Chinese authorities may have abruptly yanked the $80 million patriotic war epic “The Eight Hundred” the day before its opening-night premiere at the Shanghai Intl. Film Festival because it didn’t portray rivals of the ruling Communist Party in a sufficiently negative light, local reports said.
Huayi Bros., which produced the film, had on Friday attributed the cancellation of the film’s Saturday evening premiere to “technical reasons.” That term has quickly become a euphemism for Chinese government interference.
But numerous Chinese-language reports speculate that the real cause might be gleaned from recent statements delivered by the China Red Culture Research Assn. The group of Communist Party-minded scholars and experts met in Beijing last Sunday and collectively deemed that “it would be very inappropriate to use ‘The Eight Hundred’ as a tribute to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China” this year, the group’s vice president, Hu Cheng, was quoted in numerous WeChat posts as saying.
The film tells the story of Chinese soldiers who defended a warehouse for four days in a 1937 incident during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Their operations were once praised by Mao Zedong himself as a “classic example of national revolution.”
Yet association members said the film mis-stepped in its portrayal of the rival Kuomintang Party, which ruled China until it lost the civil war against the Communists in 1949 and fled to Taiwan. The two parties continue to dispute their respective roles in fighting the Japanese.
In the most illuminating statement, the research association’s secretary general, Wang Benzhou, criticized the film by saying: “The class oppression within the ranks of the Kuomintang army, the misdeeds of its officers and its evil oppression of the people have disappeared without a trace, making it seem that the Kuomintang army was the real people’s army.”
He added: “The seriousness of the problem has gone far beyond the scope of literature and art; it is a reversal of history, and misleads the audience. If left unchecked, it will certainly deprive the entire Communist Party of its historical basis. Once the Party’s leadership is lost, the Chinese nation is bound to fall into the deep, miserable abyss of colonized and semi-colonized countries.”
Of particular concern was the epic’s climax, which apparently depicts a touching scene where the soldiers defend the Kuomintang flag on the warehouse roof. The film “shouldn’t so enthusiastically declare the ‘dignity’ and ‘sacredness’ of the Kuomintang flag. Whether or not it’s intentional, if we do that, we hurt the Chinese people, especially the soldiers who gave their lives to build the new China,” said group member Guo Songmin, a former air force lieutenant and film critic.
The upcoming 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic, in October, is of huge importance to the Communist Party, and is already being accompanied by heightened censorship and propaganda pushes. “They aren’t going to take chances this year, especially with the 70th coming up,” said Beijing-based historian Jeremiah Jenne. “Even things that seem relatively innocuous, or even beneficial, are going to get closer scrutiny, with the attitude being, ‘If there are any chances at all that it could backfire, let’s postpone it until a different time.’”
He added that “modern history in particular is a tricky minefield because it relates so closely to the party’s own history, mythology and legacy, so they tend to be more sensitive about that.”
While there is no hard evidence that the association’s opinions are the cause of the film’s canceled premiere, the group’s stance likely echoes that of the Party’s Propaganda Bureau, which since last year has taken over as China’s top film censorship authority, dictating what can be shown when.
“The Eight Hundred” was positioned as one of the summer’s major blockbusters, with a July 5 debut in both China and the U.S. and local media predictions of more than $215 million (RMB1.5 billion) at the box office. The sudden cancellation has raised concerns among online commentators that the film may not be allowed a theatrical release at all – even though the Chinese box office is currently suffering from a lack of strong local product, thanks to a severe production slowdown.
That would be a heavy blow to Huayi, which has already suffered multiple setbacks in the past year and incurred losses of $158 million (RMB1.09 billion).
The firm appears to have been caught totally unaware by the cancellation. On Friday, when the film was pulled, the company’s WeChat account went about business as usual, promoting it proudly as “an epic work that reflects the national spirit and extols our national heroes.”
On Thursday, the day before, Huayi co-chairman and co-founder Wang Zhongjun increased his personal stake in the company by buying an additional $14.4 million (RMB100 million) in shares.