Turbo-charged to the top

Why Furious 7 is smashing box office records in China

Cast member Emmanuel poses at the premiere of "Furious 7" at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood

Furious success: Nathalie Emmanuel stars in the record-breaking film

Only a few hours before Fast and Furious 7 reached Chinese cinemas, two drivers in Beijing had a go at rivalling the stunts in the film. The incident involved a Lamborghini trying to overtake a Ferrari in a tunnel (almost never a good idea). The Lambo driver lost control of his car, sending it careening into the side of the tunnel, tearing out a large part of its panelling before ramming into a dividing wall. The front of the Lamborghini was completely ripped off while the Ferrari was smashed along its side and rear (surprisingly, only the female passenger in the Lamborghini was injured, Beijing police confirmed).

The crash has drawn attention online, with some questioning how the drivers – whom the police said were jobless – were able to afford their high-performance rides (the general assumption: loaded parents). The accident also brought back memories of another high-profile smash three years ago, when Ling Gu, the son of an aide to former president Hu Jintao, was killed when his Ferrari crashed in Beijing.

Ling Jihua, the driver’s father, was later sidelined from politics over an attempted cover up of the accident and on graft-related charges.

Some joked about the reasons for the reckless speeding. “Were they in a hurry to watch Furious 7?” one netizen mocked.

Even without the unscheduled publicity, the latest instalment of the Fast and Furious franchise, which stars Vin Diesel and the late Paul Walker, has taken the Chinese box office by storm. In just eight days it made Rmb1.5 billion ($240 million) at the box office, becoming the quickest to cross the Rmb1 billion mark (in only five days). It is now the second highest grossing American film of all time in China, behind only Transformers: Age Of Extinction at Rmb1.9 billion.

Small wonder, then, that during a visit to Beijing’s Sanlitun district in March to promote the film, Diesel told a screaming crowd, “I love China!”

He also told the Chinese media: “If there is another Fast & Furious, it will be filmed in China,” before adding that “the idea of an actor from China being part of the Fast saga feels inevitable.”

Local films that opened in the same week as the Hollywood sensation were crushed. Fan Bingbing’s Ever Since We Love, which came in second place, made just Rmb70 million in ticket sales in three days. “We have been beaten black and blue,” its director Li Yu told Information Times.

The Furious franchise is a rarity for Hollywood, as it’s not based on a comic or book series. Global audiences have embraced the franchise’s impressively ridiculous stunts, but what specifically accounts for its unexpected success in China? Since the fourth film Chinese release in 2009, the Furious family has built up a significant fan base. Instalment four brought in only $4.5 million in ticket sales, but the fifth instalment, released just two years later, increased to $41.6 million. Furious 6 took a total of $66.8 million in China in 2013, but the most recent release looks like making more for the film in China than in the US, which industry experts say is a landmark moment for a Hollywood blockbuster.

Robert Cain at China Film Biz says that it helps that Furious had no Hollywood competition in its opening week, and that it enjoyed a massive nationwide release. (The fact that China Film Group is one of the financial backers of the film may help to explain how Furious 7 managed to be shown on a record 5,454 cinema screens. The Wall Street Journal reported that the state-owned film group purchased a nearly 10% stake in the production from the studio Universal.)

The tight knit cast may also appeal to family-oriented Chinese cinema-goers: “It is not just a film about car racing, there is also family love: the love between two brothers, brother and sister, and husband and wife. As Vin Diesel’s character Dominic Toretto likes to say, ‘I don’t have friends. I got family’,” one netizen wrote.

Another fan agrees: “Even though Dominic Toretto is not the best looking man in Hollywood, he is calm and he will do anything to protect his family and friends. How many times has he risked his life to protect his loved ones? He may not have any supernatural powers but he is a superhero in my eyes.”

The film has also fed on nostalgia about Walker, who died (aged 40) in a car accident while Furious 7 was in production. “In the mass consumer culture, there is nothing that increases the appeal of a star like death. It is both cruel and absurd. But for young and handsome stars, their untimely death often triggers an outpour of public pity and idol worship. Look no further than James Dean, and more recently, Heath Ledger. There is no doubt that one of the reasons for Furious 7’s success is the star power Paul Walker brought with his death,” says Beijing Youth Daily.

A quick look at weibo supports the theory. “The song See You Again and the flashbacks of Paul Walker are the perfect tribute to the actor. There was not a dry pair of eyes in the cinema when I was there,” one fan recalled.

But Cain’s final conclusion is mostly that the film’s triumph is a case of it being “the right movie at the right time”.

Furious 7 is precisely the sort of big budget, effects-driven, Hollywood action spectacular that Chinese audiences love best,” he explains. “Sure, superhero movies are nice, but as the Transformers franchise has amply demonstrated, what the Chinese really want is machine porn: movies featuring monster machines that race and fly and do gravity-defying stunts to save the world. It had been nearly a year since the last such film in this genre, Transformers 4, graced China’s screens, so there was lots of pent up demand when Furious 7 arrived.”

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