In the climactic scene of a recent hit Chinese blockbuster, a handsome military leader gives his troops an inspirational speech, urging them to fight for the nation against Japanese imperialists.
As the music crescendos, the inspired soldiers chant, “The Chinese nation will not perish! The Chinese nation will not perish!” But as the camera zooms out, we see a surprising sight that viewers in China might have expected to be censored: the blue and red flag of the Republic of China, now known as Taiwan, waving from a rooftop.
Considered a symbol of Taiwan “separatism,” the flag was spotted a few times in the war epic The Eight Hundred, a movie set during the second Sino-Japanese war, when China was governed by the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang. Beijing claims self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory, to be reintegrated into the mainland, by force if necessary.
The Eight Hundred is a rare film in China set during WWII that does not focus on the Communist Party’s heroism. While its success is partly due to the lack of competition, it reflects a broader trend in China: The commercialization of its propaganda vehicles, such as movies and television, to varying degrees of success.
The movie has made over $441 million at the box office, thanks in part to China’s ability to control the coronavirus within its borders and reopen its cinemas. The Eight Hundred has also taken advantage of Hollywood delaying its big-budget blockbusters as America continues to battle the coronavirus pandemic.
Comparatively, Tenet, the highest-grossing Hollywood blockbuster released after the coronavirus pandemic ravaged America, just crossed the $300 million mark, making $45 million in the US and $65.5 million in China.
Chang Yu-liang, a professor who researches Chinese media at Taiwan’s Nanhua University, said the fact that The Eight Hundred was screened was a good sign for the movie industry in China and its growing command of more challenging topics.