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Do or Die

Historic war epic The Eight Hundred is China’s first blockbuster of the year since the coronavirus pandemic outbreak. And like the soldiers depicted in the story, the movie had another mission - to revive the country’s film industry

By Liu Yuanhang , Kui Yanzhang Updated Nov.1

Wax figures in the Shanghai Sihang Warehouse Museum are posed to recreate a battle scene from the Defense of Sihang Warehouse

By the time The Eight Hundred premiered in Beijing on August 14, it had been 463 days since its director Guan Hu smoked his last cigar.  

The Eight Hundred tells the true story of Chinese soldiers who defended a warehouse against the invading Japanese army during the Battle of Shanghai in October 1937. Scheduled to debut at the Shanghai International Film Festival in June 2019, the film was suddenly pulled days before the event “for technical reasons.” As the fate of the film remained uncertain, the 52-year-old filmmaker promised himself he would quit smoking his beloved cigars until his film resurfaced.  

Now the movie has not only hit the big screen but also has a greater mission: As the first big-budget blockbuster released after China’s cinemas reopened in July, anticipations are high that the film will save China’s battered film industry.  

And it has exceeded all expectations. The Eight Hundred is the globe’s highest-grossing cinema release of the year, raking in 2.2 billion yuan (US$321.8m) in 15 days.  

“As the pandemic wreaks havoc on the film industry, our film was the first to march to the frontlines and fight the war,” Guan Hu told NewsChina. “It’s similar to the story we told - how impending death brings out valor and sparks humanity in the souls of ordinary soldiers and people.”  

Soldiers and Spectators
The Eight Hundred is based on the Defense of the Sihang Warehouse during the Battle of Shanghai in October 1937.  

In the Sihang Warehouse, located on the north bank of the Suzhou River, a small tributary of the Huangpu River which bisects the city, 423 soldiers of the National Revolutionary Army’s (NRA) 524th Regiment - known as the “800 Heroes” after the original troop roster - were vastly outnumbered against the surrounding Japanese forces. If Shanghai fell, all of China was at stake. On the river’s south bank was the International Settlement, where its residents and foreign correspondents witnessed the course of the battle.  

An ardent lover of modern history, Guan has read about the siege since he was a teenager. “Initially the film came from my urge to tell stories about heroes. That fiery blood coursed through my mind. It thrilled me just to imagine them and their stories,” he told NewsChina.  

The film centers on a ragtag group of green recruits and deserters who were scattered from their own units and later joined the remnants of an NRA regiment in the warehouse, from where they hoped to fend off the Japanese and buy time to retreat.  

The director wanted to steer clear of stereotyped narratives that eulogize heroism. “We had no intention of telling a story with a particular hero or heroine. We intended to portray a group portrait from scattered perspectives and present a panorama of people in war,” Guan said.  

Instead of the well-disciplined officers of the regular army, the film focuses on a group of flawed and frightened recruits. Young farmer Duan Wu (Ou Hao) and his teenage brother Xiao Hubei (Zhang Junyi) joined the army because they saw it as a chance to go to Shanghai and get a boat ticket to England. Lao Tie (Jiang Wu) was a gutless idler who would hide anywhere to protect himself in battle.  

“The courageous, professional soldiers are portrayed as a contrast to the ragtag recruits. But I prefer to see how little by little, the battle brings out their pride in being human and being a man, and how they overcome their flaws, cowardice, selfishness and greed in the last hour,” Guan said.  

But not all were willing to make that sacrifice. Old Abacus (Zhang Yi) is a calculating accountant who insists he is a civil servant, not a soldier. Though some working on the film suggested having this character heroically sacrifice his life at the last moment, Guan insisted that Old Abacus should escape and become a deserter.  

“There’s no need to make everyone a hero. Characterization is supposed to accord with true human nature. The choices Old Abacus makes align with his character,” Guan said.  

Guan was interested in the geography of the battle. As Sihang Warehouse and the International Settlement were on opposite banks of the Suzhou River, residents witnessed the soldiers battle from the south bank. Guan said they had a detached, “quasi-livestreaming” relationship with each other, and highlighted it in the film.  

During the day, everyone from professors and students to casino owners and prostitutes in the International Settlement watched how the soldiers on the opposite bank fought against the Japanese forces. At night, the soldiers would gaze at the boisterous south bank. Ablaze in neon lights, people there would crowd into bars, restaurants, theaters and brothels.  

As the battle intensified, some in the International Settlement gradually transformed from indifferent spectators to compassionate volunteers and attempted to support the soldiers in the warehouse.  

“We intend to present a social panorama. People of different backgrounds in the south bank - the casino owner, the literati, the beggars, the Boy Scouts and the Belarusian prostitute - they all pay close attention to the battle’s progress,” Guan said. 

The director further indicated that the film aims to build a bridge between the people of the past and today. “I hope the film delivers a message that if a lost battle can spark the awakening of a nation and spur people to struggle for progress, it doesn’t matter if it brought shame,” Guan told NewsChina.  

