Screened out

Seven films pulled over fears cinemas will empty due to the Wuhan virus


Gong Li plays Lang Ping, nicknamed the Iron Hammer, in Leap

As Wuhan’s coronavirus outbreak plunged the country into crisis, news emerged on Thursday that Leap, along with six other blockbusters scheduled to debut tomorrow – the first day of the Chinese New Year – have been preemptively pulled from cinemas.

The upcoming Lunar New Year festival was expected to produce a record box office haul that topped $1 billion, news portal Jiemian reported. Yet the outbreak had already kept cinemagoers at home this week.

Among the biggest Spring Festival draws was expected to be Detective Chinatown 3 which earlier in the week had generated presales of Rmb219 million in ticketing. The Tokyo-based sleuth movie – starring Wang Baoqiang as detective Tang Ren – was anticipated to match or better the success of its predecessor in the trilogy which had earned Rmb3.4 billion ($491 million) in 2015.

But in some ways the biggest loser from the delay could be the groundbreaking sports blockbuster Leap, a drama about China’s famed female volleyball team. Those venerated ladies defied all odds to become world champions for the first time in 1981. The volleyball squad’s never-say-die spirit proved a national inspiration – especially in an era when China was recovering from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. As such, a movie about these pioneering players was always going to be accompanied by high expectations.

Early indications are that Leap has made the grade. “This is an exceptionally moving movie. I’m weeping the whole time watching it,” commented a viewer who attended Leap’s recent preview in Nanjing.

Directed by Peter Chan from Hong Kong, the movie recounts the ups and downs of the Chinese team in three key tournaments, namely the first time it won the FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Cup (by beating Japan in 1981); its defeat to the US in the 2008 Beijing Olympics in front of a disappointed home crowd; and the uphill battle against Brazil as China reclaimed the gold medal in the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016.

Sponsored by the Chinese Communist Party’s Publicity Department as well as the General Administration of Sport, Leap focuses heavily too on Lang Ping, the volleyball maestro-cum-national heroine whose role in Chinese volleyball has evolved from lead player in the 1980s, to controversial rival (when she helped out the US team), to China’s head coach – all in a span of close to four decades (see WiC27).

The film’s realism is a big draw, given much of the cast actually play professional volleyball, including Zhu Ting, who has been named Most Valuable Player internationally numerous times (see WiC382 for more about the 195cm-tall star). Even Lang’s daughter Lydia Bai has a part, playing the younger version of her respected mother. But a lot of the plaudits go to A-list actress Gong Li, whose impersonation of Lang is considered remarkably faithful.

Xinhua’s film critic liked what he saw. “From the success of women’s volleyball to winning the first gold medal to hosting the Olympics in Beijing, sports is part of New China’s extraordinary history and indelible national memory,” he proclaimed, adding there will be more locally produced sport movies in future thanks to Leap’s example.

Movies about the Chinese table tennis team and former tennis star Li Na, for example, are going to be screened this year as the country readies for the 29th Summer Olympics in Tokyo between July and August. Apart from rousing patriotism, the flurry of sport movies also chimes with the national directive to promote sports-led consumption, a market that’s forecast to cross Rmb1.5 trillion by the end of 2020.

Not everyone is happy with the movie though. Chen Zhonghe, another former head coach of the women’s national volleyball team (in his case between 2001 and 2008), has reportedly complained about his clownish portrayal in the movie to China’s National Radio and Television Administration.

“Despite my strong objection, they are still poking fun at me in their representation that is virally promoted. That has caused irreparable psychological damage to me,” Chen wrote in a letter published by the Yangtze Evening Post. Chen said he had tried to make his point to the director, but to no avail, and demanded all references to him in the movie be removed.

The row is widely speculated to be the reason for Leap’s last-minute title change. On January 17, Leap’s production house announced on weibo that it would adopt the name in Chinese “The Champion” instead of the working title of “Chinese Women’s Volleyball”. The new version borrows a title from one of the episodes in last year’s My People, My Country, a seven-part anthology commemorating the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. The alteration also seems designed to introduce more ‘fictionality’ to the film as opposed to making it feel like a pure documentary, Tencent News believed.

However, Chinese fans eager for the movie’s release will have to wait a bit longer. In spite of preselling tickets worth millions, the film has forfeited its slot in the normally busy Chinese New Year holiday week (alongside six other movies also pulled). Their producers, reported Jiemian, announced the delay after healthcare officials’ – wary of the Wuhan virus – warned against congregating in crowded and enclosed spaces such as cinemas.

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