2018 in review
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From left: Liu Haoran, Xiao Yang and Wang Baoqiang in a still from Detective Chinatown 2.

The top 10 films at the Chinese box office, and the five biggest flops, in 2018

  • Patriotic hit Operation Red Sea, franchise comedy Detective Chinatown 2, and a Chinese Dallas Buyers Club took top honours, eclipsing Hollywood films
  • Hong Kong’s Carina Lau, Tony Leung, Nick Cheung and William Chan had a hand in some of the worst performers, as did Li Bingbing, whose star is falling

Film-goers spent 60.98 billion yuan (US$88.7 billion) at Chinese cinemas in 2018. If that sounds like good news, the reality is that growth in box office takings in China appears to be slowing.

From 2009 to 2015, box office receipts for films in China rose from 6 billion yuan to 44 billion yuan, with growth averaging over 30 per cent a year. Takings in 2016 rose only 3.7 per cent, to 46 billion yuan. In 2017 they grew 13.45 per cent.

Ranking every Hong Kong film released in 2018, from worst to best

The box office total for 2018 represents a 9 per cent increase from 2017, but this is just the second year in 10 that the yearly increase in takings has been in single digits.

Of the top 10 movies at the Chinese box office in 2018, four were Hollywood productions and the rest domestic productions. The top three films, each of which took more than 3 billion yuan at the box office, were made in China.

Domestic films recorded ticket sales of 37.9 billion yuan in 2018, accounting for 62 per cent of the total box office, the official Xinhua news agency said late on Monday, citing data from the State Film Administration.

Domestic films in 2017 accounted for 54 per cent of total box office.

China is the second-largest movie market globally after the United States, though it already has more movie screens than the US after years of rapid expansion in cinema networks.

The top 10 performers at the China box office in 2018:


1. Operation Red Sea , released in February, took 3.65 billion yuan

Riding on the wave of patriotic fervour induced by the hugely popular patriotic action movies Wolf Warrior (2015) and Wolf Warrior 2 (2017), Operation Red Sea was the this year’s Chinese box office champion. Presented as a gift to audiences to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the establishment of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, and the Communist Party’s 19th National Congress, the movie is loosely based on the evacuation of over 200 foreign nationals and almost 600 Chinese citizens from Yemen’s southern port of Aden during the 2015 civil war in the Middle Eastern country.
Critics said the scenes depicted in the film are more authentic than Wolf Warrior, which was criticised for brainwashing audiences into admiring China. Rather than promoting individual heroism as Wolf Warrior does, Operation Red Sea shows groups cooperating to tackle arduous tasks and fulfil missions. Read the SCMP review

2. Detective Chinatown 2 , released in February, took 3.4 billion yuan

Riding on the success of Detective Chinatown, which was released in 2015 and took more than 800 million yuan, the sequel continues the action and humour of the first comedy detective film. It tells the story of two Chinese detectives who risk life and limb in New York to solve a murder case. With the success of the two films, a franchise has been born; Detective Chinatown 3 is due for release in 2020. Read the SCMP review

3. Dying to Survive , released in July, took 3.1 billion yuan

This surprise hit marks the feature-length debut of 33-year-old director Wen Muye. The film, described as a Chinese Dallas Buyers Club, was praised for giving a gritty portrayal of the greedy pharmaceuticals and medical industry in China which drive critically ill patients to desperation.


It is based on the real-life figure of Jiangsu native Lu Yong, who suffers from leukaemia. Deterred by the expensive price of leukaemia medicine which was protected by patent, the entrepreneur played by Xu Zheng went to India to buy much cheaper imitation medicine and sell it to leukaemia patients on the cheap, sparing them death and financial ruin.

After being arrested by the government for selling fake medicine, several thousand leukaemia patients who benefit from his cheap Indian medicine appealed for his release. The protagonist was eventually released without charge.

4. Hello Mr. Billionaire , released in July, took 2.55 billion yuan

This comedy sends up the conspicuous consumption of China’s nouveau riche by trying to make their lifestyles look vulgar. Directed by Goodbye Mr Loser directors Peng Damo and Yan Fei, the film revolves around the antics of a shoddy goalkeeper in a hopeless soccer team who suddenly receives a vast fortune from his rich uncle. Read the SCMP review

5. Avengers: Infinity War , released in May, took 2.39 billion yuan

Based on Marvel Comics superhero team the Avengers, the American superhero film is the third Avengers film and the nineteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Its big box office takings in China are hardly a surprise – the franchise and Marvel heroes have a huge Chinese fan base. Read the SCMP review


