On Screen China: ‘Mekong’ Steams Upriver, ‘BFG’ Friendly but not Big

Operation Mekong remains standing as box office champion through the holiday week, with The BFG looking not big enough to push it from its perch. 


Although box office revenue from this year’s National Day holiday (October 1-7) failed to eclipse last year’s and continued 2016’s box office stagnation, the depressed market was fortunately enlivened by the surprise performance of action/thriller Operation Mekong (湄公河行动).

Operation Mekong, which recounts a real-life manhunt for a Burmese drug lord after the murder of Chinese nationals, has far exceeded expectations, grossing RMB 802 million (USD$119.3 million) to date. Stellar word of mouth (8.2/10 on ratings site Douban) should carry Operation Mekong to RMB 1 billion, a threshold met by only one other film — Time Raiders — in this abysmal second half of 2016.

Following the weeklong holiday that is always reserved for local-language films, Chinese cinemas have once again reopened to imported competition. Disney’s Marvel brand has claimed the post-National Day holiday slot for the past two years with Guardians of The Galaxy and Ant-Man raking in RMB 596 million ($96.5 million) and RMB 672 million ($105.4 million), respectively. In lieu of a late-summer Marvel release this year — Doctor Strange was just granted a day-and-date Chinese release on November 4 — Disney instead will present Chinese audiences with Steven Spielberg’s fantasy/adventure The BFG (圆梦巨人).

Will the Roald Dahl adaptation help Disney return to form after two underwhelming China runs by Alice Through The Looking Glass and Finding Dory (see chart above), or will it mirror global reception where it has grossed just $176 million on a reported $140 million budget?

The BFG (圆梦巨人)

China Distribution – Huaxia Film Distribution Co. (华夏电影发行有限责任公司)
US Distribution – Walt Disney Studios

Spielberg, almost as well known in China as elsewhere, was in Beijing this past week both to announce a new partnership between Alibaba and his production company Amblin Partners, as well as to promote The BFG. Spielberg attended the film’s premiere, discussed his craft in front of students at Tsinghua University, and appeared onstage with actor Huang Lei (黄磊) and his daughter Duoduo (多多) who provided voices for The BFG’s dubbed version in Mandarin.

Despite the glut of Chinese media appearances from Spielberg, The BFG’s box office prospects are rather limited. A delay of over three months on the North American release has largely eroded the feeling of novelty among Chinese family audiences and mitigated any driving force to get out and see the film in cinemas. CFI is predicting a second-place finish behind Operation Mekong this weekend with RMB 60-80 million (~$10 million) and a final tally of RMB 150 million ($22 million), Disney’s lowest total in 2016.