The Shanghai International Film Festival is the most prominent event of its kind in China. A-list celebrities tread the red carpet to celebrate the opening of the week-long festival every year. Amanda Seyfried added some Hollywood star power to the event this year, which runs till June 25. Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 2014, is presiding over the jury that decides the winners.
But on the eve of the festival’s kick-off, its opening movie The Eight Hundred was abruptly cancelled. Hailed as China’s answer to 300 or Dunkirk, the widely anticipated war epic was pulled due to unspecified “technical reasons,” which is often a euphemism for censorship problems.
The authorities have withdrawn productions from other film festivals in the past. Zhang Yimou’s One Second (set during the Cultural Revolution) was withdrawn from the Berlin Film Festival as recently as February because of the same “technical reasons”.
Speculation as to why The Eight Hundred was pulled was intense online. Some cynics believed that it was simply a marketing ploy by Huayi Brothers, the studio behind the war epic.
“Let’s take a look: I Am Not Madame Bovary  was postponed but when it was finally released, the censors didn’t change one thing. Youth also missed its scheduled premiere date and Feng Xiaogang [the director] admitted that not one scene was cut. So do you think that The Eight Hundred was pulled because of censorship?” one critic queried.
Huayi Brothers has a lot riding on The Eight Hundred, which cost $80 million to make – a hefty sum by Chinese standards. The Shenzhen-listed studio desperately needs a hit to resuscitate its business following a 82% dive in its share price over the past four years. “Everyone knows that Huayi Brothers has been struggling since last year. There has never been a film like The Eight Hundred that could make or break a studio. The film will either bring ‘coal in the winter’, or ‘add hail to snow’,” one financial blogger wrote on Jinri Toutiao.
Others reckoned that Huayi Brothers postponed the release on purpose to avoid competing with Hollywood blockbusters like Spider-Man: Far From Home and the remake of The Lion King in the first two weeks of July, although The Eight Hundred looks a perfect fit for a release window that typically suits blockbusters.
The war movie centres on the true story of how a few hundred Chinese soldiers and civilians defended a warehouse in 1937 against waves of Japanese troops over four days and nights during the Battle of Shanghai – a brave last stand that enabled other military divisions and civilians to safely retreat.
On the surface the story of heroic sacrifice it embodies ought to be in keeping with the message Beijing wants to promote this year to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Probe deeper, however, and some think the film’s glorifying of a political rival is Beijing’s real reason for postponing its premiere.
That entity is Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) which ruled China until 1949, the year it lost the civil war to the Communist Party of China (CPC) and decamped to the island of Taiwan. Since 1949 the two parties have disputed their respective contributions to fighting the Japanese between 1937 and 1945. In this specific case Western historians view the Battle of Shanghai as a seminal event for Chiang. In this bloody three-month fight the KMT leader chose to sacrifice his elite units – such as the 87th and 88th Divisions – for a bigger strategic cause. (By contrast Communist leader Mao Zedong doesn’t get a single mention in the chapter about the Battle of Shanghai in Rana Mitter’s 2014 book China’s War with Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival.)
However, the CPC’s post-1949 narrative on the KMT’s wartime efforts has focused on the venality of its commanders – at the expense of acknowledging any bravery. So The Eight Hundred – a film by Beijing-born director Guan Hu who earlier made waves with his gangster flick Mr Six (see WiC308) – was always going to be controversial, particularly in the current climate where Chinese leader Xi Jinping has put an emphasis on adherence to the Party line.
“I think there is probably a problem with the screenplay. If it glorifies the heroism of the KMT, the film is doomed. But if it tells the story about how corrupt the senior leaders of the KMT were, the problem shouldn’t be too bad. It all depends on how the KMT gets portrayed,” one netizen pondered.
“I certainly hope that it shows how the troops sacrificed their lives while corrupt army officials amassed enormous wealth. If their idiocy, incompetence and corruption were not portrayed I demand that the film goes back to the cutting room. The filmmakers need to respect history,” another wrote.
Indeed, some industry professionals who were given an advanced screening have complained that The Eight Hundred lauded the KMT.
“The class oppression within the ranks of the KMT army, the misdeeds of its officers and its evil oppression of the people have disappeared without a trace, making it seem that the KMT army was the real people’s army,” Wang Benzhou, secretary general of the China Red Culture Research Association, lambasted. “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.”
Of course, the concept of ‘history’ here and its ‘reversal’ is not trifling, because so much propaganda effort has been invested in the heroism of Mao and his Red Army’s war against Japan, and how it led to the founding of the PRC.
According to Variety, of particular concern was the epic’s climax, which allegedly depicts a scene where the soldiers defend the Republic of China (RoC) flag – still the flag of Taiwan today – on the besieged warehouse roof. The film “shouldn’t so enthusiastically declare the ‘dignity’ and ‘sacredness’ of the RoC 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,” argued Guo Songmin, a former air force lieutenant and film critic.
Though anti-Japanese war dramas are a TV staple, their equivalent remain a rarity in Chinese cinemas. This is despite geopolitical tensions with its East Asian neighbour in recent years (see WiC286).
However, from a nadir in 2010 when the two nations disputed ownership of a group of islands, ties with Japan have improved. Some industry insiders believe the postponement of The Eight Hundred is related to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to Japan next week for the upcoming G20 meeting. It is also believed Xi could announce during his time in Osaka a subsequent (and very significant) ‘state visit’ to Tokyo as a means to further improve relations – although Kyodo News reported last month that Xi’s state visit could be pushed back to next year.
According to this version of events, Beijing decided to push back the release of the film to avoid anti-Japanese sentiment muddying any diplomatic messaging while he’s in Japan.
In fact, the government has been careful to avoid fanning too much patriotic fervour, even in the face of the escalating Sino-US trade and tech war.
And the nation’s state broadcaster has been doing its bit to steer the populace. On Thursday the movie channel CCTV6 was set to show Battle on Shangganling Mountain, a bloody flick that depicts the fight against the Americans during the Korean War. But shortly after a phone call between Xi and his American counterpart Donald Trump confirmed the pair would meet at the G20 meeting, CCTV6 swiftly changed its schedule. Instead Lover’s Grief Over the Yellow River was shown as the channel’s ‘Pick of the Day’. And what’s that movie about? It’s a love story that brings together an American servicemen and a Chinese woman from the Red Army during World War Two…
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