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Art in War

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Death, destruction, famine, and despair make up a typical war movie, yet people are still drawn to it. The following flicks from the mainland could probably explain why.

For decades, wars of all shapes and sizes have been among the primary themes or backdrops for movies. That’s because an essential element of any screenplay is the conflict. It adds depth to the characters, builds up the action, and ties up one sequence to another until everything ultimately leads to the denouement of the story.

Why people are drawn to films depicting the horrors of battle is still somewhat a puzzle to many. Despite the mayhem that often comes with the plot, droves still come to see motion pictures, especially big-budget productions, built on bloodshed and strife. Oftentimes, graphic images of carnage are even thrown in for good measure.

Well, heroism could be one reason. Both Hollywood and the Chinese movie industry are replete with war flicks revolving around acts of bravery. And for many armchair war junkies, it’s the vicarious way to let out their inner Rambos or display courage under enemy fire.

Here are just some from China that have shocked, entertained, or raised national pride and morale.

Five Heroes on Langya Mountain (1958)
In 1958, August First Film Studio released Five Heroes on Langya Mountain (Langya shan wu zhuang shi). Directed by Shi Wenzhi, Five Heroes was based on a well-known true story in China during the Sino-Japanese War (1937– 1945). It was about five Communist soldiers who held their enemies at bay to cover the evacuation of the locals from the border area between Shanxi and Hebei provinces. When the gallant five ran out of bullets, they decided to jump off a cliff, rather than be captured. Three died, while the other two managed to hang on to a tree branch. The two, of course, became heroes; their tale was even used to promote patriotism.

Their story, however, was removed from primary and high school textbooks. This was shortly after Ge Zhenlin, the last survivor, died in 2005. A textbook editor from Shanghai explained that it was an excellent topic in the past, but new subjects about contemporary interests are needed in the present.

Tunnel War (1965)
Also known as Tunnel Warfare or Di dao zhan. It was about a small town that defended itself from the Japanese Army during the Sino-Japanese War by using a network of tunnels. The film was directed by Ren Xudong, and is considered as one of the first movies to tackle (What else?) the use of tunnels in war.

7-Man Army7-Man Army (1976)
As the title suggests, it was about seven Chinese soldiers who, for five days, held off 20,000 Japanese troops and 50 tanks sent out to overrun an outpost along the Great Wall.

Chang Cheh, regarded as the Godfather of Hong Kong cinema, was at the helm of this production.

Cheh directed over 100 films at the Shaw Brothers Studio, the largest producer of HK movies. He also directed 1967’s One-Armed Swordsman, the first HK film to gross HK$1 million (882,069 yuan).

Men behind the Sun (1987)
Men Behind the Sun was a true story about a prison camp, Manchu 731, where the Imperial Japanese Army carried out covert biological and chemical warfare research on Chinese and Soviet prisoners during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II. Critics say this 105-minute film, directed by Mou Tun Fei, is not for the queasy due to its gruesome torture scenes. Nonetheless, the movie has achieved cult status because of its shock value. It was also the first Hong Kong-made film to get a “III” rating, the equivalent of an NC-17 rating in the US.

Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre (1994)
This was another flick by Mou Tun Fei and his follow-up to Men Behind the Sun. Black Sun depicted the war atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army against the residents of Nanking during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The documentary-style production included a scene where a Japanese soldier stabbed a pregnant woman with a bayonet, ripping her belly open and impaling her unborn child.

Purple SunsetPurple Sunset (2001)
Set right after the atomic bomb was dropped in Nagasaki, Purple Sunset or Zi Ri was a critically-acclaimed film about a Russian soldier, a Japanese soldier, and a Chinese prisoner who went together on a dangerous journey across the border. In spite of the mistrust, the three—all survivors of a battle between Japanese and Soviet troops in Mongolia—gradually developed a friendship.

Directed by Xiaoning Feng, Purple was the final installment in a trilogy of an Eastern adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The movie won the Grand Jury Prix Award at the 2002 Beijing Student Film Festival, the Best Feature Award at the 2001 Hawaii International Film Festival, as well as a citation for outstanding technical achievement at the 2001 Huabiao Film Awards.

Battle of WitsBattle of Wits (2006)
This historical action-drama film was based on a popular Japanese manga and set during the Warring States Period (roughly between 500 BC and 221 BC). It starred Andy Lau as Ge Li, a military tactician who came to help protect the citizens of (fictional) Liang from the invading Zhao army. It had a pan-Asian cast such as Koreans Ahn Sung-ki and Choi Siwon, Taiwanese Nicky Wu, and, of course, Chinese actors namely Lau and Fan Bingbing. This film won for Lau the Best Actor plum at the 2007 Asian Film Awards, while director Chi Leung “Jacob” Cheung was named Best Director at the 2007 Golden Rooster Awards.

The AssemblyThe Assembly (2007)
Director Feng Xiaogang’s The Assembly or Jí jié hào took place in 1948, when the Communist People’s Liberation Army and the Kuomintang (KMT) forces were busy killing each other during the Chinese Civil War. Captain Gu Zidi (played by actor Zhang Hanyu) and his troops were sent to protect a mineral mine from the encroaching KMT Army. Gu’s forces were short on ammunition. Their enemies, on the other hand, had tanks and heavy artillery. Gu and his men were supposed to retreat at the sound of the bugle. But Gu’s hearing was severely damaged by the explosions around him. The captain then told his men that whoever heard the bugle could leave, while those who didn’t could stay behind. Moved by Gu’s courage, the soldiers stayed behind and fought to the death. Critics say it was China’s answer to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.

Red Cliff (2007)
This historical epic film was based on the Battle of the Red Cliffs, which happened during the end of the Han Dynasty (approximately 189 AD to 220 AD) and prior to the Three Kingdoms (between 220 AD and 280 AD). The movie depicts the clash between the allied forces of southern warlords Liu Bei and Sun Quan, and the northern warlord Cao Cao. It was directed by John Woo and, with an estimated budget of US$80 million (546.87 million yuan), is the most expensive Asian film so far. Red Cliff reportedly earned 108 million yuan (US$15.8 million) in its mainland debut last July. Its A-list cast included Tony Leung, Taiwanese supermodel Lin Chi-ling, and Japanese Takeshi Kaneshiro.

Print ed: 01/09


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