assignment at the Wenhe River. Since a soldier’s identity is most closely tied with his military duty, Gu seeks redemption through being assigned and successfully completing a tough mission.
If self-redemption depends largely on personal efforts and resolve, the mission of winning official title of revolutionary martyr for the fallen soldiers is not so simple. Accomplishing it involves institutional forces much larger than the individual. Gu needs to prove that the soldiers died in combat and deserve the recognition. The stakes are high. When a soldier is defined missing, it leaves doubts in people’s minds about the actual causes and whereabouts of the person. The soldier could have died in combat, deserted, or been captured by the enemy. The uncertainty and stigma torment the families of the soldiers. The soldier Wang Jincun’s widow, Sun Guiqin, tearfully informs Gu that her mother-in-law ‘could not die holding her head high’ because her son was listed as missing and she was distressed by the rumor that her son was executed by the PLA as a criminal. Thus, whether a person is recognized as a revolutionary martyr has psychological and social consequences for his/her loved ones. The lack of the title ostracizes the soldiers’ family.
While it may seem that obtaining a hero or martyr status depends on the individual meeting the standard and performing the deeds, it is much more complex, as Gu finds out. To be listed as martyr, the person’s dead body must be officially matched with a name. In other words, the martyr title enters the person into public and official memory. But private and official memories are very much at tension in this case. In Gu’s private memory, the soldiers’ ultimate sacrifice for the nation is never a doubt since he witnessed the battle. Yet, official memory operates on a bureaucratic procedure of associating a name with a body. This tension is illustrated in the scene when Gu and Sun Guiqin visit a military cemetery. Struck by rows upon rows of blank grave markers, Gu mutters to himself, ‘Parents gave these youngsters names, how come they became nameless.’ This comment points to two identities: the personal identity given by the parents, and a public identity as a revolutionary soldier. In Communist martyrdom, these two identities must collapse into one, which means that the personal identity is meaningless unless subsumed under the public identity as its footnote. When a body needed for an official label is missing, thus, the person’s identity in private memory loses all its significance.
The tension between private and public memories exposes an unequal power structure. The forum of public honor, that of hero cult and martyrdom in particular, is a closely regulated, top-down system with the state in full control. Rather than emanating from individual or group preferences, the standard for public honors is formulated by the state, the sole arbiter for recognizing and conferring the honor on public platforms. The state retains two key powers, the power to determine the moral content of honor and the authority to allocate the prestige. A citizen can only become a candidate for honor and gain social and political capital—perhaps the most valuable capital in the socialist system—via official channels. The official endorsement creates an elevated and glorified elite group, motivating the citizens by modeling for them preferred patterns of thinking and behavior. While the symbolic values of the honor can reach beyond those recognized, the withholding of prestige is just as significant. The anguish felt by families of the dead proves that revolutionary martyrdom became engrained in public consciousness. In addition, the symbolic value of the honor is enforced by tangible material benefits, making the martyr status even more meaningful for the living. On his visit to the Wenhe region, Gu finds out at the food distribution center that the families of martyrs and those listed as missing are treated differently in the amount of grain they receive from the local government.
The public honor and material compensation are clearly important to the wellbeing of the loved ones of the fallen soldiers. But is it possible for the families to seek meaning elsewhere? No other options seem available. The state has full monopoly in assigning a fixed meaning to a soldier’s death through a prescribed framework. As Hung argues, when the red martyr is publicly commemorated in an orchestrated manner, ‘the voices of the bereaved, if they exist at all, remained faint and stereotypical. We know woefully little about the world of private experience.’ For the surviving families in the movie, it is a zero-sum game. The families’ confusion and agony show that strict official control over the definition of death makes it hard for the surviving families to develop a personal interpretation, let alone express it. Because of the soldiers’ uncertain status, the families cannot even grieve at the private level. The cult of the red martyr creates a hierarchy of memory, dominating both public and private perceptions of war and death, privileging official memory at the expense of individual meanings.
The powerlessness of the individual in the official system also manifests in the characters’ lack of voice, and this voicelessness is a critique of the articulate revolutionary hero populating the socialist gallery. Gu’s mission to have his fallen soldiers honored is in fact an attempt to gain them a voice in history. This lack of a voice starts even before the deadly battle at the Wenhe River. A man of few words, Gu Zidi seems reticent by nature. When censured for serious misconduct, he accepts the punishment without defending himself. If the lack of speech early in the film is by disposition and shows Gu’s remorse, the denial of a voice in the deadly assignment at the Wenhe River is by design. The willingness to suffer and die, a required component in the revolutionary heroism, is denied Gu and his men. Kept in the dark, they are unaware that their death is certain. Whether this sacrifice is necessary is not the point. Sacrificing small groups for the greater good is sometimes unavoidable in war, and being a soldier entails readiness to give one’s life. The real issue is that the soldiers are deprived of moral agency. They are denied a choice to choose self-sacrifice and an opportunity to meet the requisite of heroism. Moreover, Gu and his men are prevented from exercising their own judgment on when to retreat to minimize the loss. Ever since the Wenhe battle, Gu was consumed by a deep guilt because he thought due to his temporary hearing loss in the artillery barrage he somehow had missed the bugle call.
