By Peng Jiawei  ·  2024-01-04  ·   Source: NO.1 JANUARY 4; 2024

Posters of some of China's biggest box office hits in 2023 (FILE)

Watching Hollywood blockbusters in throngs and with bags of popcorn in arms used to be a kind of coming-of-age party for Chinese millennials, who spent their childhood and teenage years admiring the mighty cohort of American superheroes and secret agents.

Little did Hollywood know that its usual cinematic magic would one day fizzle out.

When Chinese cinemas reopened in 2023 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, studios were quick to offer China a slew of blockbuster hopefuls, only to find that the country's audiences had seemingly moved on from superheroes and Tom Cruise-style individualism.

As Hollywood struggled to regain a foothold in the country, 2023 was also the year that China's domestic film industry came into full bloom.

According to data published by Chinese ticketing platform Maoyan, as of December 27, the Chinese box office had topped 53.8 billion yuan ($7.5 billion), a 78-percent increase from 2022. Fifty percent of the year's total haul was generated by the 10 highest-grossing films—all domestic titles.

A closer look at the chart reveals a major shift in tastes, which have veered away from the imaginative realm of sci-fi and fantasy—genres that dominated the Chinese box office in 2022—toward a new breed of realistic films.

Featuring no outer space generated by dazzling special effects or intricately choreographed car chase scenes, these films focus on ordinary people and uses the force of poignant storytelling to explore complex social themes that are familiar to contemporary China.

"The year 2023 witnessed a return to realism," Li Yang, a professor of film theory at Peking University, told Beijing Review. "On the one hand, there is the waning charm of Hollywood. On the other, the rapid changes in Chinese society have jacked up demand for films that are reflective of our changing social mores."

Keeping it real

An example of the more realistic end of last year's domestic releases was Never Say Never (Octagonal), a film directed by Chinese actor Wang Baoqiang that follows a former boxing champion as he trains orphaned boys from China's remote countryside to be mixed-martial arts (MMA) fighters.

First released in July 2023, a traditional high season for the Chinese box office, the film became the year's sixth highest-grossing title with a revenue topping $300 million.

Viewers were struck by its unapologetic exploration of poverty and child welfare challenges in rural China—a far cry from the invincible hero archetypes that usually characterize the martial arts genre.

"The name Octagonal both highlights the film's central motif, the octagonal cage used in MMA combat, and sums up the common plight of rural children, who are trapped in the mountains and must struggle to find a way out," one of the most-liked comments on Chinese review platform Douban read.

While Never Say Never fused martial arts with social commentary, many of 2023's hottest titles examined reality through the lens of the thriller—arguably the year's most popular genre in China's cinematic landscape.

The year opens with Full River Red, a thriller-comedy about a labyrinthine Song Dynasty (960-1272) conspiracy directed by fifth-generation helmer Zhang Yimou. During the summer season, the immense box office success of No More Bet, a thriller about overseas cyberfraud, further stoked up Chinese moviegoers' interest in local crime stories. Both films were in the top three spots of last year's domestic box office.

The year 2023 closed with yet another sensational thriller, Across the Furious Sea, the last part of a crime trilogy by Chinese director Cao Baoping. The film follows a bereaved father as he attempts to revenge his daughter's death and ultimately realizes that it is his own flawed parental strategies that have caused the tragedy.

"We infused the film with deeper social values and transformed it into a narrative that's not just well-paced, but also thought-provoking," Cao told Beijing Youth Daily.

The women's march

Another noteworthy trend was the rising percentage of women in moviegoing audiences.

According to a report copublished by the organizing committee of the Golden Rooster Awards, one of the most important movie awards on the Chinese mainland, and box office tracker Beacon, women represented 58.3 percent of Chinese moviegoers in 2023. By comparison, in the pre-pandemic year of 2019, 51 percent of the domestic audience were women.

Soaring box-office spending by Chinese women suggests a new entry point for U.S. studios. While Hollywood's action blockbusters in 2023 failed to excite Chinese audiences, Barbie, a "pink" comedy directed by Greta Gerwig, became a rare online sensation. Despite earning a modest $35 million, the movie sparked massive online discussion about the conflicting standards society holds women to.

Barbie mania was paralleled by the runaway success of Lost in the Stars, a Chinese suspense film in which a debt-ridden husband drowns his wife for an

insurance payout. The film grossed a colossal $490 million, making it China's fourth highest-grossing film of the year.

The film tapped into a growing angst among young Chinese women toward deceitful husbands and ill-fated marriages. During its theatrical run, "For those whose parents are urging you to get married, just take them to see Lost in the Stars" was a trending line on Chinese social media.

Another high-profile domestic release centering on women was Beyond the Clouds, a film adaptation of the life of Zhang Guimei, a teacher who founded the country's first free public high school for girls. Set in a rural outpost in southwest China's Yunnan Province, the film tells the tale of how education changes the life of a group of young women, many of whom would have otherwise dropped out of school to get married.

While the two films are dramatically different, together they stand out as thoughtful explorations of issues facing millions of Chinese women today.

However, both films proved controversial for their portrayal of women. Beyond the Clouds was heavily attacked for allegedly turning a real-life alcoholic father into an alcoholic mother. Lost in the Stars was criticized for perpetuating gender stereotypes by fitting its female characters into the tropes of the lovelorn maiden and the femme fatale.

Whether one agrees with these accusations or not, it seems Chinese audiences are demanding a more subtle and nuanced treatment of female characters in films, and that the industry still has a long way to go.

Moviegoer 2.0

Over the past few years, video sharing platforms such as Bilibili, which mainly targets Gen Zs, and Douyin, TikTok's Chinese version, have risen to become the most important front for film promotion.

A film that emerged as an unexpected social media hit in 2023 was Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms, a mythological epic directed by Chinese director Wuershan. The film did not stir much attention when first released, but quickly amassed a vast online community of zilaishui, literally meaning "self-hired water army," but used as a term for devoted fans who voluntarily promote their favorite flicks on social media.

Many people attributed the film's success to the millions of related memes and hashtags wildly circulating on Douyin. Yet it was the film's commitment to the creation of a distinctly Chinese fantasy epic that guaranteed its lasting fame. "Chinese history holds many unexplored territories and untold stories. We need to delve deeper into our own traditions and also learn from film industries across the globe. This way, we can create our own narrative," Wuershan told Beijing Review.

Many industry insiders, however, are worried that Douyin may prove a toxic influence on Chinese moviegoers.

"The temporary shutdown of cinemas during the pandemic generated a new generation of Chinese viewers, who care less about logic and aesthetics than about mood and relatability," Li observed.

Guan Yadi, a renowned Chinese film producer, also lamented during his personal podcast that short-video streaming is causing people to lose interest in long filmic narratives. He pointed out that viewers no longer have the patience to sit through three hours of Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer, though all of the story's emotional heft lies in its final scene. Instead, Chinese netizens were more interested in how Albert Einstein was, like themselves, not good at math.

"Memes used to be the side dish. But now they have become the main course," Guan said.

But the producer still believes in the industry's enduring vitality.

"Throughout the history of film, every time a new technology threatens to replace the art of cinema, it evolves by integrating those technologies into its own form. After all, the art subsists on human emotions—and emotions never die," he concluded. 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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