Copycat China: Domestic Films Quick to Duplicate Title Words, Themes

The Chinese language is known for its four vocal tones and complex system of written characters. Say a word with the wrong tone, or scrawl an errant stroke when crafting a character, and you can completely derail your intended meaning.

But in China’s film industry, some are seeing the elasticity of the Chinese language as a business opportunity. In an industry awash with new capital looking for the right movie vehicle, the number of copycat films playing on language in their titles are starting to proliferate.

Ever since the runaway success of 2012 box office hit Lost in Thailand (Rén zài jiǒng tú zhī tài jiǒng / 人再囧途之泰囧)— itself a sequel to Lost On Journey (人在囧途) from 2010—there have been a growing number of road movies featuring titles including the character jiong (囧), used to express embarrassment. The archaic character gained new life among Chinese netizens, who adopted it for its built-in smiley-face appearance.

Upcoming “jiong” movies include “Lost in Craziness” (Fēngkuáng de jiǒng tú / 疯狂的囧途), “Bandit Lost On A Journey” (Fěi zài jiǒng tú / 匪在囧途), and “Lost After All” ( Yī jiǒng dàodǐ / 一囧到底).

Swapping out one character in the Chinese name for “The Fast and the Furious” (Sùdù yǔ jīqíng / 速度与激情), the  upcoming film less excitingly called “Courier and the Furious” (Sùdì yǔ jīqíng / 速递与激情) is banking on exploiting the tailwind of a franchise that dominated at the local box office.

Or perhaps viewers intrigued about the buzz behind “Fifty Shades of Grey” (Wǔshí dù huī / 五十度灰)—which was banned in China—might be bamboozled by the similarly titled “Fifty Shades of Black” (Wǔshí dù hēi / 五十度黑). In Chinese, black (hēi) and gray (huī), sound pretty similar.

Based on their English names, some Chinese films seem to have no connection to each other. What could be more different, for instance, than Iron Man and Pole Dancing Queen?

Well, the Chinese name of the 2015 film Pole Dancing Queen, by director Nan Xia, is strikingly similar to the Chinese name for Iron Man (Gāngtiě xiá / 钢铁侠). But an echo of greatness is just that.

While the Iron Man movies average 7.5 out of 10 stars on popular China  movie rating site Douban, Pole Dancing Queen scored a woeful 2.2 out of 10. Nearly 98 percent of Douban viewers who scored Pole Dancing Queen gave it just one star.

The long string of Chinese copycat movies comes as a deluge of capital has come into the local film industry. According to Beijing-based Zero2IPO Research, 166 film-focused private equity funds established last year, and new entertainment companies are springing up at a rapid rate.

For most of these films, it’s just the name that is similar to an earlier film, while the plot and all other elements are different. Some films, such as Crazy Toy City (Fēngkuáng wánjù chéng / 疯狂玩具城), share a similar name and poster design with imports from Hollywood, but little else. Crazy Toy City’s marketing campaign bore a striking resemblance to the campaign for the Disney hit Zootopia, which is known as Crazy Animal City (Fēngkuáng dòngwù chéng / 疯狂动物城) in Chinese.

While some of the stills for upcoming movie Toys War or Teddy Bear’s Toy War look similar to the Seth McFarlane’s 2012 fantasy/buddy film Ted, it’s unlikely the Chinese version will be riddled with crass sexual humor and depictions of drug use.

But in cases where the appropriation has been particularly egregious, some companies have decided to take legal action. In late April, the director of The Autobots (Qìchē rén zǒngdòngyuán / 汽车人总动员) — a film that seems to borrow heavily from Pixar’s Cars — confirmed that Disney sued his company over copyright infringement last year.

Prominent Chinese film critic Du Juan calls the phenomenon parasitic marketing. “It shows a complete lack of sincerity on the part of those filmmakers to filmgoers,” Du told local movie website Mtime. “Those kinds of obscure movies are just trying to take advantage of the fame of those successful ones, in order to make more money.”

But the strategy is far from foolproof. Film industry scholar Liu Haodong says that for every imitator out there turning a profit, there are scores of others losing money. “They just take it for granted that their movie can definitely be profitable,” he told MTime.

In a country where a larger chunk of a film’s marketing budget goes to online channels, especially social media, the technique is wearing thin on audiences who have grown savvy with the help of their social media networks. A lot of the business is generated by people looking to revel in the so-bad-it’s-good factor, according to film scholar Jiang Yong.

“Even though there are still some people who buy tickets to see these copycat movies, they just want to see it with their own eyes or just make fun of it,” he told the website.

Additional reporting by Kelly Li