Besides questioning the conventional hero narrative on grounds of denied agency, The Assembly also subverts a generic pattern in war films common in both Hollywood and Chinese productions, the pattern of moving from disintegration to integration. In Hollywood WWII movies, disparate elements—individuals with disruptive tendencies, misfits, and soldiers with problematic attitudes and personality—gravitate towards the nation and are eventually integrated into the cause during a military mission. Collective needs bring social forces together, making people overlook differences in the interest of the nation, thus confirming the unity of the country and army at the time of war. While victory is achieved as a result of divisive forces working together, even defeat, critics argue, can signal unity and cohesion. Death marks physical disintegration but in the course of defeat, groups come together psychologically, reinforcing shared moral values and purpose. Chinese war narratives also contain individuals who overcome personal issues and character flaws to become heroes. Examples include Qionghua who learns to put the collective interest above her personal vendetta in The Red Detachment of Women (1962), the eponymous character Dong Cunrui in the film Dong Cunrui (1955), and Zhang Ga in Little Soldier Zhang Ga (1963). The Assembly seems to conform to this pattern toward integration, with an intriguing twist. There are three instances of disintegration in the film. Gu Zidi’s violation of the POW policy marks the beginning of disintegration for him and his company. Gu is put in the detention center and his soldiers are also reprimanded for fighting with other PLA units over equipment seized from the enemy. Wang Jincun, who is detained for showing fear in battle, embodies the opposite of revolutionary stoicism and courage. The annihilation of the company at the Wenhe battle is the final disintegration. The most obvious integration through death occurs at the end of the film when the 47 soldiers are finally conferred the title of martyrs and laid to rest. They won the honor they deserve and are integrated into the official record of nation-building.
When we examine the dynamics in the movement of disintegration towards integration, however, we cannot but be struck by the ironies, and this is where the ‘us revolutionary soldiers against them KMT enemies’ pattern common in revolutionary narratives is subverted. Gu Zidi is clearly responsible for his own disintegration when he disregards POW policies. Fully aware of his responsibilities for the wrongdoing, Gu accepts the dangerous assignment at the Wenhe River in an effort to reclaim honor as a Communist fighter. In other words, Gu’s readiness to take on the mission is a self-initiated move towards integration. Instead of facilitating this move, the act of nation-building embodied by his commanding officer who sends the soldiers into the Wenhe battle without full knowledge of their destiny only serves here to push Gu and his men, through deception, toward the final disintegration of death. In addition, Gu receives no official help in his attempt to recover the bodies of his fallen soldiers and has to fight the bureaucracy in his quest for honor on their behalf. While the Party organization is cast in an unfavorable light, brotherhood replaces the collective cause to be a source of strength, cohesion, and integration. A united group, the soldiers understand, trust, and are devoted to each other. It is the distress caused by the death of his company’s political instructor that makes Gu disregard the rule of engagement. Similarly, Jiao Dapeng lies about hearing the bugle call in the Wenhe battle out of personal concern for the survival of his fellow soldiers. Gu and Zhao Erdou, a PLA regiment commander Gu saves in the Korean War, build a lifelong bond based on personal loyalty.
The elevation of brotherhood as the moral anchor to displace revolutionary comradeship is clear in how the soldiers address each other in the film. Instead of adopting the conventional term ‘tongzhi’ (comrade) that prioritizes political allegiance and ideological cohesiveness, the term ‘dixiong’ (brother) highlighting kindred spirit, disposition and loyalty is used pointedly to underscore the fraternity shared by the soldiers. In the army, commanders would address soldiers as ‘tongzhi’ and never ‘dixiong.’ Abandoning ‘comrade’ for ‘brother’ is therefore a very noticeable and deliberate move. Accentuating loyal brotherhood among the soldiers in Gu’s speeches and plot development is to juxtapose the ideological comradeship with the tradition-oriented brotherhood in a meaningful comparison. The former turns out to be unreliable while the loyalty among Gu and his soldiers is touching, trustworthy and honorable.
