Comic films continue to reign at Chinese box office, and the more lo-fi the better

Low-budget comedy sequel trumps bigger films with lavish effects over New Year holiday, continuing a trend that is likely to see directors who play for laughs winning the Lunar New Year holiday box office battle again

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 January, 2018, 5:45pm
UPDATED : Friday, 05 January, 2018, 5:45pm

Award-winning filmmaker Chen Kaige thought China’s youthful cinema-goers – their average age is 21½ – would embrace the lavish visual effects in his latest project, Legend of the Demon Cat.

But the veteran director’s prediction at last year’s Toronto Film Festival was off, with his film beaten at the box office over the lucrative New Year holidays by a bawdy romantic comedy.

An adaptation of a Japanese novel about paranormal activities in the Tang dynasty, Legend of the Demon Cat has generated a respectable 506 million yuan (US$78 million) since its release on December 22.

But it was easily outgunned by The Ex-Files: the Return of the Exes. The third in a series revolving around young characters sparring and squaring off with their former partners, the film has already grossed 749 million yuan – despite opening a week later and having been made on a much smaller budget than Chen’s VFX-heavy blockbuster.

While not the biggest hit over the festive season – that was Feng Xiaogang’s Youth, with takings of 1.3 billion – The Ex-Files’ daily average gross of nearly 90 million yuan is the highest of films released over the same period.

Numbers for Ex-Files 3, as it is known in China, are expected to rise and the film has not been overshadowed by Friday’s release in the country of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Chinese film market research firm Entgroup says Ex-Files 3 still had 31 per cent of cinema screenings, just trailing Stars Wars’ 36 per cent. Legend of the Demon Cat is a distant seventh at 2 per cent.

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Provincial cinema support has been crucial for Ex-Files 3. While it has enjoyed a 29.6 per cent share of cineplex screenings in first-tier cities, elsewhere its share is around 33 per cent.

Ex-Files 3 is the latest lo-fi comedy to punch above its weight on Chinese screens. In 2017 Some Like It Hot, a gross-out comedy about a man’s relationships with three women, beat R ogue One: A Star Wars Story during its run in January and February, taking nearly 660 million yuan at the box office.

Never Say Die, a body-swap farce which dominated Chinese screens during the National Day holidays in October, did even better. With takings of 2.2 billion yuan, the film was the second highest-grossing domestic release in China in 2017, behind Wolf Warrior 2 but ahead of more talked-about titles such as Kung Fu Yoga or Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back .

The success of Ex-Files may be a pointer to the likely winners at the box office over the Lunar New Year holiday, when eight domestic films open on February 16.

Detective Chinatown 2, starring Wang Baoqiang and Liu Haoran as two clueless con men fumbling their way through a conspiracy in New York, will be in pole position to cash in. Up against Wang’s clownish antics will be the latest effects-laden entries of the Monster Hunt and Monkey King franchises, as well as canine-heavy caper The Big Rescue.

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But the spectre of Wolf Warrior 2 looms large. Dante Lam Chiu-yin’s Operation Red S ea, backed by Bona Film Group and also the Chinese navy’s film and television production branch, is a high-octane blockbuster about a military elite squad’s attempt to save Chinese hostages from terrorists in Africa.

And then there’s the original Wolf Warrior himself. Jacky Wu Jing’s latest turn will be in The Faces of My Gene, a comedy about a failing novelist trying to change his fate by travelling across time to meet his ancestors.

Wu plays one of them, a swashbuckling imperial guard called Mei Banfa, a homonym of “No Can Do” in Chinese. The film’s trailer shows Wu striking a typically heroic pose before being clobbered and pinned to the ground by the fumbling protagonist.

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While at odds with Wu’s usual on-screen persona, the pratfall is a typical gag in this directorial debut of stage and TV comedian Guo Degang, whose previous foray into cinema was as a co-star of Top Funny Comedian: The Movie – a silly spin-off of an equally silly TV series.

Given how comedies have kept the tills ringing in Chinese cinemas during the past year, Faces might pull off a shock.