The Second Sino-Japanese War and how it evolved into the Pacific’s involvement in WWII has largely, criminally been left out of the history curriculum in the UK. Beyond Pearl Harbour, you would be forgiven for lacking awareness of the Chinese and Japanese conflict that inflicted one of the most devastating losses of life in modern history, with anywhere between 10 and 25 million deaths as a result of the fourteen-year war. The Eight Hundred, a war epic released in China during the COVID-19 pandemic, was the highest grossing movie at the global box office of 2020. It looks at a 5 day stretch of that fourteen-year conflict, in which a small, under-manned battalion of the Chinese army is all that stands between a full Japanese invasion of Shanghai.

Geography plays a massive role in the tension at the heart of The Eight Hundred. The striking imagery of the bustling normality of the Shanghai International Settlement (neutral ground controlled by western powers) quite literally across the river from the location of the battalion’s last stand, the Sihang Warehouse, is a constant reminder for the audience and the soldiers of how close and yet how far they are from safety. A young boy, aged only 13, is unwittingly stuck in the warehouse and spends most evenings looking across the river at the neon skyline, listening to the crowd noise, and lamenting his time stuck in a warzone. The proximity of the warehouse to the rest of Shanghai provides the local punters nightly free “entertainment” as they line the riverbank in droves watching the war unfold before their eyes. It’s a startling image that never fails to surprise, constantly shown in direct comparison with the devastation of the city on the warehouse’s side, a grey, death-ridden, barren land and the hustle and bustle of city life a mere bridge away.

Said bridge is the source of many of the film’s most thrilling sequences, particularly when the locals attempt to help the soldiers by running supplies across it, unsuccessfully dodging Japanese sniper fire en route. It’s here where the battle reaches a crossroads, the loss of life is no longer solely the soldiers who opted to sacrifice their lives for their nation, but to the locals said soldiers are sacrificing so much to protect. Heavily biased from the Chinese perspective (as expected), the eight hundred soldiers (a lie given to the media to imply more success than in reality) are reminded of their importance to the entire nation. Their last stand here is a moral boosting exercise as much as it is a defence of their city, encouraging the nation to believe they can come through the other side of the war with their country still intact. The Eight Hundred only dips its toes into the political intrigue around the war – major political developments are shown in textual information dumps – in favour of doubling down on the sacrifice the soldiers are making for their country.

The sacrifice, it must be said, is astonishing to behold. Despite its 149-minute runtime, there is an unrelenting tension throughout as the never-ending onslaught from the Japanese army could come at anytime of day and in any way, shape, or form. Barrages of gunfire from a distance, toxic gas, night-time raids are all given equally spectacular treatment by director, Guan Hu, and his cinematographer, Cao Yu. The brutality of each attack is given a very personal point of view, with most of its more brutal atrocities – a beheading, someone jumping on top of a grenade, or soldiers lining up with grenade vests leaping out of the warehouse into the enemy – are shown in the background behind its soldiers, focusing on the reaction such moments might elicit.

The camera, though, remains impressively active and involved throughout, almost as if it’s a solider of its own, peeking through cracks in the steadily deteriorating building at the on rushing, largely anonymous Japanese soldiers and its overwhelming power relative to the ragtag bunch of soldiers trapped in the warehouse. There’s a brilliant commitment to longer shots, running through the warehouse, between soldiers and their individual battles with army outside that effectively adds to the absolute chaos of the Sihang Warehouse.

The film’s standout sequence – an unbearably tense escape attempt through the sewers brutally interrupted by a night-time raid of the warehouse by the Japanese soldiers – is the film at its absolute best. Incredible camerawork highlighting some astonishing stunt work, sound design, and visual effects create one of the more impressive war sequences in recent years. The din of gunfire, the slicing of necks, and the howls of pain all amount to a brilliantly designed sequence on every level of filmmaking.

It is a shame, though, that the commitment to brilliant war filmmaking doesn’t extend to its characters. Guan Hu attempts to show so many of the soldiers in the warehouse throughout that a very, very select few make a lasting impact as a character. Du Chun’s Colonel Xie has arguably the most to do here, but his role is largely diminished until the final act, and an attempt at a double act between two characters whose running joke is calling each other a pussy is an effort to create levity that largely falls flat. Much of the best tension is created from the film’s visuals, the geography, and the very nature of it being an entire country’s last stand is enough to see you through to the film’s conclusion, but a few characters to engage with emotionally would not have gone amiss.

The Eight Hundred is a war film that set out to tell its story by not shying away from the brutality of it all. On that level, The Eight Hundred is an absolute success. You are rarely given a moment to breathe before the next astonishingly shot action sequence. There are moments here that reminded me of – and managed to even exceed them at times – the most intense moments in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and that is likely the highest praise a war film could hope to receive.

Rating: ★★★★

The Eight Hundred is available on DVD from 22nd March 2021 and Limited Edition Blu-ray (with alternative artwork and exclusive extras) and Digital platforms from 12th April 2021.