SHANGHAI — A war epic about a battered Chinese platoon’s heroic last stand against Japanese forces in 1930s Shanghai has smashed box office records and brought moviegoers flooding back to the country’s long-suffering cinemas.
“The Eight Hundred” grossed $83 million from Friday to Sunday and $116 million in total opening sales with the addition of last week’s sneak previews at select cinemas.
The $80 million blockbuster has already nabbed a plethora of firsts: It’s the first major Chinese film to hit the silver screen since movie theaters in the country reopened in July after being forced to stay closed for six months during the coronavirus pandemic. “The Eight Hundred” is also the first Chinese movie to be shot exclusively with Imax digital cameras, the first movie to gross over $100 million since “Sonic the Hedgehog” in February, the highest-ever earner for domestic sneak previews, and the biggest global launch of 2020 to date.
Based on historical events, the film is set in 1937, the year the Imperial Japanese Army launched a full-scale invasion of China from its occupied territory in the north. The plot centers around a ragtag group of green soldiers who, after being scattered in a Japanese incursion, join the remnants of a Chinese platoon that has taken refuge in a warehouse complex from which they hope to fend off the Japanese, buying time for the bulk of their army to retreat.
Initially branded deserters — and reluctant to face certain death when the memories of their normal lives as farmers, accountants, and other nonconfrontational professions are still fresh in their minds — the new recruits earn their fellow soldiers’ trust and begin to understand the imperative of their sacrificial resistance over four days of hellish fighting.
But war is a complex reality. The film provides compelling arguments both for and against violent resistance, and its characters are constantly struggling against the temptation to flee and possibly save themselves. “Behind every war is politics,” a Chinese commander says in one of the film’s many quotable one-liners.
A surreal dynamic of ‘The Eight Hundred” is that the desperate struggle takes place in full view of Shanghai’s foreign-controlled concession area just across the river from the warehouse — a dazzling wonderland of bright lights, music, theaters, and gambling from which foreign journalists, British soldiers, and local élites spectate the conflict. Initially morbidly curious observers, they are soon won over by the fervor of the besieged troops and eventually help raise donations for the war effort, deliver supplies, and secure the soldiers’ escape.
A map of Shanghai in 1913, published by The Commercial Press. From Kongfz.com
Unusually for a patriotic tentpole in China, the soldiers are not fighting on the side of the Communists, but rather on that of their sworn enemy, the Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalists.
Led by General Chiang Kai-shek, the KMT spent much of the 1930s trying to quash the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), until the two sides joined forces to fight the Imperial Japanese Army as it pillaged its way south. After Japan was ultimately defeated in 1945, however, the Communists and Nationalists fought a bitter civil war that claimed millions of lives and ended with the KMT fleeing to Taiwan and the CCP establishing the People’s Republic of China in 1949. For decades afterward, KMT soldiers and their descendants who remained on the Chinese mainland were often treated as second-class citizens.
During the film’s moving climax, Chinese soldiers are gunned down by a Japanese plane as they raise the flag of the Republic of China’s — a red-and-blue banner with a white sun in the corner that is still associated with Taiwan — over the warehouse in defiance of the invaders.
“The Eight Hundred” has been a huge hit with viewers, who praise its historical accuracy, gripping storytelling, inspired acting, eye-popping visual effects, and high production value. On ticketing app Maoyan, it has an average rating of 9.2 out of 10 based on 470,000 reviews.
The movie’s positive portrayal of the Nationalists has sparked wide discussion. From online comments, many viewers seem to regard the soldiers in the film as noble patriots, regardless of their colors, because they are willing to lay down their lives to defend the motherland.
“CCP or KMT, any Chinese soldier resisting Japan is good to me!” read one upvoted comment under a post about the film on microblogging site Weibo.
The bullet-riddled warehouse — a still-standing structure in Shanghai — was mobbed with visitors over the weekend. And on Monday, a touching article recounting how, in 2005, a group of Shanghai journalists had brought a survivor of the historical battle back to the warehouse where it took place, in fulfillment of the blind veteran’s decadeslong dream, went viral on social app WeChat.
Tourists visit the warehouse where much of the historical battle upon which “The Eight Hundred” is based took place, Shanghai, Aug. 23, 2020. Zhang Hengwei/CNS/People Visual
“A war of resistance is a war of resistance,” the article’s author wrote in boldface. “It was the Chinese people’s battle to save themselves from extinction. That’s a battle that extends beyond party boundaries.”
On review site Douban, however, “The Eight Hundred” is scored a less-impressive 7.8 out of 10, with many users expressing critical views about its ending. They also felt the long-hyped epic fell short of expectations for trying a little too hard to tug at the audience’s heartstrings.
“The Eight Hundred” had a rough time even securing a release. Having received the green light from China’s film regulator to premiere at the Shanghai International Film Festival in June 2019, the film was pulled mere days before the event “for technical reasons.”
Not until more than a year later, after a devastating pandemic and 13 minutes of content cuts, was “The Eight Hundred” finally pronounced fit for screening, with the added incentive of helping revitalize the country’s flatlining film industry.
Li Sijia, a culture and entertainment industry analyst at market research firm Analysys, told Sixth Tone that since the premiere of “The Eight Hundred” was announced on Aug. 2, two more major films have declared their launch dates, and the percentage of movie theaters open in China has risen from 70% to 87%.
“Judging by the box office figures and cinema opening rates, ‘The Eight Hundred’ has already made a very obvious contribution to the domestic movie industry,” Li said.
A GIF from the official trailer for “The Eight Hundred” shows a soldier leaping through a hole in a wall from a mortar shell. From Douban
Xu Jun, a film director, says “The Eight Hundred” is coaxing apprehensive audiences back into theaters. “People haven’t been willing to see movies in theaters because of the virus — after all, they’re dark, enclosed spaces,” Xu told Sixth Tone. “The industry needed such a great film — something powerful — to bring movie fans back to cinemas.”
In the town of Hengdian in the eastern Zhejiang province — think of Hollywood, if it were just endless old-world movie sets without the glitz and glamour — where Xu lives and works, film crews are being “worked to the bone” to meet production schedules. Compared with before the pandemic, the town’s depleted pool of extras are commanding premium rates, their daily earnings having surged from 100-200 yuan ($14-$29) a day to 700-800 yuan.
Investors will be willing to finance productions again after seeing, through the success of “The Eight Hundred,” the domestic film industry getting back on track, according to Xu. “Investors are going to think, ‘Hey, the film and TV industry is already doing OK,’ and they’ll do their utmost to invest in loads of films and make money,” he said. “It’s definitely a huge catalyst for the industry.”
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: A promotional image for the film “The Eight Hundred,” 2020. From Douban)