On Screen China: Part Two of CFI’s Chinese New Year Preview

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, RMB 3.56 billion (US$548 million) in tickets were sold over the seven-day CNY period, the highest-grossing week in any territory, ever,  See Part 1 of our CNY Box Office Preview here.

In 2016, ticket sales from the week-long CNY holiday accounted for 6.9 percent of the entire year’s box office. Consequently, in respect of CNY’s commercial power (not to mention the inherent risk in investing in an industry that struggled during the remainder of the year), the four big releases this year have attracted a combined 54 cooperating production companies. Participating parties range from newly-created investment firms with little-to-no film experience to major online ticketing portals, all trying to claim their piece of the box office bonanza.

In Part 1,  we previewed this year’s clear frontrunner, Journey To The West: The Demons Strike Back, as well as one of the second-place contenders, Buddies In India. Today, we consider the two other CNY challengers, Kung Fu Yoga and Duckweed.

Kung Fu Yoga (功夫瑜伽)

China Distribution – Horgos Taihe Shuyu Culture Development Co., Ltd (霍尔果斯太合数娱文化发展有限公司)
US Distribution – Well Go USA (January 27, 2017)

The latest film to star the indefatigable Jackie Chan, hot on the heels of last summer’s Skiptrace (RMB 889 million/$133.2 million) and the Christmas release Railroad Tigers (RMB 697 million1/$97.7 million), Kung Fu Yoga is written and directed by frequent Chan collaborator, Stanley Tong (Supercop, Rumble in the Bronx, First Strike, The Myth), Its reported production budget of $65 million makes it the most expensive China-India co-production since the two nations signed a co-production treaty in September 2014.

Local Indian productions, like the comedy PK, have played well with Chinese moviegoers, so its producers are hoping that Kung Fu Yoga, which follows Jackie Chan as a famous martial-arts-employing archaeologist named… wait for it… Jack Chan, as he and a ridiculously good-looking entourage of supporting Indian and Chinese faces hunt for lost treasure across the world, can add a bit of enjoyable Bollywood flavor to an otherwise familiar routine.  More importantly, with Chan’s films facing tougher times in the US (Skiptrace’s US gross topped out at $1,200), making a film with specific appeal to Indian moviegoers (the world’s sixth largest film market) is a smart and ambitious move with regard to the film’s international potential.

Watching the 62-year-old kung-fu comedy master in action, there are times you can almost hear his bones creak, but there’s something about Chan’s good nature that makes his desire to stay relevant almost admirably endearing (we stipulate “almost” because, sure, Harrison Ford made an Indiana Jones movie at 66, but it had no moments like the ones in this film where you’re supposed to think Chan is cool for ogling a scantily clad Indian princess 40 years his junior). And while Chinese millennials may not be flocking to Chan’s films in record-breaking numbers, Kung Fu Yoga seems tailor-made for a less-discerning CNY general audience. Chinese pundits are calling a strong opening buoyed by inexpensive subsidized tickets, followed by a swift descent, more like Railroad Tigers than Skiptrace, despite a predicted gross in Skiptrace’s range at RMB 900 million ($130 million):  for a big-budget blockbuster with the best possible release platform, this would count as disappointing.  At the same time, if the film turns out to be a smash hit upon its February 3 release in India, it could make up the difference.

Duckweed (乘风破凉)

China Distribution – Bona Media Co., Ltd (博纳文化传媒有限公司)
US Distribution – China Lion Film (February 10, 2017)

The mere mention of the name Han Han (韩寒) to any Chinese citizen born in the late-80s or early-90s is bound to heat up the room a few degrees. The high school dropout, bad-boy blogger and rally racer quickly became the voice of his generation by winning a national essay contest at age 16, railing against socialist society and traditional expectations. Nowadays, age has perhaps tempered his rebelliousness — at 34, he has not blogged since 2013, stirring rumors that he may have been bought or silenced by the powers that be — but his reputation still has significant pull with a large swath of young Chinese.

And while no one ever asked Zadie Smith or Jonathan Franzen if they wanted to direct movies, in China popular young writers seem to consider filmmaking a natural career move.  Just as Guo Jingming (The Tiny Times series) and Zhang Jiajia (See You Tomorrow) have been best-selling novelists-turned-auteurs, Han Han turned to directing in 2014 with his debut, The ContinentPart existentialist comedy, part absurdist road-trip, it pulled in an impressive RMB 629 million ($101 million), despite a strongly mixed critical response.

When Han Han announced his sophomore effort, Duckweed, had started filming in October 2016 with superstar actors, Deng Chao (The Mermaid) and Eddie Peng (Operation Mekong), expectations were understandably high. Excited netizens speculated the film would opt for a summer release similar to The Continent, but in late December, Han Han confidently declared his intention to release Duckweed during CNY, just four months after going into production, a move both admired by his fans for its ambition and derided as cockiness.

But this bold move may be paying off:  early praise for the film declares it Han Han’s best work and easily the best CNY film of the year.

Even so, Duckweed’s box office success is by no means assured. Last week, controversy swirled around Han Han’s decision to use a theme song with what some deemed overtly sexist lyrics. Angry commentators lashed out at a director who could have used his influential voice to champion women’s rights, but instead seemed to embrace traditional chauvinistic values. Others, unable to take the song’s sentiment seriously, just accused Han Han of a cynical marketing ploy.

Han Han quickly defended the song, claiming it worked in the context of Duckweed’s late-90s small-town setting and did not indicate his personal views. Whether or not the controversy will affect Duckweed’s box office, we believe positive word of mouth will win out and Duckweed should be the surprise hit of the holiday.

Duckweed will likely be slower out of the gates than the rest of the CNY field, but in the end it should overtake Kung Fu Yoga, challenging Buddies in India with a possible RMB 1.2 billion ($175 million) in total box office receipts.