Entertainment, Society

Putting family first?

Moviegoers prefer a local tear-jerker to Godzilla and King Kong


Zhang Zifeng: her latest movie has generated 10.5 billion views on weibo

It turns out that the biggest challenger to Godzilla vs. Kong is not another monster. In China, a low budget production entitled Sister has become the surprise hit at the box office since its premiere in early April. So far the movie has collected Rmb700 million ($106.8 million) in ticket sales. That compares with Godzilla vs. Kong’s Rmb1.1 billion, although the fourth instalment in the MonsterVerse franchise was released one week earlier.

Sister has made Sina Weibo’s “Hot Search” list 40 times and generated over 10.5 billion views on China’s Twitter-equivalent. Videos related to the film have also been watched over a billion times.

Starlet Zhang Zifeng has a breakout lead performance in the movie, in which she plays An Ran, a 24 year-old who becomes responsible for her six year-old brother after a car crash kills their parents. She must decide whether to give up her career as a nurse to raise her brother or put him up for foster care.

As the film progresses the audience learns of An’s ambivalence towards her bratty and petulant sibling. An was born at a time when the Chinese government allowed each family just one child (the policy was relaxed in 2015). When she turned 18 she had to pretend to have a disability so her parents could get permission from the authorities to have a second child – hoping for a boy.

Her parents – hardly a model mother and father – secretly changed their daughter’s college major from medicine to nursing because they wanted her to finish school quicker to help financially with her brother’s upbringing.

Interestingly, instead of sympathising with An’s predicament, her aunt, turns up the pressure on her niece. She too was made to give up her own career to raise her brother.

There is no happy ending – spoiler alert – as An eventually chooses to put her brother in foster care. But the film stops short of telling you whether she is going to follow through with the decision. The last scene is an open ending as it shows An pausing before signing the papers and then putting down her pen to hug her brother.

Critics say the film is realistic in its portrayal of China’s patriarchal culture and the widespread social bias in which sons are more highly valued than daughters

“Why did the film get released during the Qing Ming Festival [which is also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day]? Because it is a horror film,” one deadpans.

“Based on traditional values, women must put family in first place and their own individual needs second. Those shackles were imposed on generations of women,” explained Mtime, a movie database service. The film resonated with a lot of female cinemagoers. Those who are elder sisters themselves, in particular, have expressed empathy with An, saying they shared similar experiences when they were growing up.

“As a sister whose life has been upended by her younger brother, even though some of the plotlines in the film were overly dramatic, many of the scenes and dialogue reflected my own personal experience. It was suffocating to watch,” a viewer wrote on Douban.

“As a brother with two sisters, I have enjoyed the privilege of just being a boy and I have always felt indebted to my sisters. Even so, I couldn’t fully comprehend the plight of women today. Sister, however, puts their dilemma on the big screen. They were subjected to the pressures of patriarchal society, generation after generation. Their helplessness fills my chest – and tears well up in my eyes,” a male audience member wrote.

Others complained that the film’s ending is still anti-feminist, since it seems to suggest that An caves in to social pressure to raise her brother.

“So the director says the film is told from the female perspective, calling it Sister. But what happens is the brother suddenly becomes an angel to create a dilemma for women. My God, women have been suppressed for two thousand years. I’m sick to see that it is still the case in a new century,” a female critic thundered.

Screenwriter You Xiaoying says the heated discussion is exactly what she was hoping to achieve. “For all women, whether they choose left or right, someone will always tell them how they should live their lives. But we don’t want to tell women how to live. Everyone should make their own choices and be responsible for their decisions,” she told the media.

The film appears to have struck a chord with viewers in lower-tier cities, where gender inequality persists more stubbornly. Statistics from online ticketing platform Maoyan show that women accounted for 83% of the film’s audience, 50% of which came from third- and fourth-tier cities. Around 56% were younger women between 20-29. Many called the film “tear-jerking” and “very moving”.

The strong takings of Sister follow the success of another family-centred film Hi, Mom, which became a breakout hit during the Chinese New Year period, raking in Rmb5.4 billion in ticket sales. In fact, Hi, Mom may take the title of the highest grossing film worldwide this year, given a shortage of Hollywood output owing to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The comedy-cum-tear-jerker tells the story of a woman who travels back in time and becomes best friends with her own mother.

Critics claim that films that put family dynamics centre-stage have outperformed in recent times. Go Brother!, which is about sibling relationships, went on to pick up Rmb400 million at the box office in 2018. “The market reaction has confirmed the popularity of the family drama genre among Chinese audiences. This will undoubtedly encourage more film creators to continue to explore this field in the future,” Yangcheng Evening News reckons.

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