'The Volunteers: To The War' review: an ode to the Chinese People's Volunteer Army
Published: Sep 27, 2023 09:54 PM
The premiere of the film The Volunteers: To The War is held on September 26, 2023 in Beijing. Photo: VCG

The premiere of the film The Volunteers: To The War is held on September 26, 2023 in Beijing. Photo: VCG

"Clear and solemn." These are the two words that came after I watched the film The Volunteers: To The War during a pre-screening in Beijing on Tuesday.

As one of the highlight films for the National Day holidays, the film is scheduled to hit Chinese theaters on Thursday to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the victory of the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea (1950-53).

The Volunteers: To The War is the first part of the "Volunteers" trilogy, and it mainly revolves around the first and second battles launched by the Chinese People's Volunteer Army in entering North Korea, showcasing the spirit as well as the indomitable will of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army.

The film immediately immerses the audience in a tense wartime atmosphere right from the opening scene. The storyline is clear, and the veteran director Chen Kaige uses a very straightforward approach to explain to the audience why we should resist the US aggression and what the significance of the war is. Then, the plot swiftly transitions into the depiction of the war.

When Chairman Mao Zedong said that "All the People with One Purpose Will Win," I gained a deeper understanding of the meaning behind this phrase in Sun Zi Bing Fa, or The Art of War. Compared to the American forces, we had no air force and no advanced tanks. From a statistical perspective, China did not have the advantages needed to win the war. However, when outstanding representatives of the Chinese people expressed their resolution and no fear of sacrifice to Chairman Mao, more leaders found the courage to make one final push.

Many analysts say that the simple summary of the victory in this war is "those who are not afraid of death defeated those who are afraid of death." I believe this film provides an excellent interpretation of that.

The words spoken by Marshal Peng Dehuai in the film - "Sacrifice is the price our generation must pay. If you don't pay, your sons will pay, your grandsons will pay. We, the people of this generation, covered in blood and mud, let us be the ones to pay" - brought tears to many viewers' eyes.

Although The Battle at Lake Changjin also focuses on the war, the emphasis is different. The Volunteers: To The War has grand scenes with panoramic visual effects that inspire and carry the distinctive aesthetic characteristics of director Chen himself.

Meanwhile, the handling and portrayal of emotions are more delicate than in The Battle at Lake Changjin. The film repeatedly portrays the scenes of Chinese heroes fighting to their last breath before sacrificing themselves, vividly expressing their spirit of fearlessness. I was touched that even when a person is covered in blood from being shot by enemy guns and cannons, missing limbs and arms, with the support of their willpower, they can still ignite a hand grenade, throw the last petrol can into an enemy tank, and shoot bullets at the enemy. This is the power of conviction or belief.

It's interesting that while watching the story unfold, you may not remember all the names of the characters that come one after another, but through their stories, you can clearly remember each person's appearance and personality. The tragic scene of the Battle of Songgufeng in the war, where only one soldier remains in one platoon, allows people to truly feel the cruelty of war and the hard-won peace. It makes one shudder to think that wars are still happening in the world today.

In addition, this film includes more stories from beyond the battlefield compared to The Battle at Lake Changjin. The most impressive part is the diplomat Wu Xiuquan's criticism of the US on behalf of China at the United Nations. They are truly the most admirable people in our hearts. The soldiers charge onto the battlefield without hesitation, fearlessly facing the enemy, while diplomatic efforts bring support from the Soviet Union. The alternating between open and covert lines of action makes this film even more complete.

In this film, I feel the dialogue between the old generation and our generation. A particularly memorable moment is Marshal Peng's monologue about why he encountered so many significant difficulties in his life. Whenever he felt overwhelmed by these hardships, he would also experience pain. But then he would think that some people may never encounter such difficulties in their entire lives, and these hardships are his own wealth, contributing to a better self. From the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1931-45) to the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea, the difficulties of these battles did not overwhelm Peng. Instead, they shaped him. No one dislikes peace and tranquility, but there are things that must be done. Precisely because they are difficult, they are worth doing, which has strongly caused empathy among us modern people.

What deeply impressed me about this film is that it uses cinematic aesthetics to authentically document a historical battle. That's why actors from the older generation, like Tang Guoqiang, were chosen to portray some important historical characters including Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and even foreign figures like Harry S. Truman. It shows the significance of this production.

The film has a runtime of three hours, but I resisted the urge to go to the restroom and watched the entire film while seated.

After the screening, director Chen Kaige recalled that during the filming of some particularly intense battle scenes, a gust of wind suddenly blew, intensifying the atmosphere on the battlefield. "At that moment, I looked up at the sky and truly felt as if the spirits of the heroes in heaven were watching how we were making this movie." This movie will go down in the annals of Chinese cinema history.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.