As the summer blockbuster season draws to a close, it is time to read the tea leaves and try to discern what’s happening at the Chinese box office.
July and August is traditionally when China’s annual Hollywood blackout takes place, and domestic productions are given a boost by the banning of big-budget foreign films – but there were a couple of exceptions this summer: Skyscraper hit Chinese screens on July 20 and The Meg was released simultaneously in China and the United States on August 10. Both fared well at the Chinese box office, with the former raking in 670 million yuan (US$98 million).
Look closely, however, and you will see that both films have Chinese connections.
As well as starring Li Bingbing and Winston Chao Wen-hsuan, shark film The Meg is a Chinese-American co-production, one of whose financiers is Flagship Entertainment, a Chinese company co-owned by WarnerMedia. Skyscraper, meanwhile, was produced by Legendary Entertainment, which is owned by mainland conglomerate Wanda Group.
The denouement of The Meg takes place in Sanya, on Hainan Island, while Skyscraper is set in Hong Kong, with the fictional tower at its centre referencing buildings in Shanghai and Guangzhou.
The key to the films’ success appears to lie in their ability to appeal to Chinese tastes. Then again, that’s not exactly news: the Chinese army’s propaganda chiefs learned it the hard way last summer when their self-celebratory production The Founding of an Army floundered in the face of Wu Jing’s Ramboesque Wolf Warrior 2.
Other winners this summer include Dying to Survive, a film based on the life story of a Chinese man smuggling cheap Indian medicine into the mainland to help impoverished cancer-stricken patients. Directed by first-timer Wen Muye and starring A-list comedian Xu Zheng, Dying to Survive generated a buzz after premiering at the Shanghai International Film Festival in June and raked in an incredible 163 million yuan in a limited run, before a general release on July 5.
According to figures from film industry research firm EntGroup, Dying to Survive took more than 80 per cent of the total gross in China in its first week, and maintained an impressive share over the next fortnight (more than 50 per cent in its second week and 25 per cent the week after). Billed as the Chinese equivalent of Dallas Buyers Club (2013), Dying to Survive has now generated more than 3.1 billion yuan, propelling it to third place in the year’s rankings behind Lunar New Year hits Operation Red Sea (3.9 billion yuan) and Detective Chinatown 2 (3.7 billion yuan).
Mainland audiences love a good rags-to-riches story that satirises money, and Hello Mr Billionaire, sitting at No 4 on the box-office chart, is just that. A remake of the 1985 US comedy Brewster’s Millions, it revolves around a failed footballer’s struggle to inherit a rich uncle’s fortune – to earn it, he must spend 1 billion yuan in a month.
Released on July 27, Hello Mr Billionairemade more than 900 million yuan in its opening weekend. During the fourth week, its takings stood at 2.5 billion yuan.
Directed by Huang Bo, The Island is a comedy about a labourer who wins the lottery but is unable to cash in his ticket because he is stranded on an island following a shipwreck. The film, which hit Chinese cinemas on August 10, has proved to be a slow burner, with takings standing at 1.2 billion yuan at the end of the second week.
Among this summer’s losers is Tsui Hark’s latest film in the Detective Dee series, the obsolete-sounding Four Heavenly Kings. While a gross of 600 million yuan during a two-week run starting on July 27 seemed healthy enough, the figure just about matched the box-office takings of the previous instalment, 2013’s Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon , despite the expansion of the Chinese market in the intervening years.
Oolong Courtyard, Taiwan’s premier schlockmeister Kevin Chu Yen-ping’s first film in four years, quickly capsized upon its release on August 17, as The Island and The Meg continued their duel for dominance.
Jingle Ma Chor-sing’s Europe Raiders, a follow-up to the heist franchise that propelled the director onto the A-list in the noughties, also flopped.
With Tony Leung Chiu-wai reprising his role as a smug private investigator and Wong Kar-wai’s Jet Tone Films coming on board as producers, Europe Raiders topped the box-office charts for half a day when it opened on August 17. That was as good as it got: having taken about 974 million yuan on its first day, the film added less than half that amount to its gross over the weekend.
Europe Raiders was widely maligned on film portals for its weak screenplay and bad acting. There was a time when the film’s premise – beautiful people with futuristic gimmicks on a runaround in exotic locales – would have appealed to glam-starved audiences: that was why Tokyo Raiders (2000) and, to a lesser extent, Seoul Raiders (2005), worked at the beginning of the 21st century. But mainland audiences have now seen it all – and they would rather watch someone similar to themselves embark on adventures, as Wang Baoqiang did in Lost in Thailand (2012), Buddies in India (2016) and Detective Chinatown 2 (2017).
It will be interesting to see how they react to the wave of domestic blockbusters hitting screens during the National Day “Golden Week”. Among them will be Jia Zhangke’s decade-straddling relationship drama Ash is Purest White, Zhang Yimou’s martial-arts fantasy Shadow and Hong Kong filmmaker Felix Chong Man-keung’s crime thriller Project Gutenberg.