On Screen China: Out with the Monkey and in with the Money

Part one of our preview of Spring Festival releases, likely to be the most lucrative season of the Chinese cinematic year.


This Saturday, the first day of the Spring Festival/Chinese New Year (CNY), tens of millions of Chinese citizens will flock to cinemas nationwide in the start of the busiest moviegoing period on the planet.

Last year, not only were RMB 3.56 billion (US$548 million) in tickets sold over the seven-day CNY period, the highest-grossing week in any territory, ever, but 2016’s CNY also spawned the first film to gross $500 million outside of North America, Stephen Chow’s absurd comedy, The Mermaid.

With four potential blockbusters going into wide release on Saturday, including a sequel to one of the most successful Chinese films of all-time, two separate kung fu comedies that take place in India, and a Back to the Future-inspired, father-son reconciliation story directed by one of China’s biggest millennial celebrities, there may be no single film that racks up Mermaid-level sales, but we expect new box office highs to be reached.

Part 1 of our CNY preview begins below.

Journey To The West: The Demons Strike Back (西游伏妖篇)

China Distribution – Union Pictures (联瑞影业)
US Distribution – Sony Pictures (February 3, 2017)

In 2013, Stephen Chow’s Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons (西游·降魔篇) ushered in the age of the custom-made CNY blockbuster, a film machine-tooled to strike just the right tone for Chinese families welcoming the new Zodiac sign. Its formula has been replicated in the years since: a lighthearted comedy for audiences of all ages, A-list celebrities chosen specifically to maximize interest across all four quadrants, and a director that can pull in moviegoers by name alone. This is basically a Chinese assimilation of a longstanding Hong Kong tradition, entertainingly discussed by Grady Hendrix in a new New York Asian Film Festival video  Conquering the Demons grossed RMB 1.247 billion ($196.7 million) and now ranks as the sixth highest-grossing Chinese-language film of all time.

In this year’s sequel, The Demons Strike Back, Chow took on a supervisory role, ceding his director’s chair to another Hong Kong action-comedy legend, Tsui Hark.

Hark is someone who has already tasted Chinese box office success in recent years:  his last two films — The Taking of Tiger Mountain (RMB 894 million, $141 million) and Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (RMB 602 million, $96.4 million) — both rank among the country’s top 35 highest-grossing films of all time.

The cast of The Demons Strike Back has also received a complete face-lift, swapping out Wen Zhang (文章) as the Buddhist monk Xuanzang and Huang Bo (黄渤) as the Monkey King for “Little Fresh Meats” Kris Wu (吴亦凡) and Kenny Lin (林更新). And although this casting was ridiculed when first announced, the vast majority of CNY moviegoers will be buying tickets based predominantly on Chow and Hark’s collaboration as well as the ageless resiliency of Journey To The West as source material.

On the basis of a handful of pre-release metrics, The Demons Strike Back is the clear frontrunner in the race for this year’s CNY box office king. Online ticket pre-sales for opening Saturday currently stand at an astounding RMB 74 million ($10.8 million) accounting for nearly 40 percent of all pre-sales on the first day of CNY, and The Demons Strike Back has been given 35 percent of all showtimes.

In addition, the film’s “Want to See” Index, culled from China’s five major online film portals, tops all CNY wide releases with a combined 1.6 million users expressing interest in seeing The Demons Strike Back.

Together, these signs indicate that The Demons Strike Back will likely smash the opening day box office record set last year by The Mermaid  directed by Chow and featuring a cameo by Hark — which grossed RMB 277 million ($40.9 million) on its way to becoming the highest-grossing film of all-time in China with RMB 3.39 billion ($526.8 million). Audience reaction will determine if the film has the legs to challenge The Mermaid’s all-time record, but word on the street from industry insiders who were granted advanced screenings is that the sequel is “disappointing.”

In any case, The Demons Strike Back — budgeted at a reported $63 million — looks to become another runaway commercial success for both Chow and Tsui. CFI predicts a final total in the range of RMB 2.2-2.4 billion ($320-$350 million).

Buddies In India (天竺)

China Distribution – Tianjin Maoyan Media Co., Ltd (天津猫眼文化传媒有限公司)/Beijing Enlight Pictures Co., Ltd (北京光线影业有限公司)
US Distribution – China Lion Film (January 27, 2017)

Popular comedic actor Wang Baoqiang (Lost in Thailand, Touch of Sin, Detective Chinatown) takes the reins as a first-time director in the kung fu comedy, Buddies In India. Wang, known to the Chinese public as “Baby Wang” and adored for his everyman sensibilities, gained further sympathy this year as a tabloid victim, when his wife’s  extramarital carryings on with his agent publicly blew up on Sina Weibo.

Perhaps to distract himself, Wang has poured his time and energy into promoting Buddies In India, personally taking the film on the road to 50 cities since early December. Many of the places that Wang visited were smaller third- and fourth-tier cities, and this is most likely where the bulk of Buddies’ box office will come from.

Going off of the film’s promotional material, Buddies in India — and to an even larger extent, the Jackie Chan-starring, India-China co-production Kung Fu Yoga, which will be previewed in tomorrow’s Part 2 — may come off as little more than a live-action tourism brochure filled with cultural stereotypes, but a similar approach worked for Lost in Thailand (RMB 1.271 billion, $190.7 million), providing a boon for Chiang Mai’s tourism industry, even if it did little to bring the two countries together culturally.

We expect similar results with Buddies In India, and regardless of the film’s quality, CNY audiences in lower-tiered cities will gleefully devour its watered-down curry, with ticket sales in the range of RMB 1.2 billion ($175 million) total.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our CNY preview tomorrow.