Review: Chinese soldiers face overwhelming odds in historical war blockbuster ‘Eight Hundred’

Chinese soldiers face overwhelming forces in "The Eight Hundred."
The story of China’s outnumbered soldiers who defended a key position against overwhelming Japanese forces during the Battle of Shanghai is told in “The Eight Hundred.”
(CMC Pictures)

The second-highest in worldwide box office sales of 2020 (yes, that’s like being the tallest in a room of short people), the Chinese war drama “The Eight Hundred” is the first Chinese feature to be shot entirely with Imax cameras. Unfortunately, because of limited venues during the pandemic, there are few places to see it locally to take in its full impact. But audiences will still get the idea.

And the idea is “fervent nationalism.” Or “fetishized martyrdom.” Most big-budget war movies wave a hankie at the notion that it’s a shame that humans die, etc., while splattering the screen with body parts as an anthem plays. Hollywood has certainly led the way in that genre: War is hell, but here’s some popcorn and a flag. “The Eight Hundred” is definitely of that genus.

It’s based on a 1937 event called the “Defense of Sihang Warehouse,” part of the Battle of Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The film is, of course, aimed at Chinese audiences who presumably know this history. American audiences will largely be wondering what is going on as Chinese troops in German helmets (helped at one point by allies literally covered by a giant Nazi flag) hold their ground between Japanese hordes and noncombatants in Shanghai’s “international concessions.” That said, the film’s debut was postponed for more than a year for political reasons involving its portrayal of events.


What the uninitiated need to know is the Chinese command decided to make a last stand in Shanghai at a fortified warehouse across the river from the concessions, where citizens and press of the Western powers were observing the fight. The likely suicidal defense would enable Chinese forces to redeploy elsewhere and potentially inspire foreign assistance. Not wanting to lose too many soldiers in the gesture, they deployed only about 450 soldiers to hold the warehouse as long as possible against thousands of Japanese. The Chinese commander, Lt. Col. Xie Jinyuan, said their strength was 800 to mislead the enemy.

Trailer for the Chinese historical war drama “The Eight Hundred.”

That’s a solid foundation for a story of heroism and sacrifice, and possible commentary on the worth of human life. Unfortunately, “Eight Hundred” skips over the whole character-development part, along with the logic of many choices and scenes. Whole threads are dropped (to be fair, this version is reportedly 13 minutes shorter than the original cut).

Rather than immersing us in the moment as, say, “Black Hawk Down” does with its unrelenting intensity, “Eight Hundred” has plenty of meandering downtime spread out among its massive cast of characters. Yet somehow, we don’t get to know any of these folks. The sort-of protagonists are a collection of deserters and draft-dodgers forced to aid with the defense. Presumably this is to show how even pacifists, cowards, et al would be inspired to lay down their lives on witnessing such bravery by their fellows. But here, they’re more types than actual people.

One of the signature sequences involves raising a flag in a Pyrrhic gesture everyone knows will cost many lives; they do it anyway, and it does. That’s meant to be stirring. In a bombed-out warehouse full of debris, when defenders drop explosives on Japanese soldiers, they turn themselves into suicide bombers rather than simply tying their explosives to the abundant detritus. This, too, is played for cheers. Oh, and there’s repeated use of “Londonderry Air” (“Danny Boy”) for some reason.

“The Eight Hundred” fetishizes martyrdom, but for those seeking big-screen, epic violence, it’s pretty much the only game in town.

'The Eight Hundred'

In Mandarin with English subtitles.
Not rated (Pervasive bloody war violence, strong language in captions)
Running time: 2 hours, 29 minutes
Playing: Vineland Drive-in, city of Industry, and theaters throughout Orange County and the Southland. As of Sept. 18, adding venues including the Regal La Habra, Regal Garden Grove and others.