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After a prolonged period of semi-reopening and tepid ticket sales amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, China’s massive theatrical film market looks set to support a blockbuster.
The big-budget Chinese war epic The Eight Hundred, which opens Friday, has been generating rave word of mouth from a series of preview screenings throughout the week, sparking hopes in the Beijing film community that the country’s beleaguered cinema sector is finally ready for a comeback.
As of midday Thursday, The Eight Hundred had earned $27.6 million (RMB 191 million) from previews and presales, already crowning it China’s biggest release of 2020, data from box office tracker Artisan Gateway shows.
Social scores on leading ticketing apps also augur for a windfall. Viewers from previews have rated the film 9.3 out of 10 on ticketing platform Maoyan, 8/10 on Mtime, and 8/10 on the influential fan site Douban.
Analyst Rance Pow, president of Artisan Gateway, says he expects the film to open to as much as $72 million (RMB 500 million). Other local analysts have projected a total run of at least $200 million.
“The Eight Hundred has been highly anticipated in China and is potentially the kind of ‘must see’ film that the film industry needs to reconnect with the market’s giant movie-going audience,” says Pow.
Directed by Guan Hu (Mr. Six, 2015) and produced by leading private studio Huayi Brothers Media for over $80 million, The Eight Hundred is one of the most ambitious war films ever made in China. The movie centers on a pivotal episode of the Sino-Japanese war, the historic siege and defense of Shanghai’s Si Hang Warehouse in 1937. The brutal encounter marked the last stand of the Chinese forces in defending the country’s most cosmopolitan city from Japanese occupation. An unlikely band of soldiers, deserters and civilians — who collectively became known in legend as “the eight hundred heroes” — held out against waves of Japanese forces for four days, providing cover for the retreat of China’s principal forces who thus retreated west to protect the country’s heartland during the next phase of battle.
Some admiring local fans have already taken to calling the film “China’s Dunkirk,” because of both the shared theme of glory through sacrifice and the emphasis on grippingly realistic battlefield scenes. Like Dunkirk, The Eight Hundred was shot entirely on Imax cameras, a first for a Chinese film.
It features a sprawling ensemble cast — Ou Hao, Wang Qianyuan, Jiang Wu, Zhang Yi, Du Chun, Wei Chen, Tang Yixin, Li Chen, Liang Jing, Ethan Ruan, Liu Xiaoqing, Yao Chen, Zheng Kai and Huang Xiaoming — and also benefited from some notable below-the-line support from Hollywood, such as Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor Tim Crosbie (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and veteran action coordinator Glenn Boswell (The Matrix, The Hobbit).
If the film indeed recoups its budget and more, it will represent a big win — from a huge bet — by Huayi Brothers. Several major Chinese studios have begun to reschedule their biggest films for the fall — such as Huanxi Media and Peter Chan’s volleyball biopic Leap, releasing Sept. 30 — but no studio had yet hazarded the release of a valuable tentpole during the rocky cinema restart period that has been summer 2020.
Only on Aug. 14 were Chinese cinemas allowed to operate at 50 percent seating capacity — up from 30 percent — in accordance with local social distancing rules. The top earning title of the summer to date — which has seen only minor releases, or old product hit screens — was a 4K rerelease of Warner Bros’ Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
But The Eight Hundred‘s journey to screen has been nothing but turbulent, so executives at Huayi Bros. will likely be holding their breath until late into opening weekend. Expectations for the film were equally high more than one full year ago, when a prior version of The Eight Hundred was selected as the opening movie of the 2019 Shanghai International Film Festival. In an unprecedented late-hour surprise, the movie was abruptly pulled from the festival’s lineup on the eve of opening night — and its nationwide July theatrical release was scrapped shortly later.
According to inside accounts and local reports at the time, the film had offended the sensibilities of a panel of communist party scholars and former soldiers because it glorifies 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 memories of the war against Japan’s imperial aggression — authorities are thought to have found the timing of the film politically repellent, given that the PRC was set to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Mao’s triumph over the Kuomintang just weeks later in October 2019.
Over the ensuing months of late 2019 and early 2020, it was unclear whether Huayi Bros eventually would be able to release the film once the patriotic moment had blown over, or if the title was permanently imperiled. At a minimum, local insiders expected that regulators would demand some changes to the movie.According to accounts from local film fans this week on social media, The Eight Hundred has emerged from its second pass through the censorship approval process mostly — perhaps surprisingly — unscathed.
Chinese filmgoers who happened to catch preview screenings of both last year’s version of the film and the cut releasing Friday have detailed that the changes made to the movie are primarily cosmetic. During several sequences, the accounts say, the Kuomintang flag (now the Taiwanese flag) has been digitally scrubbed from the frame. Another brief scene involving a close-up of the flag, meanwhile, reportedly has been cut altogether. During the lead-up to The Eight Hundred‘s second attempt at release, Huayi Brothers executives have been single-mindedly emphasizing the company’s support for an industry-wide comeback.
Speaking at a forum hosted by the rescheduled Shanghai International Film Festival in late July, Huayi’s co-founder Wang Zhonglei emphasized that the company was taking a risk by releasing The Eight Hundred so early in the reboot period, but that it would be worth it to support the country’s ailing cinemas. “The best way to get people back in the theaters,” Wang said, “is to release movies with major market appeal.”
The Eight Hundred also opens in select U.S., Australian and New Zealand cities on Aug. 28. It releases in Malaysia on Sept. 3 and Singapore on Sept. 10.
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