On Screen China: A Week for ‘Monkey’ Business

More than a barrel's worth of promotional statutes for 'The Monkey King 2.'

More than a barrel’s worth of promotional statues for The Monkey King 2

Chinese citizens will ring in the Year of The Monkey on Monday, February 8, and we’re expecting box office records to be smashed in the following  seven-day “Golden Week” holiday by three homegrown films with blockbuster potential — The Mermaid, From Vegas To Macau III, and The Monkey King 2,  which all premiere in cinemas on chū yī (初一), or Lunar New Year’s Day.

Along with the National Day holiday in October, the Lunar New Year historically has been the hottest moviegoing period on the Chinese calendar and distributors covet a chū yī release date for their biggest films. Unfortunately for Hollywood, Chinese film regulators impose a blackout of imported films during this time. Disney’s Zootopia is the next revenue-sharing import, scheduled for release on March 4, simultaneous with its North American premiere.

Below, the total box office gross for the week over the past three Chinese New Year “Golden Weeks” and the top performing film for those periods:

Lunar New Year Week
7-day BO Gross (RMB)#1 Film#1 Film 7-Day BO Gross (RMB)#1 Film Final Gross (RMB)

Feb 9-15

765 millionJourney To The West: Conquering the Demons524 million1.25 billion

Jan 31-Feb 6

1.45 billionThe Monkey King634 million1.05 billion

Feb 18-24

1.80 billionDragon Blade457 million744 million

Local industry analysts believe this year’s seven-day holiday box office gross could reach as high as RMB 2.9 billion ($442 million) with 80% of that coming from the three new releases.

Heavily subsidized tickets purchased online during the first three days of the holiday — some as low as RMB 9.9 ($1.50) per head — will help chū yī ticket sales to become the highest single-day total in box office history. Last weekend’s box office champ, Kung Fu Panda 3, could lead a counter-attack once prices normalize and audiences seek out better quality fare.

Below, CFI takes a look at the three new releases and how they stack up against one another in this fiercely competitive holiday period.

The Mermaid (美人鱼)
China Distribution: Beijing Enlight Media 北京光线传媒股份有限公司

CFI Score: 8/10

Comedic director Stephen Chow (周星驰) is easily the The Mermaid ‘s biggest draw. Chow’s brand of humor as an actor over the last two decades has enamored a huge base of mainland fans who now show up in droves for his directorial efforts. His Journey To The West: Conquering the Demons (西游降魔篇) was the highest-grossing film of 2013.

There is some concern, however, over the quality of Chow’s latest finished film. A trailer released last week was ridiculed by fans for its poor special effects and wooden acting. And Chow’s nationwide roadshow to market his film sans any actual public screenings could be a telltale sign of trouble.

Still The Mermaid will have the most showtimes on chū yīabout 34% of all screens — thanks to its partnership with market-leading online ticketing portal Maoyan (猫眼).

From Vegas To Macau III (澳门风云3)
China Distribution: Bona Film Group 博纳影业集团
U.S. Distribution: Asia Releasing

CFI Score: 7/10

Fans of the first two installments in this crime/comedy series led by venerable Hong Kong actor Chow Yun-fat (周润发) — which grossed a combined RMB 1.5 billion ($228 million) — are already snapping up cheap chū yī tickets through group ticketing site Dianping (大众点评), but early negative reaction to public screenings could signal a truncated run.

Half of Part II’s box office gross came from third- and fourth-tier cities, and Part III should again play particularly well in China’s interior as well as in the southern cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

The Monkey King 2 (西游记之孙悟空三打白骨精)
China Distribution: Jiangsu Anshi Yingna Movie Distribution  江苏安石英纳电影发行有限公司
U.S. Distribution: China Lion Film

CFI Score : 9/10

Chinese audiences never seem to tire of big- or small-screen adaptations of the classic novel Journey to the West. This Lunar New Year trots out yet another — the sequel to 2014’s third highest-grossing film, The Monkey King. Although that film grossed more than RMB 1 billion ($220 million at the time), it was universally criticized for poor visual effects and a convoluted story.

Returning Hong Kong director Soi Cheang (鄭保瑞) took the criticisms to heart, promising a tighter plot and improved special effects. He also replaced Donnie Yen with Aaron Kwok in the titular role and added Gong Li as the villainous White Bone Demon. This formidable cast and an FX-driven story have boosted Monkey King’s chū yī pre-sales to No. 2, close behind The Mermaid.

However, Monkey has three advantages that should ultimately put its final box office total ahead of the pack of holiday period new releases. First, early positive word of mouth (including a rare rave for a Chinese language film from The Hollywood Reporterwill distance it from its weaker competitors. Second, the Monkey King character is beloved by both young and old, meaning it’s more family-friendly than The Mermaid or From Vegas to Macau III. And lastly, Monkey King 2 is the only new film going up against Kung Fu Panda 3 in 3D IMAX, and moviegoers will inevitably choose the larger format for a better cinematic experience, jacking up the average ticket price.

— Follow Jonathan Papish on Twitter @ChinaBoxOffice