What can I say, I have been looking for years for film on Chinese history, which is just a good historical enactment of Chinese history, instead of overblown drama and this is it, this is the masterpiece of film making I was looking for; forget the hapless Bale movie which after solid start, ends up embodying everything wrong with Chinese film making, this movie has a plot, has a story and wants to tell them for what they are.
This is what makes this movie a masterpiece, it just lets the events speak for themselves.
-There is no overblown hero for us to get behind, just heroic acts -There is no demons made from men, just villainous acts done by real human characters and this is important, because unlike other films of this type, which really try to make those whom are 'in the wrong' more devil than man, thereby detracting from its actual impact upon our emotions, this film shows everyone is human and that makes the evils all more repugnant, because realise anyone can do anything given the position.
=The story is simply a telling of the plot, which is the Japanese invasion of Nanking. As I said, they do not throw anything in there, because when you have a plot as compelling as that, why dilute it? It starts with end of siege and follows from there to its conclusion. Sure, some snobs may refute such simple story telling very primitive, but to me it only adds to the overall feeling of the film, because once again, I say it lets the story speak for itself.
The effects are basic, but do the job of making film real enough to let you go with it and in many ways, again this adds to the film, because it does not make the Chinese soldiers into silly, cartoon martial arts masters and the Japanese soldiers in demons from a bad propaganda b-movie. It just makes them grunt soldiers. Even the one soldier who is slightly glamorised for Chinese viewers, is dealt with in a very self-defeatist manner and proud manner; warranting his existence.
The acting is great because though there is in my opinion, no central character, each actor really gives a sense of his characters personality without making him or her seem overblown or detracting from those around them.
The music is forgettable enough that does not make you feel trying to enforce emotions onto you, while still, subtle and strong enough to give the movie an atmospheric sense.
Finally, the tone is great, the joy of one side, flipped against the despair of another, only for this to flip again, concluding with both sides lamenting their unwanted positions. There are scenes in this film which will drop you completely, because you will not see them coming. Unlike most films which build up their dramatic tension, this film just goes like a real life car-crash at times by slamming the horror scenes into your face without warning. This is wonderfully summed up in the final scene, which is a mix of so many messages about hope and despair, that I am not even going to attempt to explain it.
-Though this does bring up the films main weakness, people who like things like Hotel Rwanda will love this film, but those whom found them too emotionally draining, may have similar problems here. This is not an easy watch, you are in for long ride.
So my distorted message concludes like this. If you ever wanted to see a Chinese film, where they take all good parts of their movie making, like atmosphere, emoted acting and deep plot-lines, without the spam of convoluted and unrequired love stories, martial arts which exist at the expense of story telling, woeful over top acting and emotional blackmail music, this is it, because it takes the best parts of Chinese movie making and removes the worst.