Guan Hu, Director of 2020’s Highest Grossing Film, Starts New Production as China Lines Up July Releases

Chinese director Guan Hu is riding high right now: Despite languishing in government censorship purgatory for over a year, his patriotic war epic “The Eight Hundred” has risen to become the highest grossing film in the world in 2020, with sales of $461 million. His next confirmed move? More jingoistic propaganda.

Guan is executive producer and “supervisor” — a sort of on-set mentor figure — for the new production “The Revolutionary,” which has just begun shooting this week. The project will be a family affair — his wife, the actress Liang Jing, is also set to executive produce alongside him. Backed by Enlight Media, it is scheduled for a high-profile July 1 debut.

The date holds a special significance this year, as it marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of China’s ruling Communist Party (CCP) — a time when Beijing will seek to celebrate the regime through positive media portrayals and go out of its way to further suppress other negative commentary. Most prominent Chinese filmmakers and companies are preparing at least one project developed as a tribute to the milestone for release in 2021.

Guan is no exception. At a kick-off ceremony for the project in Shanghai on Sunday, he told attendees gathered outdoors in masks, “I want to spread this kind of [revolutionary] spirit to my compatriots and young people. This requires us to come up with a new film genre” — that is, one that can make stodgy party history palatable and even attractive to new generations.

The CCP has long sought to harness the power of Hollywood-style filmmaking to make its own narratives more accessible and convincing. Recently, such “main melody” films have grown more sophisticated and artistic, moving away from formulaic, star-driven attempts of the past that merely slapped a few Red Army hats onto a line-up of the hottest young celebs. 

Insiders say that top-down government messaging these days has all but required leading directors to create a 2021 propaganda tribute film, but developing such projects is often a savvy career moves in its own right. Demonstrating the right political bonafides can help artists build key relationships and secure greater leeway for future personal projects, and it doesn’t hurt that often, big political blockbusters are too red to be allowed to fail at the box office.

“The Revolutionary” will be directed by young newcomer Xu Zhanxiong, whose first feature “Wild Grass” grossed $7.98 million (RMB52.1 million) in August, just as Chinese cinemas first began to reopen post-COVID-19. The rom-com counts both Guan and Liang among its eight different producers, with Guan also managing its art direction.

This next collaboration between the two directors seeks to tell the story of Chinese history from 1912 to 1927 through the eyes of the titular revolutionary Li Dazhao, one of the main founders of the CCP. It will “depict the inextinguishable revolutionary fire and lofty ambitions that have burned for a century, from the perspective of ordinary people,” according to one description. Zhang Songwen, best known from Lou Ye’s 2018 film “The Shadow Play” and the recent iQiyi drama “The Bad Kids,” will star as Li.

Enlight Media chairman Wang Changtian said that “it is a big challenge to make a film that is both welcomed by viewers and has artistic merit,” but “when Guan Hu suggested that Xu Zhanxiong direct this, and that he himself could supervise and create this work together, we felt very happy and comforted.”

The project was first conceived of in 2018, and has received strong support from provincial and city-level propaganda departments in Hebei province, the site of Li’s hometown. The script took over a year to develop, and has been “highly praised by experts, enabling the shoot to begin smoothly” at a time when authorities are extremely cautious in approving materials depicting historical figures.

“The Revolutionary” will compete on July 1 against fellow propaganda blockbuster “1921,” backed by Tencent Pictures and Shanghai Film Group. That film stars Ni Ni (“The Flowers of War”), Huang Xuan (“The Great Wall”), and Wang Renjun (“Brotherhood of Blades 2”), alongside other A-listers like TFBoy idol Wang Junkai, and is directed by “main melody” genre maestro Huang Jianxin (“The Founding of an Army”).

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