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The Plot Thickens
Despite several blockbusters, 2017 exposed the Chinese film industry's weakness—lack of diversity
By Yuan Yuan | NO. 05 FEBRUARY 1 , 2018

A still from Wolf Warrior 2 featuring lead actor and director Wu Jing (COURTESY PHOTO)

Though the Chinese film industry started with a bang in 2017, as the year wore on, it faced a challenging future despite several blockbusters.

While the nine movies released during the holiday week of the Chinese New Year last year—from January 27 to February 2, 2017—scooped up 3.355 billion yuan ($528.83 million) and shot past the record of the New Year holiday week in 2016, which was $475.04 million, the success was followed by several dismal months. Industry watchers attributed it to a continuation of the abrupt slowdown of the box office in 2016.

After averaging a yearly growth of 35 percent for over a decade, China's box office expanded less than 4 percent in 2016 and judging from the market results in the first half of 2017, the situation seemed to have worsened.

The main actors and actress of the film Bad Genius meet audiences in Beijing on October 21, 2017 (VCG)

The dark horse phenomenon

Figures of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television show that on March 1 last year, overall box-office sales of the Chinese mainland reached 10 billion yuan, ($1.58 billion), six days slower than in 2016. The succeeding months saw the market dominated by Hollywood money-spinners in spite of the Film Industry Promotion Law coming into effect in March and limiting the quota of foreign films.

Two Hollywood offerings, Michael Bay's Transformers: The Last Knight, and The Fate of the Furious, the eighth in The Fast and the Furious franchise, stumbled in the United States but earned more in China, which has become a major overseas box-office revenue source for Hollywood. Powered by these movies, the overall ticket sales in China reached 20 billion yuan ($3.15 billion), hitting the figure 16 days earlier than in 2016. The Fate of the Furious, grossing $411 million, became the second box-office hit in China in 2017.

However, the most remarkable milepost was a real life based film from India, Dangal, starring Indian actor Aamir Khan, whose films have become as popular in China as Hollywood tales. The story of an Indian wrestler who trains his daughters in wrestling, which is considered a male sport by conservatives, enabling them to hold their own against men, screened in China in May and swept the box office.

Regarded as a dark horse in the Chinese film market, it was soon lauded by moviegoers as a "super touching," "encouraging" and moving story and became China's top-grossing, non-Hollywood foreign film of all time, bringing in 1.297 billion yuan ($204.24 million) in total.

It was the day of the dark horse all through July with the release of Wolf Warrior 2, the Chinese action film that bagged the highest ever box-office earnings in China.

Directed by martial arts expert Wu Jing who also played the superhero, a former special forces operative, the sequel to the 2015 Wolf Warrior, which took Wu to an unspecified, war-torn African nation to fight Western mercenaries, hardly received much attention before its release.

However, once it hit the theaters, it created a sensation and was labeled by viewers as the "first successful China-made superhero-style movie."

In just 12 days, Wolf Warrior 2 had grossed 3.4 billion yuan ($536 million), edging out the fantasy romance The Mermaid, which had released in early 2016 and created a box-office record of over 3 billion yuan ($473 million).

After shown in cinemas for 90 days, Wolf Warrior 2 collected 5.67 billion yuan ($89.46 million), more than double the money earned by The Fate of the Furious, the second highest-earning film in China in 2017.

"Wolf Warrior 2 is a phenomenal movie," said Chen Xuguang, a professor from the School of Arts in Peking University. "It has dragged many people, who were disappointed with domestically produced movies, back to the cinemas. Additionally, it has attracted many senior people to cinemas."

The success of Wolf Warrior 2, Chen said, was not limited to creating a box-office boom for made-in-China films; it also ushered in a new model for domestic theme films, which are often thought to be stereotyped and lack in entertainment.

"It has set a model for theme films and can hopefully activate the production of similar movies," Chen said.

The spate of dark horses continued even after Wolf Warrior 2.

Twenty Two, a documentary on 22 women who survived the harrowing ordeal of being used as "comfort women" by Japanese forces, became an unexpected hit.

During World War II, an estimated 200,000 Chinese women were forced into prostitution by the Japanese invaders. Only a handful of them are still alive, historical witnesses of war atrocities.

"This is a group that deserves to be known and correctly understood by more people and a history worth being preserved in a more accurate yet sensitive way," Guo Ke, the director of the docudrama, said in the introduction to the film. "This is probably the last chance for the public to actually see their situations and hear their own words while they are still alive. It should not be a history just written on pages."

Twenty Two won applause with its empathy. The commentators lauded it for containing no interrogation on sordid details or exaggeration. It finally grossed more than 100 million yuan ($15.77 million), an almost impossible feat for a documentary.

Bad Genius, a dark thriller about a school exam cheating system, was one of the top Thai films to be screened in China after its debut on home turf in October. It fetched 220 million yuan ($34.7 million) in 11 days, more than the sum of the profits in all other markets, including Thailand itself.

