European Festival Premiere
The Eight Hundred
八百 (Ba Bai)
China, 2020, 147’, Mandarin
Directed by: Guan Hu
Script: Guan Hu, Ge Rui, Hu Kun, Huang Dongbin
Photography (color): Cao Yu
Editing: Tu Yiran, He Yongyi
Art Direction: Lin Mu
Costume Design: Li Zhou
Music: Andrew Kawczynski
Main Theme: Rupert Gregson-Williams
Music Direction: Yu Fei
Sound: Fu Kang
Action Design: Fu Xiaojie
War Scenes Design: Glenn Boswell
Visual Effects: Tim Crosbie, Wu Yanran
Producers: Wang Zhonglei, Liang Jing
Production Companies: Huayi Brothers Media, Tencent Pictures, Beijing Enlight Media, Alibaba Pictures
Cast: Wang Qianyuan (Yangguai), Zhang Yi (Lao Suanpan/Old Abacus), Jiang Wu (Lao Tie), Huang Zhizhong (Lao Hulu), Zhang Junyi (Xiaohubei), Ou Hao (Duan Wu), Du Chun (Xie Jinyuan, 524th Regiment lieutenant-colonel), Wei Chen (Zhu Shengzhong), Zhang Youhao (Qiyue), Tang Yixin (Yang Huimin), Li Jiuxiao (Daozi), Li Chen (Qi Jiaming), Liang Jing (professor’s wife), Hou Yong (Zhang, university professor), Xin Baiqing (Fang Xingwen, journalist), Yu Haoming (Shangguan Zhibiao), Liu Xiaoqing (Rong, casino owner), Yao Chen (He Xiangning), Zheng Kai (Chen Shusheng), Yu Ailei (Luo Yangchan), Huang Xiaoming (commissioner), Xu Jiawen (Eva), Zhang Cheng (Lei Xiong, Machine Gun Company commander), Ma Jingwu (theatre-troupe leader), Hu Xiaoguang (Hubei Security Corps leader), Lu Siyu (Yang Ruifu), Shao Laowu (Zhang Xiangfei), Bai En (Yang Deyu), Cao Lu (Jiang Jing, sergeant), Liu Yunlong (Lin Yang), Yang Haoyu (Tan Kai), Pang Guochang (Zhou Tianyu), Yang Jiahua (Liao Zhikai), Nakaizumi Hideo (Konoe Isao, Japanese colonel), Gao Shuang (Tang Maxin), Zheng Wei (Qiu), Gao Dongping (Lu, commissioner), Huang Miyi (Lu, actress), Cao Weiyu (Yu Hongjun), Song Yang (Zhang Boting), Xu Letong (soldier), Xu Xing (Shanghai wife), Ruan Jingtian (Jin Sijing), Du Zilan (Nationalist soldier), Liu Hangyu (Wang Qiang), Vincent Matile (French journalist), Samuel Mackey (British soldier; British citizen), David Semery (French journalist), Daniel Krauser (British army officer), Gianluca Zoppa, Lionel Roudaut, Diego Dati
Date of First Release in Territory: August 21st, 2020
The most important film to be released in China in 2020 offers a glimpse of the contradictions currently to be found in the Chinese film industry: a major historical propaganda film, produced with lavish means (US$80 million), the first film to be shot entirely in IMAX, chosen as the opening film of the prestigious Shanghai International Film Festival, a few days before its debut, The Eight Hundred ran into a serious censorship problem which delayed its release by a year and saw 13 minutes of film cut from the original version.
Directed by Guan Hu, a director of the so-called “Sixth Generation,” the film deals with an episode in Chinese history little known abroad but celebrated at home as an example of patriotic fervour, despite the fact that it involves troops from Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Army – at the time part of the united anti-Japanese front.
In 1937, the Chinese army tried to delay the Japanese advance on Shanghai with a three-month battle that exhausted the Chinese troops, forcing them into retreat. In an extreme bid to resist, Chiang Kai-shek sent a battalion of around 400 soldiers – passed off in war propaganda as 800 – to defend the Sihang warehouse, a weapons and supplies depot on the banks of the Suzhou Creek, on a suicide mission designed to solicit Allied help for China and boost national morale.
The film does not historically contextualise the episode to avoid addressing the relationship between the CCP and the KMT, and focuses only on the four days of the siege, presenting the events as a demonstration of heroism by the Chinese people as a whole – those sent on the suicide mission were not only military personnel but also civilians who joined them almost by chance. And it is on some of the latter that the film focuses its attention, showing how anti-heroes who at the beginning of the story try to defect, in contact with soldiers who bravely accept their fate, also turn into heroes. The same dynamic is also played out by those who at the beginning of the story are only spectators: on the other side of the Suzhou Creek are the Western Concessions, where not only the foreign community lives, but also part of Shanghai’s civilian population who have managed to find refuge in the Concessions.
One of the most successful aspects of the film is the visualisation of a city split in two, both physically and metaphorically: to the north of the canal we see a dramatic situation – special effects conjure up a completely destroyed and gloomy city appear behind the Sihang warehouse – while on the southern side, life in the Concessions continues in a glittering, vulgar, light-filled atmosphere. The civilians all look like voyeurs, watching, through binoculars from their viewing terraces, the “show” taking place on the other side of the canal, which is transformed into a kind of stage; and vice versa, the besieged soldiers listen rapturously to the voice of a singer performing at the window on the other side of the canal at night. However, as the hours go by, the civilian population are affected by the soldiers’ heroism and end up indulging in displays of patriotic enthusiasm at the sight of the Chinese flag being raised on the roof of the warehouse.
The Eight Hundred is a collective film, driven more by the overall dynamics than by the psychology of the individual characters. There are many highly symbolic images and dialogues in the film, recalling classical Chinese culture – such as the appearance of a horse and a character from the jingju (traditional opera) – and China’s communist future. Compared to Dunkirk in terms of the accuracy and intensity of the action scenes, the film was years in the making, had a budget of US$80m, required 68 buildings to be built, but when it was finally released a year later than expected, it was a phenomenal success, taking US$743m at the box office and garnering rave reviews from critics and audiences alike.
A graduate of the Beijing Film Academy in 1991, Guan Hu (Beijing, 1968) went on to become the youngest director at the Beijing Film Studio. In the 90s, he became one of the most important auteurs of the so-called “Sixth Generation” upon the release of his debut film Dirt (1994), a portrait of the Beijing rock scene of the time. He has gone from low-budget independent productions to technically and financially demanding films. He is a screenwriter, director as well as producer of young talents.
1994 – Dirt
1996 – The Street Rhapsody
1999 – Farewell Our 1948
2002 – Eyes of a Beauty
2009 – Cow
2012 – Design of Death
2013 – The Chef, the Actor, the Scoundrel
2015 – Mr. Six
2016 – Run for Love
2019 – My People, My Country
2020 – The Eight Hundred
2020 – The Sacrifice