New film about Chinese soldiers fighting in the Korean conflict tops China's box-office charts, Xu Fan reports.
In this season of patriotism in China－commemorating a war fought seven decades ago－a slew of films and TV dramas have been released, also indicating better production techniques and storytelling skills.
Topping the country's box-office charts, The Sacrifice, earlier titled Jin Gang Chuan, has become the most talked-about film marking the 70th anniversary of Chinese People's Volunteers in the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea (1950-53).
Many industry insiders say the production process was a "miracle "like the story that the film is based on: the real event of Chinese soldiers building a bridge under intense bombing by US-led forces in order to transport tens of thousands of Chinese troops to the front lines during the Battle of Kumsong－the last battle before an armistice was signed to stop the Korean conflict.
The film's co-directors Guan Hu, Guo Fan and Lu Yang－all seasoned in steering spectacular cinematic productions exemplified by their respective directorial efforts The Eight Hundred, The Wandering Earth and Brotherhood of Blades－started shooting in early August, along with around 5,000 crew members, including around 2,600 special-effects artists, all working around the clock.
Usually, a war film takes years to make. Guan's last film, The Eight Hundred, was in production for nearly a year after he had prepared for the project for 10 years.
However, The Sacrifice took very little time. Liang Jing, the film's producer and Guan's wife, says Guan drafted a 400-word synopsis in a short time, deciding the film would unfold from three perspectives－the Chinese troops, a US fighter pilot and several anti-aircraft gunners. Such a plan made filming more efficient with the three directors simultaneously working on their respective parts.
When Guan and Lu were shooting battle scenes in the wild in Dandong, Northeast China's Liaoning province, Guo was spending most of his time on the outskirts of Beijing working on the visual effects.
Guo, a state-of-the-art technology enthusiast, entered the directorial A-list in China with the sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth. He says his team adopted virtual photography and motion-capture techniques to visualize the battle scenes on computer, making the actual on-set shoot in Dandong easier.
Aside from racing against time, the crew had to cope with their own persistent enemy bombardment－the changeable weather－while filming in Dandong, the border city along the Yalu River facing the Korean Peninsula, which was chosen as the filming set for its landscape's resemblance to that of Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
In September, a typhoon had ravaged the city, bringing in floods. The crew's vehicles, loaded with props and costumes and parked on a flattened cornfield covering 200,000 square meters, were affected by the water. Most portable toilets were submerged by an overflowing river that was used to represent the Kumgang River. With a width of 60 meters and depth of 4 meters, it's a tremendous torrent where swimming is difficult.
During the hardest days of flooding, which lasted for 10 days, the crew had to suspend shooting, arranging for actors to rehearse their scenes in hotels, with chairs or tables used as "weapons" to help their imagination, recalls Liang.
With the final post-production procedure concluding just two days before its release on Oct 23, the film mobilized the industry's top talent and resources, making it the latest example of Chinese cinema's fast recovery from the COVID-19 hiatus.
Among mixed reviews online, most criticism was directed at the film's three-perspective narrative. With a comparison to Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, which is told from the perspectives of troops on land, in air and sea, most Chinese netizens say The Sacrifice "repeats scenes in a cumbersome way".
But actor Zhang Yi, who portrays an anti-aircraft gunner, has become the top highlight for his performance, vividly displaying the character's transformation from a somewhat cowardly, hesitant figure to a fearless hero.
Most insiders and industry watchers believe the Chinese film－despite some shortcomings－shows that the industrialization of Chinese films is being accelerated, helping the domestic industry to mature.
Sha Dan, a researcher at the China Film Archive, says the commercial success of The Sacrifice shows that such films－a traditional genre retelling of New China's revolutionary past-"have notched up a breakthrough".
"The film adopts a modern cinema narrative technique, assembling some of the country's best filmmakers within a short time. With the production procedure (repairing the prop bridge several times during the typhoon) reminiscent of the real war story, it strikes a chord with audiences, especially the youngsters," Sha explains.
Based on the film's popularity, Sha predicts that such "national-level movies"－referring to its scale and the support from China's movie authorities－might rise as a pivotal genre of Chinese cinema in the next few years, following previous hits such as the My People franchise and the Founding trilogy to consecutively ride the momentum.
Further similar projects are underway. Bona Film Group, one of the country's largest privately owned studios excelling in producing revolutionary films, recently announced that it would relaunch shooting for Changjin Hu (Chosin Reservoir), which was scheduled to begin filming in early February in Dandong but had to be postponed due to the pandemic.
As a cinematic rendering of one of the most brutal periods of the 1950-53 war, the film recounts the story of a squadron of the Chinese People's Volunteers fearlessly facing foreign soldiers in cold winter during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
Lasting between Nov 27 and Dec 24, 1950, the Chinese army successfully split elite US troops under siege, annihilating around 13,000 enemy soldiers, making the battle a turning point to lay the foundation for the armistice negotiations.
Affected by the pandemic, the film's directorial chair has been handed from Hong Kong filmmaker Andrew Lau to three prestigious directors－Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam－as Lau is directing another big film for Bona, one reflecting Chinese doctors' dedication to fighting the pandemic.
Besides, scriptwriter Chen Yu's film Zuileng de Qiang (The Chilliest Shot), based on the true story of a legendary sniper during the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea, is reportedly being directed by Zhang Yimou, the first Chinese auteur to win a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, according to the newspaper Xi'an Daily.
Rao Shuguang, president of the China Film Critics Association, says these films symbolize the Chinese spirit to safeguard the nation and will evoke widespread thought about the relationship between war and peace.