Ultimately, the official discourse has the final say, and the disintegration—the death of the soldiers—is eventually turned into integration: the soldiers are given the title of revolutionary martyr at a formal ceremony at the site of the Wenhe battle at the end of the film. In front of a newly built grave where the bodies recovered from a collapsed mine in 1958 are buried, Liang, the bugler of Gu’s former regiment, blows the bugle, sounding the call ten years too late. In a medium shot, the camera cuts to Gu holding his head high, proud of a mission accomplished. A close-up follows showing a bugle placed against a snowy background. The camera then zooms out in a high angle shot of the top of the stone tomb marked with a red star, the symbol of the Communist revolution. A panning long shot of the snow-covered frozen Wenhe River ensues, reminding viewers of the soldiers’ sacrifice for the founding of the People’s Republic. The movie concludes with a flashback of Gu and his company marching past the camera into the deadly battle accompanied by a non-diegetic soundtrack of solemn music. The epilog, a typical device in war films, then informs the audience that Gu died in 1987 in the Wenhe Veteran Retirement Home at the age of 73, and that he had been found as a nameless orphan in a millet field. The closing sequence pays tribute to the fallen soldiers, recognizing their contribution to the new China. The red star, the military honor guards, and the ceremony all work together to heighten the power of revolutionary nation-building and its honor system. The soldiers’ identity is finally stabilized and set. The grant of the martyr title and the bugle call gather the dead souls under the revolutionary cause, legitimizing their death and locking the soldiers in public memory through official memorialization, allowing the soldiers to find an identity at last.
It is no exaggeration to say that war and the revolutionary imagination in which war in modern China is presented have been one of the most prominent features in PRC cultural production. While it is a state-sponsored operation encompassing many media forms, film has been a central player in the formation and distribution of this imagination. Through repeated cinematic presentations in the socialist and post-socialist eras, the revolutionary imagination has seeped into public consciousness and had profound influence in how the populace perceived war and its role in defining both collective and individual identities in modern China. The legacy of the revolutionary imagination can be seen in the familiar patterns in contemporary war narratives. Even though novel elements of intimate relationships, more nuanced and realistic characterization, historical accuracy, and plot twists generated more complicated and less formulaic war stories, the basic tenor and stereotypes of the revolutionary imagination remain. War is primarily seen through the lens of Communist-led nation-building that tends to downplay war’s devastating impact on personal lives and human nature. War heroics conform to conventional representations and continue to be lauded and measured against the backdrop of national crisis and revolutionary armed struggle.
Feng Xiaogang’s reconstruction of combat experience offers an alternative way to investigate the past, raising skepticism about the orthodox revolutionary imagination that has subsumed the individual experience of pain, anguish, and loss under the discourse of nation-building. The Assembly visualizes war in a spectacular way as a real physical and psychological ordeal, shifting the gravity of the imagination from the more abstract to the concrete. Imaging the destruction of the human being frame by frame in horrifying details, the film challenges the audience to look beyond the simplistic grand narrative to rethink what war does to humanity, how it is memorialized, and the outlook that led people to fight and kill in the name of ideology on both sides. The translation of warfare into individual reality of vulnerability and the suffering body returns the sublime to the existential. Making the subdued visible, the film defamiliarizes the idealized vision of armed conflict and sacrifice as a glorious collective struggle, compelling the viewer to transcend the established pattern to zoom in on the individual’s experience, thus adding a new layer to the standard imagination.
The protagonist’s quest fulfillment, on the other hand, raises poignant questions about the hero worship and honor system at the very heart of the revolutionary imagination. Although the revolutionary war stays as the historical framework in the film, there is a total absence of revolutionary slogans as the audience would have expected from a conventional war movie. Instead of touting the triumph of collective nation-building, the turn of events in the film problematizes the moral authority of the cause and the efficacy of the system. The hierarchy underlying the public remembrance and the mechanism of the honor system disempower the individual. Captain Gu claims repeatedly during his pursuit that his ‘brothers’ are treated unfairly. The state’s absolute authority over defining and allocating the prestige prioritizes bureaucracy and official memory over eye-witness accounts and private memory, subjecting the individual to a systematic control and making it impossible for a person to escape the apparatus. In the movie, Gu spends months digging into the mountain, trying desperately to find and recover the bodies of the fallen soldiers. For a film exploring a past burdened by an overriding official version, this act of digging can be read metaphorically. In ideologically synergized national stories, many pieces are missing. The Assembly is but one effort at plowing for untold truth beneath the surface of the history that is informed and buttressed by a deep-rooted revolutionary imagination of war.