How Chinese historical war drama 'The Eight Hundred' became the top-grossing film of the year

The epic has beaten 'Bad Boys for Life' for 2020's number one spot

Still from "The Eight Hundred". Courtesy CMC Pictures

If there's any crumb of comfort that moviegoers can take from this year, it's that films usually sidelined are enjoying their moment in the spotlight. Earlier this month, during the UK's second Covid-19 lockdown and with only a handful of cinemas in Scotland open, Jonny Owen's football documentary The Three Kings somehow managed to top the British box office, albeit having taken only £51 ($67) over its opening weekend.

Even more strange is the case of The Eight Hundred. The Chinese epic, which is currently showing in UAE cinemas, is at present sitting at the top of the worldwide box-office charts for this year. Having so far grossed $460 million, the figure puts it ahead of its nearest rival, Bad Boys for Life (which made $426m before the pandemic struck), and Christopher Nolan's Tenet, which has grossed $353m in the coronavirus-rattled world.

With the release dates of so many blockbusters being shifted to next year – from the latest James Bond outing No Time to Die to Fast & Furious 9 and a clutch of Marvel movies – it means The Eight Hundred is liable to wind up as this year's highest-grossing film globally.

The first Chinese movie to be shot entirely using Imax cameras, its international box-office dominance may be a strange aberration, but it's proof of just how buoyant the Chinese film market is.

Produced by major Chinese studio Huayi Brothers, The Eight Hundred is set in 1937 during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Spanning four days, the story unfolds as a battalion of Chinese soldiers bravely defend a warehouse against the invading Japanese army, which became known as the Battle of Shanghai.

Sixth-generation filmmaker Guan Hu, who is best known for 2015 drama Mr Six, is at the helm as director and co-writer, while his cast of hundreds is led by prominent Chinese actors Wang Qianyuan, Zhang Yi and Li Chen.

Reviews from critics around the world have been enthusiastic – with The Hollywood Reporter saying "The Eight Hundred rivals Dunkirk and 1917 for mud-soaked, blood-splattered gruesomeness expected of a war epic". That the film also recruited experienced visual effects experts from outside China – including Tim Crosbie who worked on X-Men: Apocalypse – shows the willingness of Chinese filmmakers to compete with such established war epics.

The Eight Hundred was released in other territories – Australia, North America and the UK included – however its takings outside China have been negligible. It's the film's success in its home nation, placing it in the top 10 films ever released in China, that is something to be celebrated. Cinemas across China tentatively reopened in July, after the easing of Covid-19-related restrictions, and the public's desire to return to them, as the cinematic success of this film has proven, should offer a beacon of hope to the beleaguered sector across the globe.

Curiously, this $80m-budget effort was not even meant to be released this year. According to trade magazine Variety, it was delayed by more than a year for "mysterious political reasons", with its opening night slot at the Shanghai International Film Festival cancelled only a day before it was due to premiere on June 15 last year.

The film’s portrayal of the rival Kuomintang and National Revolutionary Army drew criticism in some quarters in China, notably the China Red Culture Research Association, a group of Communist scholars who saw it in advance.

With all Chinese films falling under a strict approval process, The Eight Hundred was pulled for "technical reasons". Consequently, Guan and his team of editors were forced back into the cutting room to remove 13 minutes of footage.

The film, which was scheduled for a July 5 release this year, was eventually in Chinese cinemas by August and made $40m on its opening day alone. It made such an impact that successful Chinese-born director Feng Xiaogang even referred to the movie as a "trailblazer" when he attended one of its advance screenings back in August. "It can take the responsibility to revive the market," he said.

As big a success story as it is in the currently climate, The Eight Hundred is still some way from overhauling China's all-time box-office behemoth, 2017's Wolf Warrior 2, which became the highest-grossing non-English film of all time with a staggering $870m. Yet even that finished seventh in the box office list for that year, behind the likes of Spider-Man: Homecoming and Beauty and the Beast. This year, however, Hollywood has taken a sabbatical, so now is the time for Chinese cinema to show the world what it's made of.

The Eight Hundred is in cinemas across the UAE now