Chen sees his follow-up to Yellow Earth as a metaphor for life in China today: the need to overcome personal frustrations and failings for the common good. It also works extremely well simply as a film about men under stress. Four hundred-odd volunteers, many of the fresh recruits still in their teens, come to a training camp for eight months of intensive drilling. Some of them will win places in China's National Day parade. The film focuses on four of the young squaddies and two of the officers, looking at the ways they bond and split apart, but also at their most intimate feelings; their sense of physical inadequacy, for instance, or their hypocrisy in presenting an exterior they know to be false. It's surprisingly humane and moving. As in Yellow Earth, Zhang Yimou's photography lifts the drama into another dimension; there are images here whose power and grace burn themselves into the mind.
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