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The Eight Hundred: The 2020 blockbuster that didn’t come from Hollywood

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet may have been touted as the ‘saviour of cinema’ in recent times, opening to reasonably positive box office numbers on its debut worldwide. However, there is one film released around the same time that has eclipsed the new Hollywood blockbuster, becoming 2020’s second highest-grossing film worldwide (after Bad Boys For Life). 

Chinese production The Eight Hundred is a large-scale historical epic, the first Asian film shot entirely with IMAX cameras, depicting a famous moment in the nation’s history. It grossed over $300million (£233.5million) in China alone, the biggest gross in a single country this year, and yet those whose cinema diet consists mainly of American studio movies may not have heard of it. So, is the film worthy of the grand reception?

Set in 1937, the film is a recreation of the heroic defence of a warehouse in Shanghai from the invading Japanese Army, at the beginning of The Second Sino-Japanese War.

The warehouse, strategically placed across the river from an international zone where foreign dignitaries watch the conflict, became a landmark in what would become part of World War 2.

Just over 400 Chinese Nationalist Army troops held off tens of thousands of Japanese forces for four days in a doomed mission that ultimately became a symbol of hope for their countrymen, also drawing admiration from international forces.

This is, of course, a simplified explanation of an epic moment in history, and the many names and details thrown at the screen require strict attention from newcomers. However, the sentiment is something most audiences will be familiar with, as underequipped heroes make a stand against insurmountable odds. 

The film’s biggest appeal is its ability to mix large scale action with singular, intimate stories. We witness the noise and destruction of attacks, but also the terror of those receiving them. No individual is given too much time, as the lavishly staged events of the four days are given priority over the men themselves, but we’re left in no doubt as to their heroism.

The film has, ironically given its competition, been compared to Nolan’s Dunkirk, and it does share similar themes. Just as Kenneth Branagh commented how he could almost see home, so too the soldiers look across at an international concession, exempt from the fighting and a torturous glimmer of safety.

This is a film about the idea of home and how far many (or in this case a few) are willing to go to defend that idea. 

At nearly two and a half hours, The Eight Hundred may be too arduous for those simply wanting some mindless Big Screen spectacle. But if this break from superheroes and star ships has you yearning to try something new, this ambitious recreation of history is worth your time.

The Eight Hundred is in UK cinemas from Wednesday.


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