A review of “The Eight Hundred”, a controversial film on the battle for Shanghai in 1937

For more than seven decades, the American, British and Russian film industries have given us one war movie after another representing the successes of their nations in the Second World War. Now that the Chinese film sector is such a powerhouse, it is understandable that it would want to get in on the act. The problem is that the (second) Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 presented no great victories for the Chinese – but it did involve at least one heroic defeat.

At the end of the three-month battle for Shanghai in 1937, Chinese troops made a last stand in the Sihang Warehouse between 26 October – 1 November. The six-storey concrete building was situated just across the Suzhou Creek in full view of the British-controlled International Settlement so, at the time, the conflict was in the world media.

This film of that battle is one of the most expensive to have come out of the Chinese film industry. It is reputed to have cost some $80M (although so far it has earned around $450M) and it is the first Asian movie to be shot entirely in IMAX. The work was co-written and directed by Guan Hu and the large cast is headed by Chun Du as the commander of the Chinese forces Xie Jinyuan.

It is a bombastic movie with little charactisation or subtlety, but it is an exciting work with excellent special effects (created by western companies). The event is to the Chinese what the Alamo was to the Americans or Dunkirk was to the British and it deserves a wider Western appreciation.

The “Eight Hundred” has many ironies. For a start, the number of Chinese troops involved was actually 452 (the 800 figure was a deliberate exaggeration to boost morale). Next, the Chinese 88th Division had been trained by the Germans since at this point there was no German/Japanese Axis.

Above all, the film has been produced at a time when the Chinese Communist Party is in tighter control of the nation than at any time since Mao, but no communist troops were involved in any part of the battle for Shanghai. Instead all the the Chinese soldiers in the conflict were members of the National Revolutionary Army (NRA) commanded by General Chiang Kai-Shek) who subsequently lost a civil war with Mao’s forces and fled to the island of Taiwan. So the flag raised on the top of the warehouse is the pre-communist Chinese flag that is now used by Taiwan.

It will be apparent, therefore, that this is a film that presents political complications for the Chinese Communist Party. Its release was delayed by a year and it was censored including a cut of 13 minutes, so its appearance and popularity are not universely welcomed in this totalitarian nation.

Having said that, all regimes like a herioc story and the Sihang Warehouse has long been restored with the inclusion of a museum on the battle (but, on my two visits to Shanghai, I was not even aware of the incident).

Link: the defence of the Sihang Warehouse click here


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