It took 178 days for Chinese cinemas to reopen once the pandemic had hit. But for the embattled studio Huayi Brothers there was a delay of more than a year and a half – leading to the sale of a Van Gogh masterpiece, as well as a luxury property in Hong Kong (see WiC501) – before its war film The Eight Hundred finally arrived in movie theatres.
Last Sunday, the studio announced that the film will be screened nationwide, following a long period of delays. Wang Zhonglei, the CEO, choked with emotions in telling reporters during the online premiere of the film: “I have waited for today for 463 days. For 463 days, not a day has gone by without The Eight Hundred being on my mind and in conversations.”
The Eight Hundred is one of the first releases of a high-profile domestic feature since cinemas reopened in late July. First day takings were limited, but that was because the initial release only went to a relatively small number of venues. However, local media was optimistic with presold tickets earning Rmb100 million ($14.5 million) in the first few days.
The film, which reportedly cost Rmb550 million to make, tells the story of the sacrifices incurred by a group of Chinese soldiers tasked with a last stand defence during the Battle of Shanghai in 1937. The 800 troops are vastly outnumbered by Japanese forces. Last year, the drama made headlines when it was pulled at the last minute from an opening slot at the Shanghai International Film Festival. Its producers blamed “technical reasons” (see WiC457) but industry insiders speculated that it was censored because it glorified the KMT’s wartime efforts, implicitly downplaying the role of rival Communist Party forces.
The timing of the release also coincided with the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, which did not seem a good time to be celebrating the bravery of the KMT troops (Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT governed China prior to its loss in the nation’s civil war in the late 1940s; after which his KMT regime fled to Taiwan.)
An alternate theory was that the anti-Japanese tone of the movie smudged some of Beijing’s efforts to improve relations with Tokyo – at a time when a state visit to Japan by Chinese leader Xi Jinping was being finalised.
For Huayi Brothers, strong word- -of-mouth about the film is a major relief. On Douban, the TV and film review site, The Eight Hundred, which will screen in IMAX format too, got a high rating of 8.3 out of 10. It is also ranking consistently as one of the top three films moviegoers say they are most excited to see, according to Maoyan, the online movie ticketing platform.
As it gets a wider release, the movie could earn in excess of Rmb2 billion by the end of its run, industry analysts claim.
“We were able to watch The Eight Hundred in the pre-release and we can say that it is definitely worthy of the high expectations of Chinese moviegoers. And besides, whether it is for the audiences or the cinemas, there is an urgent need for some excellent work that brings some life back into the movie industry,” proclaimed Tencent Entertainment.
The film features male leads Zhang Yi and Yu Haoming and female stars Chen Yao and Augusta Xu-Holland. But people who have seen the original cut are claiming that the producers made relatively few changes in the newly released version. “Some scenes were cut but nothing too drastic; most of them were technical alterations,” a film critic for TMTPost wrote. “The biggest change, however, is that The Eight Hundred went from black-and-white to colour. The advantage of black-and-white cinematography is that it gives the film a more artistic feel, but it also renders it less commercially appealing in third- and fourth-tier cities.”
(That may sound a little snobbish – it presumes that lower-income audiences lack the more sophisticated tastes of their peers from the bigger, better-off cities.)
Releasing the film at a time when cinemas have only just reopened is a risky move for Huayi Brothers. Regardless, investors were excited: after the release was announced, the studio saw its share price surge almost 40% on levels at the end of July. Nevertheless, the success of The Eight Hundred may not be enough to pull the studio out of a difficult financial situation. The Shenzhen-listed firm has already reported hefty losses for the past two years. Should it fail to turn around this year, it faces the dire regulatory prospect of an enforced delisting.
Will The Eight Hundred bring the broader film industry back to life in China? The general consensus is that it is too early to tell. “At the moment, even though the cinemas are open, the occupancy ratio is nowhere close to that of the past. It is almost impossible to rely on one film to save the market,” predicted one insider.
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