Path of the Soul, a combination of documentary and fiction directed by Zhang Yang, featured a group of Tibetan villagers' 1,200-km pilgrimage to Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region. Each of the travelers embarked on this arduous journey for very personal reasons and the movie followed the whole trip, filming the pilgrims as they prostrated themselves on the ground after every few steps.

Cody Walker (left), the lead actor of the movie The Fate of The Furious, and his wife meet fans in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, on April 11, 2017 VCG

It grossed over 170 million yuan ($26.82 million), a surprise bonanza for offerings of this type.

"This type of movie could hardly make any money before," Yin Chengkui, a Beijing Normal University professor and expert on film production, said. "Its box-office earnings can definitely give makers of such genre a shot in the arm."

Youth, directed by Chinese director Feng Xiaogang, was another dark horse that initially targeted a small group of filmgoers. Released on December 15, it chronicled the lives of a group of young people who joined a People's Liberation Army dance troupe in the 1970s, and along with it, underwent the changes the nation experienced till the 1990s.

The recollection of those days attracted many senior citizens to cinemas. The movie collected over 1.413 billion yuan ($221 million), the highest revenue Feng's movies have ever fetched, making it rank eighth among the box-office hits of 2017.

"The dark horse phenomenon is one of the salient features of the Chinese market in 2017," Yin said. "It shows that today, the audiences won't judge a movie simply by the stars involved or the large investment, but by the story. Good stories talk finally."

Quality, not quantity

According to the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, the total ticket revenue in 2017 was 55.9 billion yuan ($8.83 billion), a 13.45-percent increase on 2016. The number of movie screens surpassed 50,000, making China the country with the most movie screens in the world.

In 2003, when China started reforming the movie industry, total ticket sales stood at just 1 billion yuan ($158 million). Since then, there has been an average 30-percent growth annually. In 2010, the revenue surpassed 10 billion yuan ($1.57 billion), jumping to 50 billion yuan ($7.89 billion) in 2016.

The scale of the industry expanded fiftyfold, an unprecedented speed. It is estimated that by 2020, China will eclipse the United States as the largest film market in the world.

Hollywood studios have noted these changes. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, seven films from U.S. studios earned more in China than in the United States last year. Major studios, while writing their stories, are now taking China's market into consideration, casting Chinese stars wherever possible.

However, the Chinese appetite for Hollywood fare is now waning. Transformers: The Last Knight, though seventh on the box-office list in 2017, got many negative reviews in China.

"This is the first time I rated a movie 1 out of 10," posted a netizen on, a popular movie rating website in China. "I have no idea how a movie like this can be released."

The sentiment was echoed by many others, who complained the story was "pale, plain and boring."

This trend has continued into 2018. Star Wars: The Last Jedi, released on the mainland of China on January 5, didn't get the positive feedback it had expected, earning only 252 million yuan ($39.8 million) in 11 days.

"The scene in winter 2009—people queuing in long lines from early morning to grab a ticket to a Hollywood movie like Avatar— will hardly happen again," said Zhang Zhao, a Beijing-based movie critic. "The Hollywood style is no longer fresh to Chinese audiences, who expect something different and have more choices now."

Comedy, a lucrative genre in China, proved its magnetism once again in 2017. Never Say Die, a low-budget story of a male boxer who accidentally swaps bodies with a female journalist, was No.3 in box-office sales with 2.2 billion yuan ($347 million), beating Jackie Chan's Kung Fu Yoga, fifth with 1.75 billion yuan ($276 million).

Chinese animated movies also fared well. Dahufa, a tale of enslaved people, and One Hundred Thousand Bad Jokes II, a collection of parodies of classic Chinese comics, earned 87.6 million yuan ($13.84 million) and 120 million yuan ($18.96 million) respectively, showing signs of a boom in the animation industry. Though still substantially less than the 2016 top-grossing animation films like Monkey King: Hero Is Back, which made almost 1 billion yuan ($158 million) in 2016, the producers of the two 2017 animations nevertheless said they were not disappointed and were optimistic about new productions.

But despite the surface glitter, serious problems lurk in the industry.

According to Zhang Hong of China Film Association, over 500 films were released in China in 2017 and more than 90 percent of them were homemade. However, the box-office revenues of domestically made films only accounted for about 54 percent of the total takings of the year.

"If we take Wolf Warrior 2 out, the total box office of China-made movies made the lowest record in recent years," Zhang said.

Zhang went on to say that many movies in 2017 collected only a few thousand yuan, and some just a few hundred. "We should give some attention to those that failed in the market and find the reasons," Zhang said. "It is not a mature market, with just a few movies getting a large portion of the box office, while the majority is suffering a loss."

Zeng Maojun, CEO of Wanda Pictures, one of the major film production companies in China, shone a light on a graver problem. Zeng said the 30-percent growth was merely the result of the number of movie screens increasing.

"Now we have 50,000 movie screens but they all display the same movies," he said. "Many movies can't get into the market while many audiences can't find the movies they want to see in cinemas. Diversification will be the trend in the future. The future box office will be determined by the quality and content of movies."

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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