Battling at the box office

Russian movie proves big hit with Chinese audiences


Loves German: Yana Studilina’s role caused controversy in Russia

Henry V’s victory at the Battle of Agincourt took about three hours. Some four hundred years later the Duke of Wellington required seven more to smash Napoleon’s army at Waterloo. The battle of Gettysburg took longer: for three full days Confederates and Unionists fought in 1863. But in 1942 fighting of a considerably lengthier duration began on the banks of the Volga River. The battle lasted five months, one week and three days, killing more than 1.2 million soldiers and civilians.

Antony Beevor’s bestselling book on the subject is named after the city at the centre of the struggle: Stalingrad. This destructive clash of wills between Russian and German forces began at the midpoint of the Second World War and by late 1942 the city had become hell-on-earth, a place where children were shot for filling water bottles for the enemy. Both Stalin and Hitler gave orders that there would be no retreat, a demand that turned Stalingrad into a fight to the death and explains why a trailer for a new film depicting the struggle calls it “the greatest battle in history”. Ultimately, the defeat of Germany’s Sixth Army – Beevor believes the Third Reich lost about half a million men – ended Hitler’s dreams of complete domination. From that point on his generals were in defensive mode, rather than all-out attack.

The new $30 million 3D and IMAX version of Stalingrad is directed by Fedor Bondarchuk. A massive hit in Russia, what’s more surprising is how popular it’s proving in China too. According to Hollywood Reporter the movie was “the highest-grossing non-US foreign film in its first week of release”. The Chengdu Business Daily adds that Stalingrad was shown on 18,000 screens across China on its opening day, earning 23% of the box office takings in that 24-hour period.

Chinese media has been wrestling with why the film has been such a hit, particularly as Russian cinema hasn’t done well for decades. Indeed, the last offering to draw in the crowds was from the Soviet era: The Dawns Here Are Quiet, which was made in 1972. Like Stalingrad, the film also saw brave Russians (in this case a soldier called Sergeant Vaskov and five female anti-aircraft gunners) take on a unit of German invaders, also in 1942.

During the fifties and sixties, Chinese cinemas were full too of Soviet propaganda flicks – in keeping with China’s then junior role in the red alliance. Particularly well-viewed was Lenin in 1918, an ideological drama about the Russian civil war. For Chinese of a certain age group, one of its more utopian lines remains a familiar quote today: “There will be bread, there will be milk, there will be everything.”

The Beijing Daily also explains that quite a big chunk of the cinemagoers watching Stalingrad in recent weeks are from the older generation. It interviewed an 83 year-old who had just seen the film with his wife at the UME Anzhen Theatre but who also recalled seeing films like Destiny of a Man, made by Bondarchuk’s father Sergei.

Daytime crowds at the new film, the newspaper says, “are mostly middle-aged and senior audiences who are interested in Russian war films and have a relatively clear understanding of that period of history.”

The same cannot be said for younger audiences. A survey conducted by cinemas in 24 cities found that 34% had never heard of the Battle of Stalingrad. Ignorance was greatest among Chinese born after 1990, revealing the way the school curriculum has shifted.

Younger folk who flocked to the film in the evenings did so, it emerged, largely because they liked the special effects and violent war scenes. For example, near the beginning of the film there is a spectacular moment where Russian troops are rowing across the Volga to attack a German position. To halt their progress the Wehrmacht blows up a fuel dump. With suicidal bravery the Russians run through the flames, attacking German trenches in what the Hollywood Reporter describes as “a cruel but highly effective vision of self-sacrifice beyond all limits”.

But besides the gory violence, there is also a more redemptive love theme. A small group of Russian soldiers enjoy a platonic affair with an 18 year-old girl, couped up with them in a building modelled on ‘Pavlov’s House’ (a bomb-out apartment block famously defended by Sergeant Jakob Pavlov and his platoon for 58 days during the actual battle. They killed more Germans, writes Beevor, than the Wehrmacht lost in capturing Paris in 1940). A more controversial part of the plot – at least in Russia itself – is the role played by Yana Studilina who is involved in a doomed romance with a German officer.

That mix of atrocities, historical hatreds and love has drawn comparisons in China with Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War (see WiC135), a drama about the Japanese devastation of Nanjing.

However, Stalingrad is likely to be compared by Chinese historians less to Nanjing than with the Battle of Shanghai in 1937. It saw almost a million Chinese and Japanese troops fight for months in house-to-house battles too. But the Japanese eventually took the city and Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces retreated. For that reason – in spite of the huge loss of life – the Battle of Shanghai today lacks the fame of the later Russian episode, largely because the defenders retreated.

Could the success of Stalingrad mark the start of a new wave of Russian films screening in China? Bondarchuk is cognisant of the commercial potential, given the rapid growth in the Chinese box office. He told Beijing News that he considered casting Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-fat in Stalingrad to appeal more to audiences in China. But he said that he couldn’t afford Chow’s fee.

There are also signs of Chinese movies going the other way. Zhang Ziyi and Jackie Chan were recently guests of honour at a film festival in St Petersburg. This was designed to promote Chinese films to Russian audiences. During the one-week festival 10 films were shown including American Dreams in China, The Grandmaster and So Young.

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