Delayed by over a year for mysterious political reasons, epic Chinese war film “The Eight Hundred” has finally locked down a date for release in theaters.
It will open in conventional and Imax cinemas in China from Aug. 21, making it one of the first outings for a high-profile local film since Chinese cinemas hesitantly returned to operation in late July.
The $80 million film was produced by Huayi Brothers and is directed by Guan Hu (Mister Six”). It was also the first Chinese film to be entirely shot with Imax cameras.
Its story centers on the sacrifices made a ragtag group of Chinese soldiers in 1937 Shanghai as imperial Japanese troops advanced. Their operations were once praised by Mao Zedong himself as a “classic example of national revolution.” The theme would have appeared to have been in keeping with the patriotic message that the Beijing government wants to promulgate last year to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.
It was selected to play in the prestigious opening slot of the Shanghai International Film Festival, China’s only A-list festival, in June last year. But disaster struck when, with barely 24 hours to curtain up, the screening was canceled. The film’s commercial release on July 5 was called off shortly after.
Despite having been approved by censors in the normal fashion, and given clearance to play a state-backed festival, the film appeared to have fallen foul of other, previously unknown, political considerations. The incident revealed a new dimension to the censorship and approvals system.
A group of Communist Party scholars and experts, calling themselves the China Red Culture Research Association were shown an advanced copy of the movie and subsequently lobbied against it.
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.
The 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.”
While there is no hard evidence that the association’s opinions were the cause of the film’s canceled premiere, the group’s stance likely echoes that of the Party’s Propaganda Bureau, which since mid-2018 took over as China’s top film censorship authority, dictating what can be shown and when.
Numerous other films had abrupt reversals of fortune last year, as the Chinese film industry came to terms with its new master. Zhang Yimou’s Cultural Revolution drama “One Second” was abruptly pulled from its Berlin festival slot in February 2019, while youth drama “Better Days” was similarly ejected from Berlin, but later on went on to have a stellar theatrical career.
It appears that portrayals of Communist Party history are more sensitive than more contemporary topics, such as drug use and disaffection. “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’,” Beijing-based historian Jeremiah Jenne told Variety last year.
Although China’s political calendar is peppered with potential hot spots, last year was seen as especially sensitive as it was the 70th anniversary of Communist rule in the country. This year contains other important dates, but the coronavirus outbreak, its economic devastation, and the growing Cold War with the U.S. have changed the agenda.
The film industry has been harder hit by the COVID-19 fallout than most other business sectors and is desperate for help. Cinemas were closed from Jan. 23 until July 20, and some are still only now reopening their doors. To date most films released in Chinese theaters have been re-releases and a mix of small-scale local and international titles.
“ ’The Eight Hundred’ is the first Chinese-language tentpole to help the film market recover,” said a source close to Huayi.