Published: 10:18, January 15, 2024 | Updated: 17:02, January 15, 2024
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China's movie market surges ahead after pandemic
By Xu Fan

Robust recovery sees audiences return to theaters in numbers

Visitors to a cinema in Huai'an, Jiangsu province, line up to buy tickets on New Year's Eve. (DAI XIMING / FOR CHINA DAILY)

With the New Year holiday witnessing one of the highest-grossing movie box-office seasons to date, the Year of the Rabbit entered its last lunar month on a promising note, maintaining the robust recovery witnessed in 2023.

Some 1.53 billion yuan ($214 million) was earned from more than 36.6 million theater visits during the Dec 30 to Jan 1 holiday period, with domestic movies contributing 1.41 billion yuan, or 92 percent of overall ticket revenue, showed data from the China Film Administration, the country's top industry regulator.

China’s progress in scientific research and development provides fertile ground for inspiration in sci-fi works, which are also among the most promising genres to represent Chinese stories abroad and attract overseas audiences.

Yuan Yun’er, a film critic in Beijing

Shining for One Thing, a movie remake of the popular eponymous 2022 television series, dominated the holiday box-office charts, enticing millions of young couples to spend a romantic and memorable New Year's Eve at the cinema.

A total of 1,314 theaters held special screenings as the movie premiered, recreating a classic scene with sprays of artificial snow.

The comedy Johnny Keep Walking!, which resonates among numerous white-collar workers with its satirical depiction of office problems, secured second place at the national box office during the New Year holiday. It was followed in third position by Hong Kong crime film The Goldfinger, which draws inspiration from a notorious corruption case in the 1980s.

Yin Hong, vice-chairman of the China Film Association, said that after enduring the challenges posed by the three-yearlong COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese film industry has witnessed a robust and stable recovery with a series of high-quality blockbusters. This demonstrates the vibrancy of the domestic market as well as the perseverance and diligence of filmmakers, Yin added.

Last year ended on a promising note, with a total box office gross of 54.91 billion yuan, a year-on-year rise of 83.4 percent. Even though this was short of the 64.3 billion yuan taken in 2019, the year before the pandemic resulted in nationwide theater closures for six months, many industry insiders and analysts said the film industry in China is making a healthy recovery.

In addition to urban residents, villagers in remote areas where cinemas have yet to be built now have access to cinematic entertainment. The China Film Administration said 262 rural digital cinema chains, which primarily screen movies outdoors, organized 42,000 teams to provide 8.24 million free screenings to rural residents last year.

Yin said, "From Spring Festival to the summer, and from the National Day vacation to the recent New Year holiday, Chinese cinemas have witnessed a significant return of theatergoers during these peak box office seasons, indicating the increasing appeal of domestic films."

Cinemagoers in Shanghai wear fancy dress on New Year's Eve. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Blockbusters prevail

Signaling a changing trend in recent years, Chinese audiences now prefer local stories, evidenced by the fact that all 10 of the highest-grossing blockbusters last year were produced by domestic companies.

Last year's box office champion, Zhang Yimou's historic suspense film Full River Red, and runner-up, director Guo Fan's sci-fi epic The Wandering Earth II, were released during the Spring Festival holiday, the nation's most competitive box office season.

The success of Full River Red, the fictional account of a group of grassroots daredevils seeking revenge for Yue Fei, a patriotic general framed and executed during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), is largely attributed to its skillfully written script and the touching performances of a stellar cast, which includes Shen Teng, Yi Yangqianxi and Lei Jiayin.

The movie earned 4.54 billion yuan to top the charts last year in China, and was also the eighth highest-grossing film worldwide.

Widely regarded as a game-changing franchise in reviving homegrown sci-fi works, The Wandering Earth — the first installment of which was released in 2019 — returned to Chinese screens with a second edition, earning 4.03 billion yuan to take second position in last year's box office rankings.

Released in a total of 39 countries and regions, the movie was one of the most influential Chinese blockbusters screened abroad last year.

In addition to the main plot of the first installment, which tells of humans embarking on a 2,500-year-long expedition to escape the dying sun, The Wandering Earth II further contemplates digital life in exploring how human consciousness can be preserved on the internet to achieve "immortality" and the continuity of civilization.

Film critic Yuan Yun'er, who is based in Beijing, said these concepts are intertwined with cutting-edge Chinese scientific advances such as aerospace and artificial intelligence, which have sparked greater interest among sci-fi enthusiasts.

"China's progress in scientific research and development provides fertile ground for inspiration in sci-fi works, which are also among the most promising genres to represent Chinese stories abroad and attract overseas audiences," she added.

The Chinese thriller Wolf Hiding attracts moviegoers to a cinema in Shanghai December 2023. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Rao Shuguang, president of the China Film Critics Association, said movies adapted from real-life cases or which focus on highly relevant social issues have also emerged as a prominent category, captivating a large audience.

