2020 will represent a lot of different things to historians once we get a little distance, but one thing is for certain — it’ll be an absolute lodestar for bar trivia. Here’s one you can put in your back pocket immediately: What was the number one movie at the box office during the Plague Year?
You had to think for a minute, didn’t you. Movies? Who went to the movies? Weren’t they all closed? Well, no. Despite theaters restricting ticket sales depending on local protocols, there were still new releases. And the box office champ, with $472.5 million, was a Chinese production called The Eight Hundred.
This is a significant turning point in world affairs, as this is the first time a non-Hollywood production took the top spot (unless you want to count magic lanterns by the Lumière Brothers). Indeed, the top two earners in 2020 were Chinese films, and, for the first time ever, China edged out North America in total ticket sales. ($2.7 billion to $2.3 billion, if you’re keeping score.)
These numbers are still severely deflated (down 70 percent according to The Hollywood Reporter, and the lowest in 40 years) but that $472.5 million for The Eight Hundred, a large-scale war epic, is still impressive. (The runner-up with $433 million, My People, My Homeland, is an omnibus film from multiple directors of unconnected short films, and part of an ongoing series.) If this were a “normal year,” their relative numbers would be even higher, and while certainly the cancelled 007 picture No Time to Die or straight-to-streaming Wonder Woman 1984 would have been top of the charts, this still would have been a major success for Chinese cinema. (The biggest Hollywood money makers in 2020? Bad Boys for Life in third place with $424 million, then Tenet at $362.9 million.)
The Eight Hundred, directed by Guan Hu, had a budget of $80 million, was shot in IMAX, boasts a cast of thousands, and, in cinematic terms, is wildly impressive. (Story-wise, it’s a little more wobbly, but we’ll get to that.) It took four years to prepare, eight months to shoot, and features enormous, eye-popping sets. The hook is the Sihang Warehouse siege, an event from the end of the Battle of Shanghai, which was part of the conflict known as the Second Sino-Japan War that later merged with the overall hostilities of World War II.
I’m secure enough to just lay my cards on the table here: I didn’t know anything about this. I knew that Japan invaded Manchuria, but I can’t lie and say I was familiar with the level of urban combat in Shanghai, and the absolute insanity of this event. While watching I kept thinking, “Yeah, okay, I can see why they wanted to make a movie about this!”
In the broadest of strokes: As Japan was invading the city, the few remaining defenses fell back into a gigantic, multi-story warehouse. It was here that they would have their Alamo-esque last stand. (Or would it actually be their Dunkirk-esque display of spirit?)
For days, the fighters held up against snipers and air assaults, repeatedly standing their ground, somehow getting supplies in, and in an act of ultimate defiance, hoisting the Republic of China flag from the roof, despite it being a suicide mission for the soldiers sent to do it. But that’s not the crazy part.
What makes this incident stand out, and what The Eight Hundred capitalizes on with its rich, evocative set, is that the warehouse sat (sits, I should say; it’s still there, a bullet-pocked museum) on a bank of the Wusong River, a tributary of the larger Huangpu River. On the opposite side, back in 1937, is where you would find what were called the “foreign concessions,” which were independently controlled international zones. The British and Americans shared a joint one in Shanghai at the time, and the French also had one. (Other countries had outposts in other cities.) When Japan rolled in, they steered clear of these areas. As such, the foreign nationals living there and numerous Chinese business owners had a front row seat to an ongoing siege just a short swim away. Journalists perched on balconies and tapped out dispatches on the bloody battle as it happened.
The last time there was a global pandemic, 1918, the top earner in the still new art of cinema was a silent comedy starring Mabel Normand about a wild-child-turned-society-dame called Mickey. Nine months ago, in some strange act of cross-century cinephile solidarity, I watched the movie and wrote about it. (Conclusion: it’s funny!) Since I live in New York City, where all theaters have been closed, I couldn’t make any American screenings of The Eight Hundred. But I asked around, got myself a link and watched all two-and-a-half hours with its imperfect (read: blazing fast) subtitling. The film isn’t yet available to stream in the U.S.
