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Tenet becomes the first Hollywood hit post-Covid


Elizabeth Debicki: stars in Tenet

After multiple delays over the summer, Disney finally made the big decision to stop waiting for American cinemas to reopen, sending its blockbuster Mulan straight to people’s homes.

Last weekend, Mulan officially debuted in the US on Disney+, the media giant’s video-on-demand platform. Having reported a $4.7 billion net loss in the latest quarter, Disney was hoping that Mulan could help showcase its streaming service, which was only launched in November last year.

The film was originally scheduled for a global release in theatres early in March but was postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. In China the studio has opted for a cinema release today (the country was always predicted to be the film’s biggest market).

Filmmaker Christopher Nolan was adamant he would not launch his own blockbuster Tenet via a streaming service. A long-time champion of the theatrical experience, the director behind The Dark Knight trilogy has long argued about the importance of keeping cinemas afloat, even with coronavirus infections rising.

“When people think about movies, their minds first go to the stars, the studios, the glamour,” he wrote in an op-ed piece for the Washington Post. “I hope that people are seeing our exhibition community for what it really is: a vital part of social life, providing jobs for many and entertainment for all.”

So no surprise that as soon as Chinese cinemas reopened, Nolan pushed for a big screen release of Tenet, which was originally scheduled for a July release in the US. His bet paid off. Tenet, which made its debut in China last Friday, took Rmb200 million ($29 million) over the weekend.

In the film, a secret agent dies and is brought back to life with the ability to travel through time. His mission is to prevent a calamity, which is described as worse than a nuclear holocaust. Tenet features large-scale action sequences that include the scaling of a skyscraper and a car chase that takes place partly in reverse.

The film only received a rating of B rating on CinemaScore (the site polls audiences to grade films on a scale from F to A+), and ranks as one of Nolan’s most poorly graded films (the other one being The Prestige in 2006). But the negative reviews did little to dampen the enthusiasm of Chinese audiences.

On Sina Weibo, viewers gushed about the special effects and action sequences. “After watching the film, I can’t even imagine how the action scenes were shot. I bow down to Nolan,” one fan raved.

“Nolan created these high-energy action sequences that allow audiences to be fully immersed in the adventure as if they are experiencing it with the characters together. It’s so thrilling watching it; once is not enough, we have to go watch it one more time,” another commented.

China’s moviegoers have always been keen on the 50 year-old director. The country contributed almost 20% to the global box office takings for Interstellar, his 2014 sci-fi epic. And when Interstellar got a Chinese re-release in mid-August, it went on to become the first movie since China’s cinemas began to reopen in late July to surpass Rmb100 million at the box office.

It doesn’t seem to bother moviegoers in China that the plots of Nolan’s films are often complicated and confusing. When it comes to the critics’ sometimes less flattering reviews, his die-hard local fans say they are missing the point. “Don’t try to understand it, you need to feel it. The first time you need to just enjoy the cinematic spectacle and then after you watch it again a second or third time then to try to clarify the storyline,” one devotee pointed out on Douban, the TV series and film review site.

“Nolan is not the kind of filmmaker you watch once and you will understand everything. But what he’s presented is not only visually groundbreaking but the storytelling is so creative, it [Tenet] is another masterpiece,” another gushed.

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