Weekly Chinese Box Office Preview: Official Embrace of Jia Zhangke's 'Mountains May Depart' Brings Wide Release For Chinese Arthouse Film
on October 28, 2015
Jonathan Papish @ChinaBoxOffice
Eleven new local language pics and one imported film cram into the last weekend before "Hollywood's unofficial protection month" kicks off next Tuesday with the release of Everest. This weekend only three films - the animated sequel Hotel Transylvania 2, a Chinese remake of the Korean film Blind, and auteur Jia Zhangke's Mountains May Depart - have the potential to break out of the pack and knock Ant-Man and Goodbye Mr. Loser out of the top 2 spots.
Sony Pictures' Hotel Transylvania 2 entered Chinese cinemas on Tuesday as a flat-fee film instead of the profit-sharing model used by most Big Six studio releases in China. Shanghai-based Fundamental Films, the distribution company behind this month's The Little Prince as well as the original Hotel Transylvania's China run in late 2013, takes the reins again. Hotel Transylvania 2 checked in with $1.3M in its debut on Tuesday, 26% ahead of its predecessor. We expect Hotel Transylvania 2 to steal away screens from fellow toons The Little Prince and Detective Conan and to crack the top five this weekend, ultimately surpassing Hotel Transylvania's $12.0 million total.
This weekend's widest release The Witness (我是证人) is a Chinese language remake of the 2011 Korean crime thriller Blind. Korean Ahn Sang-hoon returns to the director's chair and has enlisted A-List Mainland stars Lu Han (member of boy band EXO) and Yang Mi (Tiny Times) to bring out their substantial fan bases to a genre film that would otherwise have little mainstream appeal. This year however has proved that there is a growing audience for genre films buoyed by popular talent; September's crime drama The Dead End (烈日灼心) took in $47.9 million behind a trio of male stars. While we don't see The Witness succeeding on that level or having a lengthy stay, it will still give Ant-Man a run for its money this weekend.
Lastly, Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke returns to the Mainland with Mountains May Depart (山河故人), his first publicly released film in his home country in nine years. Jia has been a mainstay of the international film festival circuit for nearly two decades, creating thoughtful films that challenge viewers with long takes and surreal tableaus, and presenting sympathetic characters who struggle to find a foothold in a Chinese society always in flux.
Jia's previous film Touch of Sin (天注定) won accolades abroad, but irked sensors at home with its tales pulled from actual headlines of violence perpetrated by average citizens against corrupt officials. The film's release was cancelled at the last minute and never screened in public. Jia, heartbroken that his work couldn't be seen by the audience he always intended to make films for, contemplated stepping away from filmmaking, but instead moved forward with Mountains May Depart which is interestingly his most commercially accessible film to date.
Mountains' story is simple, but epic in scope, spanning 26 years and taking viewers from rural Shanxi province in the late 90s to a future Australia in 2025. It follows Tao, played by Jia's wife and muse Zhao Tao (赵涛), from her innocent youth caught between two potential suitors to her strained relationship with a son who's forgotten his native language after emigrating to Australia. Ultimately, Mountains May Depart feels like Jia's lament for a simpler period before the push for economic prosperity propelled China towards materialism and selfishness and away from grounded, human relationships.
Jia's themes seem to be in line with official Chinese rhetoric that is flush with anti-materialism messages as well as reminders that overseas Chinese should never forget the pull of their Motherland. And while readings of the film can go a few different ways, it's still not surprising why Mountains May Depart passed China's censorship board. Further illustrating how much the film is being embraced, Jia's Mountains will open on Friday as one of the widest ever arthouse releases on nearly 12% of China's screens and will also benefit from a 17-city nationwide advanced screening tour, several high-profile stories including a segment on CCTV's nightly news, and a theme song by pop star Chris Lee that will play during the credits. Whether this will translate into box office success for Jia and his film is still to be seen and certainly the outspoken director wouldn't care either way, but with his long-planned martial arts fantasy film in the works, Jia Zhangke certainly seems to be stepping closer and closer into the mainstream.