REVIEW: DVD Release: Axis Of War: Night Raid

Film: Axis Of War: Night Raid
Release date: 5th July 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 85 mins
Director: An Lan
Starring: Wang Yongming, He Dandan
Genre: War/Drama
Studio: Metrodome
Format: DVD
Country: China

Axis Of War: Night Raid, is the third part in a trilogy of recent releases, covering an incident in the Sino-Japanese war prior to WW2.

Axis Of War: Night Raid begins with one army led by Captain Chen and another led by Captain Gao fighting over which of them can use a train to travel. Gao wishes to go south to the front. Chen wants to go north where the Japanese have invaded but there is no fighting. Gao, a female photojournalist and later revealed as Captain Gao's sister, accuses Chen of cowardice. A Japanese plane attacks both armies and Gao gets the train.

Chen marches his men north, the Japanese planes a constant threat. Chen stumbles on their ‘nest’, but his radio transmitter has been damaged. He cannot receive or send orders. After an intelligence raid on the nest goes wrong, and one of his soldiers is killed, Chen decides to march on to his destination.

As they march, the planes cease to attack them. Chen is emboldened and turns back under cover of night. Both Captain Gao and his sister have returned home to a local village following their mothers death in a bombing raid. Gao has brought all the munitions from his army with him. Chen pleads with Gao's father to have the superior equipment for his attack on the airfield. The next evening, the attack on the well defended airfield begins…

In the 1970s, the Western World was dealing with Vietnam, and the propagandist war film all but disappeared from our screens. Cinema was always an effective propagandist, but such films have one purpose, patriotism. Art often falls by the wayside. Triumph Of The Will and Went The Day Well? Survive as standout examples of propaganda by outstanding artists, such as Hitchcock, and Pressburger got in on the act, too, but many films sank without trace. Post war films – Ice Cold In Alex, for example - were able to portray war without being exercises in patriotism. However, it's interesting to note where British war films draw the line between triumphalism and balance. There's a huge difference between a film such as Escape To Victory and Malick's The Thin Red Line.

Night Raid is a propaganda film. If not directly financed by Beijing, it certainly has no interest in portraying reality. Japanese pilots cackle to themselves evilly as they strafe Chinese soldiers. At one point a Japanese soldier armed with a Katana faces a Chinese soldier armed with a machete, and the Japanese Soldier drops dead from fear! Every Chinese death is mourned over with saddened faces and orchestral music. The Japanese receive no characterisation at all. Gao, the journalist, castigates everyone she thinks is a coward, until she discovers they are actually to attack, at which point she falls in love with everyone. The finale is an orgy of destruction as the Chinese suicidally throw themselves into the airport attack, making up for lack of training through guts and derring-do.

Supposedly a true story, when viewed through such an obvious prism, it's difficult to accept any of the events at face value. Did the Chinese really volunteer for the ‘Suicide Squad’ with smiles on their faces? Did Captain Chen really send home those who had family to support? Because we're having to question everything on screen as being viewed through rose tinted spectacles, it's practically impossible to engage with the film emotionally.

That's not to say that the Japanese empire was not a brutal one in war, or that the film is totally without merit. Wang Yongming, as Captain Chen, with his long suffering eyes and hangdog face carries the film singlehandedly, and deserves much better material to showcase his talents. But the propaganda element undermines the emotional truth the actors are doing their best to portray. However well they act, we never believe them, because the direction carries such blatant artificial distortion.

The final set piece attack on the airfield is painfully bad. Acted with enthusiasm, but it is obvious that the sets are small and cheap, and the poor special effects simply make no sense. When the entire base has been decimated, and most of the soldiers on both sides are dead, we are served with an explosion where dozens of soldiers appear from nowhere to be caught in the blast. It's not the low-cost special effects that ruin the film; it's the fact that no-one spent the effort to get the continuity or editing correct because, despite the best efforts of the actors, the production is cynical.

Propaganda films can be works of art in their own right, and there is nothing wrong with the Chinese wanting to celebrate their war heroes, but if a film must be propaganda, then talented artists are required in order to rise above the extreme limitations of the genre - directors and scriptwriters with a bit of subtlety, at least. This film is as subtle as being hit over the head with a brick.

Poorly made propaganda without any real artistry, as this is, has no merit whatsoever beyond its nationalistic ambitions. If this film serves any purpose outside of China it will simply be to provoke a desire to find an unbiased account of the last Sino-Japanese war. PE

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