On Screen China: A Busy Weekend of Theatrical ‘Cannon Fodder’

A Chinese fan poses atop a Rush promotional car.

A Chinese fan poses atop a Rush promotional car in a photo posted to the film’s official Weibo account.

A whopping 15 new films will be cast into Chinese theaters this weekend, representing the largest number of new releases within such a short time frame this year. Such a crowded calendar would be more typically seen in the United States, which had about twice the number of releases as China last year, and represents a relatively new phenomenon in the  country that is poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s biggest movie market within a couple of years.

The coming days look to be a cinematic dumping ground before the onslaught later this month from domestic juggernauts Mojin—The Lost Legend (寻龙诀), Surprise (万万没想到), and Mr. Six (老炮儿), filled with the type of middling films the Chinese media refers to as “cannon fodder” (炮灰pàohuī). Among them, only two movies stand a chance of unseating current Hollywood heavyweights The Martian and Point Break at the top of the box office charts:  Director Xu Haofeng’s martial arts (wuxia) film The Master and Ron Howard’s Oscar-winning 2013 Formula One drama Rush, the final Hollywood release of the year. Underscoring the lack of confidence that distributors and exhibitors are showing for this group of movies, the eventual weekend box office winner could be one that will be in previews: Surprise, which will screen on Saturday and Sunday ahead of its wide release on Friday, December 18. Early predictions from data provider EntGroup put Surprise on one-third of China’s screens for Saturday, far ahead of the 15 official releases.

The Master (师傅) Distributed by Magilm Pictures (北京剧角映画文化传媒有限公司)

Xu Haofeng (The Sword Identity, Arrow Arbitration) returns to the director’s chair after penning the screenplay for last year’s wuxia masterpiece, The Grandmaster (一代宗师), directed by Wong Kar-wai. This time around, Xu adapted his own novel, also titled The Master. The film emphasizes realistic hand-to-hand combat, with less of the stylized action featured in Wong’s film (the kind that most Western audiences might be familiar with from movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) Performers Liao Fan (Black Coal, This Ice) and Song Yang (The Sword Identity) trained nonstop for two months to perfect the Wing Chun style of martial arts seen in The Master, all shot without the use of stunt doubles.

The Master is already being praised on social media for its originality, action, and technical prowess following a nationwide roadshow, and the film won the best action cinematography award earlier this year at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards. However, expectations for box office success are being tempered by its poorly timed release date and the limited appeal of the martial arts genre in mainland China outside of southern areas near Hong Kong and the largest international cities. The timing of The Master’s debut gives it only one week for positive word of mouth to spread before Mojin and Surprise—two films with heavy social media buzz—hit the theaters. From a market perspective, The Master will probably perform similarly to Brother of Blades (绣春刀), which attracted diehard genre fans to gross $19 million in 2014 but failed to find an audience outside that narrow demographic.

 Rush (极速风流) Distributed by China Film Group (中国电影股份有限公司)

Ron Howard’s previous directorial effort is slated for release in China on the same date as his new film, In The Heart of The Sea, begins its global rollout, and Chinese netizens have been complaining on social media of the nearly two-year delay, a fate that often befalls imported “buyout” (批片) films. Rush has a solid 8.8 rating on Chinese review site Douban and nearly 44,000 votes, indicating that a significant portion of the film’s audience has already turned to HD and Blu Ray downloads to satisfy demand for the movie. Box office expectations should be cautious as a result.

Rush is the last of 28 flat-fee imported buyout films to be released in China this year. Hollywood action buyout films have struggled in 2015 compared to 2014. This year’s crop averaged just $1.7 million, with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Sabotage the highest grossing with just $3.8 million. The 2014 lineup averaged $17.1 million per picture, with The Expendables 3 in last year’s top spot with $70.8 million.

Below is a list of the remaining titles to be released this weekend.

Forever Love (北京时间)

An Accidental Shot of Love (擦枪走火)

Warrant the Reborn (催命符)

E-Commerce Time (电商时代)

North by Northeast (东北偏北)

Dream Holiday (梦幻佳期)

Full Strike (全力扣杀)

Taste of Love (紫霞)

The Spring of My Life (最美的时候遇见你)

Gulu Mermaid (咕噜咕噜美人鱼)

I Am a Superstar (我是大明星)

Unmissable (不能错过)

The Winner (圣诞大赢家)