China's $80M War Film 'The Eight Hundred' Cancels Release After Suspected Government Pressure

Courtesy of the Shanghai Film Festival
'The Eight Hundred'

The costly withdrawal comes after the highly anticipated movie was pulled from a prestigious slot as the Shanghai International Film Festival's opening title.

After a shocking late-hour withdrawal as the Shanghai International Film Festival's opening movie, the big-budget Chinese war epic The Eight Hundred has called off its nationwide theatrical release in China next week.

The film's producer, leading Chinese studio Huayi Brothers Media, put out a simple declarative statement on Tuesday, saying, “After consultation between the production team and other entities, The Eight Hundred will cancel its original July 5 premiere and temporarily vacate the summer release date window. The new release date will be announced at a later time.”

The statement offered no explanation for the reasons behind the change, but the ambitious movie's chances of hitting Chinese screens anytime soon had been in serious doubt ever since it was yanked on the eve of the Shanghai festi a little over a week ago.

The leading theory among local industry insiders is that The Eight Hundred offended influential Chinese Communist Party figures because it portrays a heroic chapter in the Sino-Japanese War in which the Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang) were the heroes, not Mao Zedong's Communist Party forces. Although the events in the film are based on real history — and remain a point of national pride in the country's war against Japan's imperial aggression — authorities are thought to have found the timing of the film politically repellent, given that the PRC will be celebrating the 70th anniversary of Mao's triumph over the Kuomintang in October of this year. (For more background on this, see here.)

Produced for more than $80 million, The Eight Hundred was one of the most anticipated films of the summer in China. The would-be blockbuster's apparent censorship continues a trend of increasingly aggressive action by Beijing's film regulators, as 2019 swiftly becomes the Chinese industry's most repressive year in recent memory.

The first indication that the rules governing Chinese content might be tightening came in February, when celebrated director Zhang Yimou was forced to withdraw his highly anticipated effort One Second from the Berlin International Film Festival. (For the backstory on that debacle, see here.) Then, a second film, the youth drama Better Days, also abruptly dropped out of Berlin under suspicion of censorship issues. Zhang's One Second has since remained unreleased and unseen by the public, while the team behind Better Days said on Monday that it was calling off plans for a theatrical opening in China on Thursday.

At the Cannes Film Festival in May, the Chinese crime drama Summer of Changsha managed to screen — but did so without the usual censorship approvals, which could result in dire consequences for its creative team. The film's director, Zu Feng, and his key cast didn't attend the Cannes premiere, instead issuing a vague statement citing “technical reasons” for their absence.

The scrapped theatrical release of The Eight Hundred could become the most costly cancellation to date, however. Helmed by respected Chinese director Guan Hu, the film was the first Chinese feature shot entirely on Imax cameras. It featured an all-star cast and was made with some notable Hollywood below-the-line support, including Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor Tim Crosbie (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and veteran action coordinator Glenn Boswell (The Matrix, The Hobbit).

Huayi Brothers' shares are down over 6 percent on the Shanghai stock exchange since the movie was pulled from the Shanghai fest — and further damage can be expected when the markets open in China on Wednesday. 

Some in the Chinese industry even hoped that The Eight Hundred might make a modest breakthrough internationally — still a rarity for Chinese blockbusters, despite their improving quality. The film sold briskly at the Cannes Film Market in May, including a deal for day-and-date theatrical releases in North America, Australia and New Zealand, courtesy of CMC Pictures.

A spokesperson for CMC said Tuesday that those theatrical release plans would be postponed in light of the pic's suspension in China.

"After consultation with the film parties, the release of the movie The Eight Hundred in North America, Australia and New Zealand will be synchronized [with China]," the statement said. "A new release slot will be announced at a later date."