Body swap

Stage play becomes China’s biggest comedy movie ever


The stars of low-budget hit Never Say Die Ai Lun and Ma Li

First, the good news: the eight-day long National Day holiday, a prime moviegoing season, set a new record. Its box office haul reached almost Rmb3 billion ($450 million), doubling last year’s figures.

Now the bad: almost all the films that were shown during the period – except for one – proved mediocre box office fare. Never Say Die, a small budget comedy-martial arts film, went on to grab as much as 50% of the ticket take during the holiday, raking in over Rmb1.8 billion since its premiere on September 30. The distant second, Donnie Yen’s Chasing the Dragon, took in just Rmb500 million. Sky Hunter, the patriotic film that stars the A-list actress Fan Bingbing, was an even bigger disappointment, earning just Rmb240 million so far.

Industry observers were shocked by the outcome: “It is hard to believe that in a sea of 3D blockbusters, a small-budget 2D film would become the biggest box office winner,” observed Phoenix News.

In fact, Never Say Die has already overtaken the record set by Jackie Chan’s Kung Fu Yoga (Rmb1.7 billion) from earlier this year and become China’s best-grossing comedy ever. Movie analysts reckon the film will soon exceed Rmb2 billion in the domestic box office.

An adaptation of a stage play of the same name, the film tells the story of a boxer and a journalist who mysteriously swap bodies after they are zapped by electricity.

One reason for its popularity is good old-fashioned word of mouth. On Douban, the film and TV series review site, Never Say Die has received a strong rating of 7.3 out of 10 with many reviewers declaring that the comedy “does not have one dull moment”.

“I had little expectation for the film but I gave it five stars because it was just so surprisingly fun to watch. I laughed so hard I almost needed an oxygen tank to help me breathe,” one reviewer wrote on Douban. “Never Say Die once again shows that good acting can even make an unbelievable story believable.”

“Everything about the story is original. It doesn’t have ‘little fresh meats’ (young handsome actors) with no acting skills. The movie doesn’t have A-list stars just for the sake of propping up the cast list. Perhaps it stands out merely by doing what it does best: comedy,” another wrote.

The box office hit once again cements Mahua FunAge Pictures, a Beijing theatre troupe-turned-film producer, as the leading comedy film producer in China. Never Say Die, its third feature, has already surpassed its surprisingly successful 2015 debut, Goodbye Mr Loser, which went on to take Rmb1.4 billion at the Chinese box office.

The theatre troupe first became famous by taking over the comedy skit segment on the annual CCTV Spring Festival Gala from comedian Zhao Benshan (see Red Star WiC6). Since then, with a blend of colourful characters and sharp dialogue that pokes fun at social issues, the troupe has become an annual fixture on the country’s most-watched live TV programme.

For instance, in 2013, Mahua FunAge mocked a hugely popular time-travel TV series in a comedy skit during the variety show. The next year, it put the problem of the Good Samaritan (see WiC136) centre stage, satirising the plight of citizens who end up getting framed just for helping others.

The new boost in publicity also means that tickets to its theatre shows have constantly sold out. Indeed the troupe has proven so successful that by mid-2015, Mahua FunAge had written over 20 original plays and staged over 3,000 shows around the country, entertaining (by its estimate) over 150 million people.

In 2015, it decided to extend its reach to the big screen with Goodbye Mr Loser, which, like Never Say Die, is also based on an original play. That same year, Mahua FunAge became the first theatre company in China to go public. Capitalising on the fundraising, the troupe earned Rmb263 million in 2016, up 42.6% from the prior year, reports Huxiu, a portal.

Industry insiders say the market valuation for the theatre group could now exceed Rmb1 billion thanks to its surprise blockbuster cinema hit.

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