The drama set in 1937 Shanghai has outperformed China ticket sales for Sony’s ‘Bad Boys for Life’ and Disney’s ‘Mulan’ remake

A Chinese war epic has become the world’s top box office hit this year, eclipsing Hollywood blockbusters as a recovering economy has given the country’s pandemic-hit filmmakers an edge over US rivals.

The Eight Hundred, a drama set in Shanghai during the 1937 Japanese invasion of China, had raked in Rmb2.91bn ($428m) as of Tuesday in its first month in cinemas, according to box office tracker Maoyan.

Group Communist party screenings of the nationalist tale helped propel it past Sony’s Bad Boys for Life to make it the highest-grossing motion picture of 2020 so far, in a rare instance of a Chinese film holding the global record. 

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc in the global movie market, shuttering theatres and suspending film production for months. It also has caused some analysts to reassess projections that China’s box office and audience numbers would top the US this year.

Wen Bai, an independent film commentator, said the strong performance of The Eight Hundred boded well for Chinese films over the National Day holidays, a peak season for film-goers beginning on October 1.

The film, which debuted on August 21, has far outperformed China ticket sales for Disney’s live-action Mulan remake and Warner Bros’ Christopher Nolan-directed Tenet, both of which also opened in China last month. Bad Boys for Life has earned $425m so far, according to Box Office Mojo, a US ticket tracker website.

Mr Wen said the success of the Chinese film was partly due to timing, since “lots of people really haven’t been to the cinema in a long time”, but also because other offerings had disappointed Chinese viewers. 

Tenet failed to consider the mass market and Mulan’s quality was really weak, so viewers’ choices were limited,” he said.

Huayi Brothers’ chief executive Wang Zhonglei told the Beijing News that the launch timing had been a gamble. “Everyone was debating whether cinemas should reopen first or films should be released first,” he said. “I was still very nervous.”

The strong performance of the film, which cost about Rmb550m ($81m) to produce and was backed by the filmmaking subsidiaries of China’s two largest tech groups, Tencent and Alibaba, also eases some of the financial pressure on Huayi Brothers, China’s oldest private production company.

The Shenzhen-listed group reported a loss of Rmb231m for the first half of the year, as revenue fell 70 per cent from the same period a year ago to Rmb324m.

The film was originally set for release mid-2019, but was delayed after censors objected to its focus on a group of Kuomintang troops, rather than the Communist party’s Red Army.

To appease the concerns, Huayi launched a new Communist party committee in a display of loyalty — an effort that appears to have paid off, with the film dubbed “patriotic” by Chinese state media and screened at local Communist party committee viewings across the country.

The film’s success contrasts with the tepid response to Mulan despite extensive efforts to tailor it to a Chinese audience. The Disney title made Rmb159m in its opening week in China, compared with The Eight Hundred’s Rmb638m, according to Maoyan data.

Mulan has faced a backlash in the US over the decision to film in Xinjiang, a region in north-west China where more than 1m mostly Muslim people have been interned in “re-education” camps.

Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing

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