A raw visceral cinematic experience. After defeating superior American forces at Lake Changjin at the start of the Korean War, Chinese soldiers must prevent their retreat – and the arrival of reinforcements – by blowing up the Watergate Bridge in a blizzard. The bitter winter conditions, making it impossible to see more than a few yards ahead as the troops cross a mountain, freeze their weapons, compass and radio batteries. The assault is uphill over exposed ground.
This is non-stop battle told from the perspective of the grunts. Exposition regarding characters is minimal. That first hour or so in most Hollywood war movies where little happens except to build tension between participants and explore romantic elements is eliminated here. It’s all battle, beginning, middle and end, with no respite, brutal, bloody, horrific. The Americans have tanks, flamethrowers and airpower, the Chinese don’t, so they are strafed, burned and blown up.
Setting aside politics and propaganda, and the questions of historical accuracy that haunt all war pictures, this is the most extraordinary on-the-ground combat as the Chinese seek to employ various strategies against another superior force, knowing U.S. reinforcements are on their way, and the defending Americans seek to suck them into a trap. The fighting is intense, sacrifice the order of the day.
Best performances are delivered by brothers Wu Qiangli (Wu Jing), commander of the seventh company, and the undisciplined Wu Wanli (Jackson Lee) who grows up during battle. While emotions are necessarily reined in, no time for showboating here, intensity of feelings are still revealed, several wordless scenes between disparate characters show everything with just the eyes. As with all war pictures, comradeship under fire is all that matters, the connections between the band of brothers no less applicable here than when William Shakespeare invented the phrase.
Like the best war films, strategy is vital. Here, the Chinese employ a variety of diversionary tactics while attempting to destroy key American positions, the HQ, the pump room. There are some brilliant battlefield observations. The Chinese work out the Americans have positioned their forces twenty meters apart because in between are their military supplies, so these are also targeted via mortar rounds. But basically it is scrapping for position inch by inch.
And this is not a film devoid of irony. Using captured American weapons, the Chinese, unable to read English, fire an ineffective piece of artillery against a tank. Seizing the HQ, the Chinese, unable to speak English, ask for the commanding office while the Americans, unable to speak Chinese and intent on surrender, respond they are unarmed, the matter resolved by an explosion. A flamethrower burning to death a wounded soldier melts the ice sufficiently for his companion to slide downhill to safety. And there are rare bursts of humour, one soldier preferring to chew “plastic” – captured chewing gum – in preference to beans so frozen they could chip your teeth.
This is as much a picture about the effect of war, and special effects show the impact of not just the destructive power but the energy imparted by exploding bombs, the part played in dismembering soldiers by the metal and stone of the defences, the flamethrowers that turn men from walking one minute to charred skeletons the next.
There are occasional cuts to the American high command, General Douglas Macarthur (James Filbird) attempts to persuade President Truman (Ben Z. Orenstein) to use the atom bomb. The Americans are not shown as idiots and there’s no upbraiding of their society and there is, among the carnage, at least one American hero in Bradley Bixler (Rudy van Gelderen). And there’s none of the bombastic or poetic influence of Apocalypse Now (1979) or The Thin Red Line (1998), no attempt to glamorize war, except of course that for the victors victory is always unforgettable. But the cost here is easily measured, the mortality rate enormous, at least two-thirds of the attackers died in the assault and in one company, out of 137 men involved, only one man was left standing.
I never saw the first film so I’ve no idea how this compares, but generally that movie got poor reviews, I guess as much to do with political stances as anything else. I suspect this picture will get as derisory a stack of reviews and, without taking sides, that would be unfair from a cinematic perspective because this is a wholly immersive encounter, with some brilliant action direction and stunning visuals in the main by Tsui Hark (The Taking of Tiger Mountain, 2104) with some assistance from the uncredited Kaige Chen (Farewell My Concubine, 1993) and Dante Lam (The Stool Pigeon, 2010).
This is what comes of being an inveterate moviegoer and on those weeks when you have seen virtually everything else worthwhile on offer and still want to go to a movie, you end up seeing anything. Usually, this turns out to be some bedraggled horror picture or a lame rom-com like Marry Me (2022) but occasionally it means that you stumble across something exceptional.