Why recent Chinese films released in China couldn’t match Hollywood fare, and what that says about Chinese film-goers

Despite winning rave reviews and awards overseas, The Summer Is Gone was seen by an average of four people per screening, a reminder that Chinese audiences’ tastes are still pretty mainstream

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 April, 2017, 11:11am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 April, 2017, 12:37pm

March turned out to be the worst possible month for Chinese films to get a domestic release, given the market was flooded with Hollywood productions. Anything vaguely arthouse, no matter how well received at film festival overseas, didn’t stand a chance at the box office. Take The Summer Is Gone, for example.

The film, by first-time director Zhang Dalei, received rave reviews during its extensive tour of festivals in Asia (Tokyo), Europe (Rotterdam) and North America (New York), which will continue next week with screenings at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. The film also won the best film and best new actor prizes at the Golden Horse Awards ceremony in Taipei, often seen as the Oscars of Chinese film.

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Financed and distributed by iQiyi Pictures – the filmmaking arm of China’s largest online video-on-demand operator – the film has been given an incredible push as its release date nears, with its cast and crew embarking on a week-long, seven-city promotional tour. The film is in fact quite good, a beautiful, well-acted black-and-white drama about a provincial schoolboy’s (and China’s) growing pains in the mid-1990s.

However, since its release in China on March 24, The Summer is Gone has generated takings of barely 4.1 million yuan (HK$4.6 million, US$595,000). Figures from the Chinese entertainment business research portal Entgroup show each screening of the film was watched by an average of four viewers during the first week of its run, a number which subsequently halved as the film entered the second week of its run. On April 6 there were just 71 screenings of the film in China’s first-tier cities – Beijing, Shenzhen, Shanghai and Guangzhou – a minuscule number compared to, say, the Hollywood production Kong: Skull Island, which had more than 2,400 screenings in the capital alone.

If it is any consolation, the film’s poor showing capped off a miserable March for Chinese-language cinema in China. Of the 19 domestic productions that opened last month, only two others had box-office takings of more than 1 million yuan: Top Funny Comedian: The Movie, the awfully incoherent spin-off from a TV series featuring a multitude of product placements and ludicrous cameos from Rowan Atkinson (as Mr Bean) and American ex-boxer Evander Holyfield, and Death Ouija 2, a horror movie which features a moral and no ghosts (hardly a spoiler given that, by law, Chinese films are not allowed to “promote superstition”).

March was dominated by Hollywood releases: Logan topped the charts with a gross of 730 million yuan, followed by Kong: Skull Island (723 million yuan), Lasse Hallstrom’s A Dog’s Purpose (596 million yuan), and Beauty and the Beast (542 million yuan). Compare that to the revenue generated by Top Funny Comedian (65.2 million yuan) and Death Ouija 2 (12.7 million yuan) and there is a yawning gap.

This month began with better news for domestic filmmakers. Two of the three big films that opened on March 31 – Extraordinary Mission, by Hong Kong directors Alex Mak Siu-fai and Pun Yiu-ming, and The Devotion of Suspect X, adapted by Alec Su You-peng from a Japanese detective novel - have each taken more than 100 million yuan in their first week in cinemas.

The third, Xu Jinglei’s action thriller The Missing – with takings of 57 million yuan in its first week – may struggle to match them, despite featuring Fay Bai Baihe in the lead role as a rugged detective who goes on a rampage in her search for her vanished daughter.

Since her breakthrough in 2011 with Love Is Not Blind, Bai has established herself as China’s most bankable comic actor, with top-billing roles in A Wedding Invitation, Monster Hunt, Go Away Mr Tumour! and Chongqing Hotpot. Meanwhile, Xu has long been known for her work, both as actress and director, on soft-focused relationship dramas; her most recent directorial effort, Somewhere Only We Know, is about a young woman’s search for her grandmother’s ex-lover in Prague.

A much darker and more dynamic affair, The Missing represents some kind of an artistic breakthrough for both Xu and Bai. But it seems Chinese audiences are hardly in the mood to appreciate the pair’s attempt to break out of their perceived places in the industry. If The Missing does perform relatively poorly, after the failure of The Summer Is Gone to catch fire, it will be another reminder that Chinese film-goers have a long way to go still to embrace diversity.