6. Monster Hunt 2 , released in February, took 2.24 billion yuan

Riding on the success of the first Monster Hunt (2015), which chalked up 2.4 billion yuan in Chinese ticket sales, the sequel picks up where the first one left off. It shows the adventures of the four-armed radish monster prince Wuba and a goofy Tony Leung Chiu-wai in a kid-friendly fantasy comedy with a family reunion plot to appeal to Lunar New Year audiences. Read the SCMP review


7. Venom , released in November, took 1.87 billion yuan

The American superhero film is based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name. A sentient alien, Venom first appeared in Marvel comics alongside Spider-Man in 1984. Brought to Earth after a rocket encounters a comet, the creature is able to seep into the body of a human being, who it uses as a host to stay alive. The host it inhabits is Eddie Brock, a news reporter, played by Tom Hardy – who portrays the fraught relationship between Brock and his “parasite” Venom. Read the SCMP review


8. Aquaman , released in December, has taken 1.78 billion yuan and counting

This film, directed by James Wan, enjoyed the biggest Chinese opening ever for a Warner Bros. production. After the marine hero’s introduction in last year’s Justice League, the “king of the seas” gets his own stand-alone vehicle. Arthur Curry, played by Jason Momoa, learns that he is the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, and must step forward to lead his people and save the world. Read the SCMP review


9. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom , released in June, took 1.7 billion yuan

The movie takes audiences back to the dinosaur-infested island of Isla Nublar, which is on the verge of being engulfed by magma when its long-dormant volcano comes alive and threatens the prehistoric creatures with extinction. Owen (played by Chris Pratt) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) set out to rescue the remaining dinosaurs from imminent apocalypse. Read the SCMP review


10. The Ex-File: The Return of the Exes , released in January, took 1.65 billion yuan

The romantic comedy explores how contemporary Chinese view their former lovers. Directed by Tian Yusheng and a sequel to 2014’s Ex-Files and 2015’s Ex-Files 2, the film struck a chord in China, where people often maintain an on-and-off relationship with their exes.

The bottom 5 movies at the Chinese box office:

Along with the box office hits come the misses. These induce widespread soul-searching at film production companies whose big bets on spectacular special effects and expensive A-list stars backfire. These five made-in-China films offered their makers costly lessons in 2018.


1. Asura , released in July

The producers of Asura – including Alibaba Pictures – decided to pull it from cinemas after a disastrous opening weekend when it only made 49.05 million yuan. (Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.)

With a budget of 750 million yuan, it is the most expensive Chinese film ever made. A production which involved 2,500 people from all over the world, the film was largely shot in three Chinese provinces – Qinghai, Ningxia and Hebei – and spent 15 months in post-production in the United States.

Its stellar cast includes Hong Kong stars Carina Lau Ka-ling and Tony Leung Ka-fai, and Chinese teenage heartthrob Wu Lei, who played the main character. The fantasy epic tells the story of a shepherd (played by Wu) on a quest to save Asura – the dimension of pure desire.


2. A Better Tomorrow 2018 , January

With a production budget of 100 million yuan, the film took in only 63 million yuan at the box office.

The story of a police officer who mounts a campaign to arrest his ex-convict brother, and their reconciliation, the movie was panned as a poor adaptation of the 1986 John Wu classic A Better Tomorrow, starring Chow Yun-fat and Leslie Cheung, that copied wholesale the original’s plot and the relationship between its lead characters.


3. The Trough , April

With a 130 million yuan budget, the film bombed at the box office, taking only 34 million yuan. The Trough was directed and co-written by award-winning Hong Kong actor Nick Cheung Ka-fai, who also stars as the protagonist, an undercover cop. Critics panned Cheung for producing a hagiography about himself at the expense of plot. Read the SCMP review


4. Genghis Khan , April

This film cost 100 million yuan to make, but took only 38 million yuan at the Chinese box office. Hong Kong singer and actor William Chan Wai-ting plays Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, who sets out to save his fiancée after she is kidnapped by a tribal chief on their wedding night. The film was criticised for poor editing and its stock characterisations.


5. Guardians of the Tomb , January

Chinese superstar Li Bingbing and Taiwanese-Bruneian actor and singer Wu Chun couldn’t save this movie from ignominy. Made at a cost of 120 million yuan, the film took only 49 million yuan.

The Australian-Chinese co-production was directed by Australian Kimble Rendall. A science fiction horror thriller, it revolves around a team of scientists who lose a colleague in an ancient labyrinth while on a quest for the biggest discovery of the century.

It was rated only 3.9 out of ten on Chinese film rating site Douban. In spite of its plentiful special effects and the Lara Croft-like protagonist, played by Li Bingbing, the film was panned for its clichéd plot. Critics said its poor box office showing suggested Li’s star was fading.

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Additional reporting by Reuters