On Screen China: Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ Finally Washes Up on Chinese Shores

China’s legion of passionate Christopher Nolan fans will help push the World War II drama to an easy weekend box office victory, but general audiences — unaccustomed to both Nolan’s experimental storytelling as well as to WWII battles outside the Pacific theater, will have their patience tested.

Christopher Nolan signing autographs at the Chinese premiere of ‘Dunkirk’

Dunkirk (敦刻尔克)

China Distribution: China Film Co., Ltd (中国电影股份有限公司)
US Distribution: Warner Bros. Pictures

With four films released in China over the past decade-plus, director Christopher Nolan has been able to build a large and loyal fan base amongst Chinese moviegoers.

Yet his previous box office successes — including 2014’s Interstellar (RMB 755 million/$122 million) and 2010’s Inception (RMB 462 million/$71 million), both the second highest-grossing imported films of their respective years, and 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises (RMB 339 million/$55 million)  — came on the backs of sci-fi action and superhero films, genres that tend to attract the most eyeballs in China.

Last year’s Hacksaw Ridge, which grossed RMB 427 million ($62 million) behind incredible word of mouth, seemed to signal a shift in China’s affinity for historical war dramas. But Hacksaw‘s focus on the The Battle of Okinawa — a central battle in WWII’s Pacific Theater between US and Japanese forces and an event relatable to most general Chinese audiences — was a key reason for the film’s box office performance.

Enter Nolan’s Dunkirk. A sweeping and dramatic retelling of the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Northern France, by all accounts Dunkirk has succeeded commercially and critically since its worldwide release (sans China) in July and has racked up $415 million in global ticket sales.

But its distant focal point along the Western Front in Europe, far removed from the minds of even the most diehard Chinese history buff, and Nolan’s non-linear, experimental storytelling, will likely alienate most general Chinese audiences familiar with straightforward and traditional war movie tropes.

Still, we expect Nolan’s fanbase to turn out in droves this weekend, giving Dunkirk a three-day debut in the vicinity of RMB 180-200 million ($~30 million), on par with Valerian‘s opening last weekend.

In the end, Dunkirk will struggle to reach Hacksaw Ridge‘s impressive total and will finish a subpar Chinese run (given Nolan’s previous successes there) with RMB 400 million ($60 million).