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Assembly moves audiences to tears, reaps windfall
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Instead of a conventional happy holiday theme, this year's offering from director Feng Xiaogang is a sorrowful tale of war that offers a rare insight into the minds of obscure common soldiers -- the kind of men who can end up in anonymous graves.

The Assembly, by bankable director Feng, was a box office hit at the end of its first week. The film, released nationwide last Thursday,  has surpassed the 100 million Chinese yuan (US$14 million) mark at the box office, according to its distributor, Huayi Brothers, surpassing the take of last year's holiday release, also by Feng, A World Without Thieves.

Assembly features real gun battles, a huge contrast with the usual depictions of war heroes, mostly generals or senior commanders, as almost superhuman or at least as brilliant strategists.

Feng's film is a human drama about a soldier of a People's Liberation Army unit during the civil war between the Communists and the Kuomintang (KMT), or the Nationalists, in the 1940s. The soldier, once a company commander, devotes his life to redeeming the honor of fellow soldiers who are declared missing in action.

The director said the film did not hide soldiers' fears about battle and death. It enlivened all the characters by truly reflecting soldiers' weakness and fear on the battlefield.

"It's normal to fear death, and not to fear is abnormal," Feng said.

The 80 million yuan (US$11 million) film is a departure from Feng's caustic, darkly humorous tone in his previous new year's pieces. It has greatly moved filmgoers, many of whom left the theaters in tears.

A post on China's major portal website compared Assembly with several modern war epics including the US film Saving Private Ryan.

"It's China's own modern war blockbuster, also in terms of techniques, which is much more meaningful than some exuberant ancient costume TV plays and kung fu movies," it says, adding that society today needed to look back on the cruelty of wars in order to cherish modern life and peace.

One of the most famous directors in China, Feng did not feature any of China's A-list actors in his low-budget film. The director said, with a humorous touch, that he himself was the biggest star. "That's enough."

According to Feng, Assembly wants to release an "utmost sincerity" to "make a really good movie for the audience" and that effect would not have been achieved with cinematic heavyweights.

In comparison, Warlords, another war epic set in the 1870s, features Chinese action star Jet Li, Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau, heart-throb actor Takeshi Kaneshiro and Beijing-based actress/director Xu Jinglei.

The annual year-end movie war broke out in China last month when Ang Lee's award-winning film Lust, Caution was released on the mainland. But a tougher competition started last week when Assembly and Warlords, among others, became rivals for filmgoers' affection and ticket money.

Even so, Assembly was "neck-and-neck" with Warlords in terms of box office on their respective opening days, although only half the country's screens were available for Assembly whereas Warlords occupied all China's screens on its first day, according to the Huayi Brothers.

The box office receipts showed that a small-name cast could generate large-scale sales. Chen Xiaoyun, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, said that "the pathos of the movie had an attraction especially in a era full of rampant consumerism."

China Central Television (CCTV) ran an "unprecedentedly long" news item on the film the day after its release, introducing Assembly and interviewing audiences and cinema managers.

The piece ran 69 seconds on CCTV's prime-time news program, which is China's most-watched TV show. It was believed that state TV had never before run such a long movie news item.

Zhou Zurong, a website columnist, said the movie had achieved national influence and it was a legitimate news story.

Some netizens believe the high-profile appearance on state TV news had "elevated" the status of the film to a "principal-theme" one, a category advocated by China's cultural regulators. A movie of that kind usually reflects "social progress and era spirit" or depicts people's value system.

Rao Shuguang, with the China Film Art Research Center, said Assembly was a mainstream blockbuster "in a real sense", which could point to a direction for the development of Chinese movies.

Feng's previous large box office successes were films such as Big Shot's Funeral, Cell Phone and The Banquet.

(Xinhua News Agency December 27, 2007)

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