Such popular films include No More Bets, which was inspired by numerous cyberfraud cases in several Southeast Asian countries; Never Say Never, based on the story of the founder of a fighting club who helps children from poverty-stricken families in Sichuan province; and Beyond the Clouds, which tells the true story of Zhang Guimei, a teacher who dedicated her life to rural girls' education in Yunnan province.

In addition, Endless Journey, a crime film adapted from a literary work inspired by a true story, stood out as the top box office grosser in China last month. The movie was one of 69 screened in December, a significant rise from the 19 shown during that month in 2022.

The film portrays an unlikely hero, a former police officer who persists over 12 years in hunting down the person responsible for the murder and sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl.

Rao said, "The success of movies such as Endless Journey, which are based on real-life stories, reflects the changing tastes of Chinese audiences. Today's theatergoers now prefer stories that are related to modern China, or which touch upon familiar subjects."

Traditional culture, nurtured by China's long history, has also served to inspire filmmakers.

Examples of this range from Chang An, a successful animated movie that retells the stories of respected poets during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), to Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms, a fantasy epic inspired by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) novel Fengshen Yanyi (Investiture of the Gods).

Fans watch the Japanese animated film The First Slam Dunk at a cinema in Shanghai in April. The movie is based on a sports series hugely popular in the mid-1990s. (CHEN YUYU / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Foreign exchanges

With China lifting pandemic restrictions early in January last year, global cinematic exchanges and imports of foreign films also witnessed a recovery.

A total of 84 imported films, including 28 Hollywood movies, were released in the country last year, data from the China Film Distribution and Screening Association show.

Apart from domestic blockbusters such as The Wandering Earth II and Hidden Blade screening in a number of overseas markets, including North America, Chinese films were shown in a total of 19 countries and regions, including Egypt, Chile, Colombia, South Africa and Nigeria.

Foreign blockbusters, although not as commercially successful as those made several years ago, have still made their mark in the Chinese market.

Fast X, the 10th installment of the streetcar racing-themed Fast and Furious franchise, earned 984 million yuan to become the highest-grossing overseas film in China last year. The Hollywood production, which stars United States actor Vin Diesel, was also the 12th highest-grossing film on the country's yearly box office charts.

The popularity of Japanese animated films continued to grow in China. Renowned director Makoto Shinkai's coming-of-age adventure movie Suzume and The First Slam Dunk, the first feature-length film based on the sports series Slam Dunk, which was hugely popular in the mid-1990s, took second and fourth places, respectively, on the foreign film box office charts in China last year.

The First Slam Dunk, which centers on a high school basketball team taking part in a national competition, evokes collective memories among Chinese moviegoers born in the 1980s and early 1990s, despite the main audience for the Chinese film market being in their 20s.

Zhi Feina, a professor at the Chinese National Academy of Arts, said Chinese audiences are no longer merely satisfied with visually stunning foreign blockbusters, especially if they feature stereotyped plotlines and characters. However, acclaimed Hollywood films such as Oppenheimer and Barbie continue to earn a market share by attracting local audiences who appreciate foreign titles, she added.

The rapidly recovering market in China has also attracted foreign filmmakers and top stars to return to the country to promote their projects after the pandemic, Zhi added.

In March, Shinkai — considered by many film enthusiasts to be the successor to iconic animator Miyazaki Hayao — visited Beijing to publicize Suzume, a film about a 17-year-old schoolgirl's adventure with a man who possesses superpowers to stop natural disasters.

British-American director Christopher Nolan traveled to Shanghai and Beijing in August to promote Oppenheimer, the biopic about the titular character, who was hailed as "the father of the atomic bomb".

In December, French director Luc Besson traveled to four cities, including Hangzhou, Zhejiang province and Suzhou, Jiangsu province, to promote his revenge fantasy film Dogman.

At about the same time, Hollywood director James Wan and actor Jason Momoa embarked on a tour to Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Guangzhou, Guangdong province, to publicize Aquaman and Lost Kingdom. The latter movie is the long-anticipated sequel to Aquaman, the highest-grossing film in China based on a DC Comics superhero.

Zhi said that China, with an annual box office earnings rise of 83 percent last year compared to 2022, has played a pivotal role in boosting the film industry's global recovery. The comparable earnings rises in North America and Japan were 20.71 percent and 7 percent, respectively.

Last year, the number of visitors to urban cinemas across China reached 1.3 billion, the second-highest figure in the world, after India. However, this number is still lower than the 1.71 billion recorded in China in 2019, indicating that the nation still faces challenges in achieving a full recovery to pre-pandemic levels this year, Zhi added.

"The achievements made in 2023 will help attract more funding to the film industry, assist more filmmakers to create quality works, draw more audiences to theaters, and further prosper the Chinese film industry this year," she added.