The Eight Hundred is based on the Defense of the Sihang Warehouse during the Battle of Shanghai in October 1937.
In the Sihang Warehouse, located on the north bank of the Suzhou River, a small tributary of the Huangpu River which bisects the city, 423 soldiers of the National Revolutionary Army’s (NRA) 524th Regiment - known as the “800 Heroes” after the original troop roster - were vastly outnumbered against the surrounding Japanese forces. If Shanghai fell, all of China was at stake. On the river’s south bank was the International Settlement, where its residents and foreign correspondents witnessed the course of the battle.
An ardent lover of modern history, Guan has read about the siege since he was a teenager. “Initially the film came from my urge to tell stories about heroes. That fiery blood coursed through my mind. It thrilled me just to imagine them and their stories,” he told NewsChina.
The film centers on a ragtag group of green recruits and deserters who were scattered from their own units and later joined the remnants of an NRA regiment in the warehouse, from where they hoped to fend off the Japanese and buy time to retreat.
The director wanted to steer clear of stereotyped narratives that eulogize heroism. “We had no intention of telling a story with a particular hero or heroine. We intended to portray a group portrait from scattered perspectives and present a panorama of people in war,” Guan said.
Instead of the well-disciplined officers of the regular army, the film focuses on a group of flawed and frightened recruits. Young farmer Duan Wu (Ou Hao) and his teenage brother Xiao Hubei (Zhang Junyi) joined the army because they saw it as a chance to go to Shanghai and get a boat ticket to England. Lao Tie (Jiang Wu) was a gutless idler who would hide anywhere to protect himself in battle.
“The courageous, professional soldiers are portrayed as a contrast to the ragtag recruits. But I prefer to see how little by little, the battle brings out their pride in being human and being a man, and how they overcome their flaws, cowardice, selfishness and greed in the last hour,” Guan said.
But not all were willing to make that sacrifice. Old Abacus (Zhang Yi) is a calculating accountant who insists he is a civil servant, not a soldier. Though some working on the film suggested having this character heroically sacrifice his life at the last moment, Guan insisted that Old Abacus should escape and become a deserter.
“There’s no need to make everyone a hero. Characterization is supposed to accord with true human nature. The choices Old Abacus makes align with his character,” Guan said.
Guan was interested in the geography of the battle. As Sihang Warehouse and the International Settlement were on opposite banks of the Suzhou River, residents witnessed the soldiers battle from the south bank. Guan said they had a detached, “quasi-livestreaming” relationship with each other, and highlighted it in the film.
During the day, everyone from professors and students to casino owners and prostitutes in the International Settlement watched how the soldiers on the opposite bank fought against the Japanese forces. At night, the soldiers would gaze at the boisterous south bank. Ablaze in neon lights, people there would crowd into bars, restaurants, theaters and brothels.
As the battle intensified, some in the International Settlement gradually transformed from indifferent spectators to compassionate volunteers and attempted to support the soldiers in the warehouse.
“We intend to present a social panorama. People of different backgrounds in the south bank - the casino owner, the literati, the beggars, the Boy Scouts and the Belarusian prostitute - they all pay close attention to the battle’s progress,” Guan said.
The director further indicated that the film aims to build a bridge between the people of the past and today. “I hope the film delivers a message that if a lost battle can spark the awakening of a nation and spur people to struggle for progress, it doesn’t matter if it brought shame,” Guan told NewsChina.