Visitors view and take photos of the warehouse’s bullet ridden walls from Colonel Xie Jinyuan Memorial Square, Sihang Warehouse, Shanghai, August 23.

Still from The Eight Hundred showing Japanese forces as they sneak into the Sihang Warehouse during a night raid

Recreate Reality 
The film took Guan a decade to make. He spent four years writing and polishing the screenplay, and finished the first draft in 2011. Production company Huayi Brothers funded the film and started shooting in September 2017. 

The first task was to build a set, as the ruins of the original Sihang Warehouse are now a memorial museum surrounded by skyscrapers and Guan did not want to rely on computer effects.  

“In war films, performers give the most natural reactions on physical sets. Not to mention that high-quality CGI isn’t cheap,” Guan said.  

The production team recreated the warehouse in an abandoned fish market in the neighboring city of Suzhou. The massive complex included granaries, lofts and a 200-meter-long, 50-meter-wide artificial river and rows of 68 shikumen (traditional Shanghainese housing).  

All the actors playing soldiers underwent seven months of military training, and each extra was required to write a character bio for their role. Their characters’ profession had to reflect their own. For example, the extra who played an artist drawing by the south bank of the Suzhou River is a professor at a Shanghai art college.  

“I didn’t want to randomly pick anyone who passed by the Shanghai Film Studio, put them in a costume that doesn’t fit right, have them read a line or two and send them off with a meal from craft services. That wouldn’t make a movie like this one,” Guan told NewsChina. 

To recreate the battle-torn setting, the production team burned 300-kilograms of smoke oil, nearly five tons of old newspaper and made over 50,000 bullet holes in the ground.  

The final retreat was the most difficult scene, taking more than a month to film. Soldiers in the warehouse are ordered to cross the bridge and retreat to the safe International Settlement under the cover of darkness. But at that moment, the Japanese forces shoot flares, exposing the retreating soldiers to snipers. 

To film the scene, the production team used more than 300 real flares, which they ordered from an armory in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, each costing 8,000 yuan (US$1,169). 

“The river separates life from death,” Cao Yu, the film’s director of photography, told NewsChina. “We used lots and lots of real flares, not only because the light is really hard to recreate with conventional lighting, but also because the flares’ sparks and smoke give a sense of fate or spirituality.” 

Still from The Eight Hundred showing residents of the International Settlement watching the battle unfold on the opposite side of the Suzhou River

Two Battles
Over the last decade, Chinese war films such as Operation Red Sea (2018) have found a place in the mainstream, said Huangpu Yichuan, president of the magazine Contemporary Cinema and author of The History of Chinese War Films. 

“With advancements in moviemaking, the visuals in recent domestic war films are getting closer to those of big-budget Western war films. But spiritually, they convey the values of Chinese mainstream films,” Huangpu told NewsChina.  

Huangpu said that compared to Operation Red Sea, which revolves around a hostage rescue mission packed with shootouts against rebels and terrorists, The Eight Hundred shows improvements in reenacting war, but in terms of style, narrative and perspective, it is an atypical war film distinct from mainstream Chinese war cinema.  

Late in the film, Colonel Xie (Du Chun), leader of the Sihang forces, meets with a commissioner from the Kuomintang. The two argue about whether the Sihang forces should surrender and retreat or continue fighting to their assured death. The argument raises a series of questions that lets the audience reflect on the nature of war: Will provoking the Japanese cause more trouble? Does resisting send the wrong message? Would this battle help China gain support from the international community, or would sacrificing the Sihang forces be futile?  

Such questions, along with the commissioner’s line “Behind every war is politics,” are not typically asked in Chinese war movies.  

Guan told NewsChina that he prefers atypical war films such as The Thin Red Line (1998) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). “We didn’t put the climax near the end and follow the typical narrative of eulogizing heroism. We wanted to present a group portrait of people in war, and use non-genre elements to bring the film closer to the true texture of reality,” Guan said.  

As the first big-budget Chinese feature released since the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak, the film’s other mission was to resuscitate the country’s film industry.  

Wang Zhonglei, executive producer of the film and Huayi Brothers CEO, said expectations of the film’s success provided the industry with a boost. “Everyone in the industry needs to see a good result. They are expecting such a result,” Wang said.  

Box office earnings were low when cinemas reopened on July 20. Wang said that when the film premiered on August 14, total domestic box office that day was merely 10 million yuan (US$1.46m). The compulsory 30 percent attendance limit also hampered takings.  

Although there are still several big-budget movies on hold from this year’s Spring Festival season, normally the best time for Chinese movies, Wang believes The Eight Hundred was the best option.  

“In the initial phase of recovery, we needed a movie to bring the entire market to life. A highly entertaining movie is not enough to fulfill this mission, even if it is profound and artistic. We are expecting a movie which perfectly combines entertainment, depth, art, humanism and also social values that can spark discussions,” Wang told NewsChina.