The Success Of Atypical Romance Films And China’s Changing Moviegoer Demographics

In an unexpected turn of events, Chinese romantic comedy The Ex-File 3: The Return of The Exes overtook Star Wars: The Last Jedi in China, earning $45 million the first weekend it opened, despite a much smaller screen count. Not only was The Ex-File 3 selling well, clips of moviegoers crying after the movie were quickly circulating online, sparking discussion of exes and past relationships.  

China’s reluctance to the Star Wars franchise may be understandable, given the series’ short history in Chinese theaters, but that still does not explain The Ex-File 3’s box office success. Domestic rom-coms do not exactly have an enviable track record; the 2015 romantic drama Somewhere Only We Know, shot in Prague and starring popular “little fresh meat” actor Kris Wu, garnered about $45.2 million in box office, while I Belonged To You, which featured an all-star cast, performed better with $121.5 million, still nowhere near The Ex-File 3’s $1.9 billion. Even the first two films in the Ex-File series did not fare as well, earning a combined $37.3 million in box office.

Despite mixed reviews and an average rating on multiple review sites,The Ex-File 3 went on to become the highest-grossing romance film in China’s history. Without lavish sets, star power, or glowing reviews, how exactly did The Ex-File 3 make box office? And do Chinese audiences prefer breakup stories to happy endings?

A scarce genre in China, romance films bear a lot of Western influence, so much so that some directors deem exotic locales a key element when it comes to love and romance. Somewhere Only We Know is not alone when it picked romance capital Prague as its backdrop; The Pretending Lovers was set in Norway, Finding Mr. Right in Seattle, and Beijing Love Story in Greece.

However, the jaw-dropping sceneries and the much-idealized visions of romance, although appealing, are far removed from the everyday lives of the majority of the Chinese. The Ex-File 3, on the other hand, zooms in on nothing but breakups, something that most of us have gone through, and seeing it on the big screen is bound to bring up a memory or two. With raw emotions and brutal honesty that is rarely seen in Chinese romance films, director Tian Yusheng has successfully made The Ex-File 3 an authentic modern Chinese love story, filling the gap in Chinese rom-coms. To have the audiences emotionally respond to a film is perhaps a better way to box office triumph than anything else.

Coincidentally — or perhaps not — The Ex-File 3,  along with two other homegrown romantic comedies, Love Is Blind, and Breakup Buddies, which charmed their audiences with insights into breakups, are the three most successful romance films in China. Are people more interested in falling out of love than staying in love? Or perhaps it is the much-needed emotional release that the audiences are after, one that happy endings fail to offer. 

A closer look at The Ex-File 3’s box office reveals that half of the attendance comes from youths living in China’s smaller cities, with money to spend, and enough free time on hand. The new generation of small-town youngsters is educated, many have stable jobs, but they live a much simpler life compared to their big-city counterparts. More disposable income and free time, coupled with lower living cost, make movie-going the obvious choice for entertainment. The rapid growth of smartphone ownership and social media usage helps small-town youths stay connected, which often encourages leisure spending. As a consumer group, the small-town youths are challenging the idea that young adults living in first- and second-tier cities are still the biggest moviegoers, further proven by the fact that only 12.2% of action hit Wolf Warrior 2’s box office comes from those who live in first-tier cities.

The emergence of small-town youngsters and the success behind The Ex-File 3 paint a picture where there is substantial demand for Chinese romantic comedies, provided the stories are solid, down-to-earth, and emotionally engaging.