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Chinese language cinema

The reason for Wolf Warrior 2’s runaway success in China is what’s keeping Western viewers away

The movie’s nationalistic tone has struck a chord with mainland Chinese audiences but makes it a turn-off for Western filmgoers, according to analysts

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 August, 2017, 10:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 August, 2017, 11:06am

The action movie Wolf Warrior 2 has become China’s top-grossing film of all time, raking in more than 3.5 billion yuan (US$521 million) less than two weeks after its release.

This is the first time in recent years that such an overtly nationalistic film has been a runaway box office hit, with fantasies and comedies traditionally dominating the top 10.

But the movie’s strongly patriotic tone, which made it such a runaway hit on the mainland, appears to be what is keeping Western audiences away.

The action movie tells the story of former special forces soldier who stumbles into an African war zone and rescues Chinese citizens from Western mercenaries.

It became the country’s highest-grossing film at the end of Monday, just 12 days after its release on July 27.

It beat the previous record of 3.39 billion yuan set by the Hong Kong fantasy romance The Mermaid last year.

Patriotic Chinese blockbuster Wolf Warrior 2 packs a Hollywood-style punch at the box office

However, Wolf Warrior 2’s performance overseas has been far less spectacular.

The movie was released on the same day in North America and has so far taken US$1.1 million at the box office and ranked 16th in terms of total gross last week, according to Box Office Mojo.

Many of the takings were believed to be contributed by overseas Chinese.

The movie’s release coincided with the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army in China. The film, which stars martial artist Wu Jing, who also directed and co-wrote it, has also broken records by takings of over 200 million yuan every single day since release.

Wu a press conference in Guangzhou last week: “Patriotism has been hidden away inside the audience for a long time and this sentiment needs to be released through a film and a role.”

Lu Peng, a researcher specialising in film and culture at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said the main reason for the film’s success was it played to the Chinese public’s growing nationalist sentiment.

“Based on real-life news events in recent years, the story has found it easier to generate national pride than traditional propaganda films,” he said.

Action movies have rarely been well received on the mainland before. Before Wolf Warrior 2, The Ghouls, which was co-produced by China and Hong Kong and released in late 2015, was the most popular action movie, with a gross of 1.68 billion yuan. Among the 10 best-selling movies produced or co-produced by China, most are comedies and fantasies.

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Jonathan Papish, an analyst at China Film Insider, a leading entertainment trade publication, said the film was still faring relatively strongly in the US.

“I’m sure this is mostly attributed to overseas Chinese and students becoming more interested after hearing about the film from Chinese friends/ family/ social media back home,” he said.

The Western press have praised the film’s action sequences, but its unsubtle pro-China stance means it will never succeed with a mainstream Western audiences, he added.

Yu Yusan, executive vice-general manager of Dadi Film Group’s distribution branch, said the film struck a chord with Chinese audiences because it was the first domestically produced movie to successfully portray individual heroism in the style of a slick Hollywood film.

“The image of China around the world is different now and the public is really feeling this,” he said.

“In the past, propaganda films often promoted collective action, but now China has entered a period when individualism is more appreciated and the audience is getting more mature,” he said.

The film was performing well in small as well as big cities, according to Yu.

“These people haven’t watched many Hollywood movies about a single hero and such a home-produced film would be particularly attractive to them,” he said, referring to residents of smaller cities.

Good timing also contributed to the success of the movie, according to Papish.

“Domestic films have been in a box office drought this year since the Lunar New Year and there was definitely pent up demand for a high-quality, crowd-pleasing film like Wolf Warrior 2,” he said.

Chinese box office takings grew by only four per cent in the first seven months the year, according to figures from the State Administration of Radio Film and Television.

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More than 20 companies involved in the production and distribution of the film have benefited from its huge earnings, according to a report by the Beijing-based entertainment industry research firm Entgroup.

The biggest winners include Wu’s production company, Dengfeng International, the report said.

Some analysts have suggested the film will boost the entire mainland movie sector, but Lu said it would be hard to replicate its success. “The movie was to a larger extent a dark horse,” he said.

The first Wolf Warrior film, released in 2015, grossed US$89 million in China.

It tells a similar story about a special forces officer, played by Wu, fighting foreign mercenaries hired by a drug lord in China’s Xinjiang region.