On Screen China: Appealing to the Lowest Common Denominator

  • Despite scathing online comments, actor-director Deng Chao’s comedy Devil and Angel scores a $78 million four-day debut.
  • Gritty crime drama Mr. Six exceeds modest audience expectations with a $39.1 million opening after a raft of stellar reviews.
  • Blockbuster Mojin—The Lost Legend dropped off 52% in its second week in theaters, with its 10-day total at $186.3 million.
A bus stop advertisement in Beijing for Devil and Angel.—Courtesy Devil and Angel official Weibo

A bus stop advertisement in Beijing for Devil and Angel.—Courtesy Devil and Angel official Weibo

Actor-director Deng Chao was accused of pushing Chinese comedy “to a new low in terms of racist and homophobic humor” after Deng himself donned blackface in last year’s The Breakup Guru, yet that film still managed to haul in $103 million from Chinese moviegoers.

Deng’s sophomore effort Devil and Angel (恶棍天使) premiered on Christmas Eve to much of the same negative commentary—it set a record for the lowest audience rating of any Chinese-language film in wide release this year, drawing just 3.9 out of 10 on film fan site Douban and 4.5/10 on Mtime —but Deng’s fans again turned out in full force, giving his film $78 million over four days.

What Chinese moviegoers say about Devil and Angel—

Despite the impressive debut, each successive day of release saw a steady box office decline as word of mouth spread, and Devil and Angel most likely will see a 90+% drop at the box office next weekend and fail both to gross $100 million and to surpass the ticket sales of The Breakup Guru.

The other wide release on Christmas Eve was Mr. Six (老炮儿), a gritty Beijing crime drama starring commercially successful director Feng Xiaogang. Director Guan Hu’s film opened with a solid $39.1 million four-day debut. Social media reaction ran positive and Mr. Six garnered the highest ratings of any Chinese language film in wide release this year on Douban (8.7/10)  and Mtime (8.1/10).

Breaking down Saturday’s box office totals both for Devil and Angel ($19.1M) and for Mr. Six ($10.4M) offers a glimpse into Chinese filmgoing habits across the country.

According to Mtime’s box office tracking app, Devil and Angel accounted for 38.1% of Saturday’s ticket sales. However, the film’s gross revenues in Tier 1 cities with the most developed infrastructure and most sophisticated consumers fell short of the national share, taking only 30.2% of the tickets in Beijing, and 33.6% in Shanghai. Meanwhile, in Tier 3, 4, and 5 cities—interior cities lagging behind in development and consumer habits— Devil and Angel attracted a larger share of moviegoers: 42.1% in Taiyuan, 43.7% in Changchun, and 43.8% in Shijiazhuang.

Mr. Six, whose lead actor channels the spirit of Old Beijing, played unsurprisingly well in northern cities. While just one in five tickets sold Saturday nationwide was for Mr. Six, one in three tickets sold in Beijing was an admission to see local hero Feng. Northern cities such as Tianjin (24.9%), Harbin (27.4%), and Shenyang (25.1%) also accounted for more ticket sales than southern cities such as Guangzhou (15.2%) and Shenzhen (18.8%).

Age and gender demographics also were different for each of the two new films. The audience for Devil and Angel skewed under 30 (86%) and female (65%), while Mr. Six attracted more men (43%) and people over the age of 30 (20%).

 — Follow Jonathan Papish on Twitter: @ChinaBoxOffice