Dunkirk, the hit war film written and directed by Christopher Nolan, is finally coming to the Chinese mainland. While the film was able to crush the competition when it premiered in the U.S. in late July, now that it is facing a group of Chinese moviegoers who have little knowledge of the Battle of Dunkirk, it is unsure whether the reputation of the director or the high reviews from Western audiences and critics will help push ticket sales in the Chinese mainland.
Set for release on September 1, Nolan, together with his wife and the film's producer Emma Thomas, visited Beijing to promote the film from Sunday to Tuesday. Besides holding a press conference and fan meets, Nolan also sat down with Chinese filmmaker Huang Jianxin for a forum on war films after the film's Beijing premiere Tuesday.
A different war film
"For British people, Dunkirk is a story you grow up with," Nolan explained at a Monday press conference, adding that he had grown up with a simplified fairy-tale version of the battle, and so after he learned more about the actual history behind it all, he felt that the Battle of Dunkirk - during which more than a quarter million Allied soldiers were evacuated by sea as German forces closed in - was "a universal story and really compelling to people of all cultures."
During Tuesday's forum, he added that instead of setting out to give people a history or political lesson, he wanted to "do it in a way that felt very personal" to him.
"I really wanted the audience to feel a connection with the characters there are on the beach, in the planes, on the boats. I wanted to really allow the audience to feel a sense of what it's like to live through that history," Nolan explained.
Unlike most war films, which often focus on intense battles between two opposing forces, no German soldiers show their faces in the film. According to the director, that was a decision he made during the very beginning of production.
"It was a decision I made early on writing the script. I didn't want to show the enemy up close. I wanted the effects of the enemy's aggression to be there," he explained, adding that, in his opinion, the evacuation of Dunkirk is an escape story.
"So by not showing the enemy, we stay in the point of view of the guys on the beach who just feel this threat getting closer and closer. For me it was more frightening not seeing it," he noted.
"It reflected my approach to the story, which is [treating it as] a suspense thriller rather than a battle film."
Dunkirk has been applauded by industry veterans.
Huang numbers among them. One of China's most experienced, if not the most commercial or popular, Chinese filmmakers, the 63-year-old began Tuesday's forum by giving Nolan a big thumbs up.
"I like Nolan's films very much, so I went to see [Dunkirk] earlier this month in Hong Kong," Huang said as he praised the film. "Though it is set against a real historical background, he is still able to display a strong personal style. The film is very stable when it comes to storytelling and has huge artistic sensibility. The audio and visual experience as well will grab you from the very first moment and thrill you at the end."
Chinese director and actor Wu Jing, whose recent Wolf Warrior 2 is now the highest-earning film in China, was originally scheduled to attend the forum after the premiere, but was unable to attend due to a busy schedule. However, later that night he praised the film in a post on Sina Weibo.
"It was an honor to be able to watch the premiere of Dunkirk. Nolan deserves the fame. From Inception to Batman and on to Interstellar, he never repeats himself. Sorry I cannot spoil the plot. Let's meet in cinemas on September 1."
Wang Sicong, son of Wanda Group chairman Wang Jianlin, also appeared at the premiere to show his support.
While Nolan has the support of industry insiders as well as his fans, that might not be enough to ensure that Dunkirk reaps the same commercial success in the Chinese mainland that it has had overseas.
"I do think it is a good film," a Chinese film reporter who asked to remain anonymous, told the Global Times Monday.
"But I also think it's not the type of film the Chinese audience will go crazy for. Few of them will really be interested in the technical filmmaking prowess that is on display in the film," he said, pointing out that the film jumps around from different perspectives and different overlapping time periods, which may make it difficult for Chinese audiences to enjoy.
That sentiment was echoed in a report from entertainment blog Huxiu, which wrote that the main charms of Dunkirk - its cinematography and visual language - may not be enough to attract Chinese audiences into cinemas.