Latest Chinese epic war film The Eight Hundred will be released in the UK across major cities, by Trinity CineAsia on September 16.

Opening on August 21, just after a month that cinemas were allowed to reopen in China, The Eight Hundred has become the most popular new title domestically, with 2.1 billion RMB (£231 million) box-office to date. This figure is supposed to be calculated at the 50% capacity ticketing limit in the post-pandemic era.

While this highly ambitious and controversial film is en route for a UK theatrical release, it is my hope that it can generate some fresh debates about the relations between the UK and China, beyond everyday media. After a recent preview, a film critic friend and I fell into disagreement. He claims, loosely quoted here, “why does every single Chinese war film have to be about feeling proud to die for their own country?” I replied, this one is different from others.” “In fact”, I continued, “this film is extremely critical of the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937 but also current society. Quite possibly, this is the reason why the film was considered as sensitive by the Government. ” As director Guan Hu reflects in an interview, “More than 80 years have now passed. Many factors have changed in this country but many yet remain the same.” This is a thoughtful statement.

The Eight Hundred (2020)’s official trailer

Between the First Opium War [1839] and 1941, Britain played an active role in the Shanghai International Settlement area for trading purposes. When the Japanese army invaded China in 1937, Britain and other European countries were caught in the middle. Although the International Settlement was supposed to remain untouched by the Japanese army, the invasion immediately disrupted most international trading activities and brought fears even among foreigners who had a comfortable lifestyle in Shanghai.

From July 1937, The Chinese National Revolutionary Army (NRA) soldiers were defeated by the Japanese army in no time. By late October, the Chinese army was in full retreat with heavy losses. Lieutenant Xie Jinyuan of the 524th Regiment led the under equipped but German trained 88th Division of the NRA. Under an order, he led 452 soldiers to defend the last battle at the Sihang Warehouse (between October 24 and November 1, 1937), though announced that there were 800 soldiers in the Warehouse to international press. While all soldiers were told to prepare to sacrifice their lives, it was in fact the Chinese Nationalist Government’s strategy to turn the battle into a spectacle, as a hope to gain international communities’ sympathy and eventually support. They knew very well that there was little chance for them to win the war.

On the opposite side of the river away from the Warehouse, it was the British concession in the International Settlement. Following Britain’s famous tradition in wartime smuggling, the British soldiers managed to smuggle cigarettes, drinks and messages to the NRA soldiers on the other side during the Sihang Battle. Eventually, the British troops agreed to take some of the wounded NRA soldiers via the bridge in between, under the cover of darkness at night. After a further agreement, at midnight on November 1st, Lieutenant Xie led 376 soldiers to leave the Warehouse toward the British concession by crossing the New Lese Bridge. A very large red cross flag is use to covered to bridge as a safe zone for the Chinese soldiers to reach.

The Eight Hundred is loosely based on this event and history, but there is another part also untold in the film. After all the NRA soldiers retreated to the British concession, the British troops seized their weapons and arrested them all. Because the British troops were threaten by the Japanese army for a potential invasion if they let the NRA soldiers to escape.

To repeat director Guan Hu’s quote via my own words, more than 80 years have passed indeed, something has changed but something also remains. The “international peace” flag we experience in the film (possibly the largest in the history of Chinese cinema) can almost be seen as a symbolic call for Britain’s alliance then, and now. But predictably, history repeats again, particularly when one is put under threat.

The Eight Hundred, in many subtle ways, also critically reflects on how certain groups of Chinese community in Shanghai only cared about their own interests at that time, while the nation was under attack. This is an allegory can also be applied to its current larger society.

The release of The Eight Hundred (2020) has come a long way. Beyond a pure personal taste based criticism, this film will open up new debates among those who are interested in the history of WWII, the second Sino-Japanese War, as well as the past, present and future of the UK-China relations.

The UCFC will be hosting an online panel with Professor Rana Mitter from the University of Oxford and Cedric Behrel from Trinity CineAsia, the distributor of The Eight Hundred in the UK to discuss this topic further. Please watch this space for further information.

*This article has been shared with the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding and Hong Kong Society, which the UCFC is a member of.