It is, undeniably, impressive. That flag-raising moment I mentioned is an absolutely thrilling moment of action cinema. I can just imagine how a packed and engaged house reacted to it: The flag about to fall over, a bloody hand darts out, the camera pulls back as a soldier, his body shot up into hamburger, is buffeted by his comrades, all of whom are shrieking in pain but, dammit, they will lift this flag to prove to the world that they mean business.
But I’m also somewhat glad I didn’t see it in a theater. I don’t really respond well to ultraviolence, especially in IMAX, and this movie is positively gross. I mean, war is hell, I get it, but how many heads can you watch explode like melons? How many shrapnel-severed carotid arteries are enough? How much battlefield screaming can you take?
There are, however, aspects of the movie that are absolutely fascinating. In Hollywood, even the movies most in bed with the armed forces tend to have something of a universalist or humanist theme. We respect our troops, but we kinda-sorta respect their troops, too. Not so much with The Eight Hundred. The Japanese soldiers are inhuman monsters, never seen and only heard, and the only thing they’re good for is getting killed. The unbridled nationalism on display here makes Michael Bay look to the left of Ilhan Omar.
There’s also a brutalism on “our side” that would never be portrayed in a mainstream Hollywood production. There’s a determined viciousness that the heroes display, normally reserved for films like, say, Full Metal Jacket, meant to make you cluck your tongue and think, “Ah, the inhumanity of war, poisoning the human spirit.” Not with The Eight Hundred. These are the heroes.
The storytelling here is a little unusual, so there isn’t really a single protagonist. In fact, there are some characters who get introduced in one scene, disappear, come back to do something incredibly brave 10 minutes later, then end up dead. There’s certainly precedence for this with some war movies, especially in films with a Communist ethos. Sergei Eistenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, if my hazy memories from college are accurate, is more of a collage of humanity linked in combat. Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line also swerves its spotlight around in unpredictable arcs, but this has less to do with any political theory and more because Malick is just weird.
A group of characters who receive a lot of our attention are from a local militia who get swept up with the more skilled army and end up part of “the eight hundred.” (It’s actually closer to four hundred, but they already know to print the legend.) Also in their cohort are a group of deserters. The military leaders have no compunction about shooting these men (actually, one is just a boy) if they don’t rise to the occasion and give their all for the battle. I honestly couldn’t tell if the commander making threats was, to put it bluntly, supposed to be a “good guy” or not.
Though The Eight Hundred now holds its head as the pride of Chinese cinema, it had a long walk getting there. Just prior to its release, censors demanded changes, as it was felt that the film painted too noble a picture of the Kuomintang Party and Republic of China, the government that predated the current People’s Republic. Even though Mao Zedong himself referred to the legendary eight hundred as a “classic example of national revolution,” they’re still subject to studio notes.
As such, the moments of intensely jingoistic nationalism that surround the action almost feel like parody. One of the first lines in the movie is a warrior demanding his platoon “honor our elders!” But when Guan Hu sinks his teeth into a battle sequence (with a bulky IMAX rig, no less) he just can’t be stopped. There’s a moment when a guy straps himself up with explosives, shouts the name of his village, plunges into a phalanx of storming Japanese and blows them all to pudding. It’s a breathtaking series of shots, where the pressure of being pinned down reverses all momentum into a moment of flight, punctuated with startling gore. And there are dozens of such creative (albeit icky) instances like this.
Then there’s the ludicrousness of the onlookers across the narrow body of water. The British dandies make bets on how long it will take the Japanese to rout the anguished soldiers, their guts spilling everywhere, the air thick with cries for their mothers. In the sky, Americans look on from a Goodyear blimp, which I can’t seem to corroborate as factual, but really hammers how these events can be life or death to some and sport for others.
Though it’s accidental now, this aspect of the story, the wider world looking in on China as it emerges an unlikely champion, is quite the metaphor for 2020.
While Donald Trump’s insistence on referring to COVID-19 as “The China Virus” comes from a place of xenophobia and economic saber-rattling, it’s still a fact that the disease that sent the world upside-down did, indeed, emerge from China. And at first all eyes were on them. Some in the West even sneered (“they eat bat soup over there!”), but it turns out that their public health protocols appear to have gotten the problem under some degree of control.
Certainly any data coming from Chinese government should be met with a degree of skepticism, but there’s one piece of circumstantial evidence that they’ve met the challenge of 2020 in an unexpected way: They produced the number one movie of the year.