A cinematic cage fight

Movies pulled as Lunar New Year box office battle turns into a bloodbath

Liu Haocun-w

Liu Haocun: stars in Han Han’s latest movie Four Seas

According to the principles of the Chinese zodiac, the ‘tiger’ is a symbol of strength and bravery. So perhaps it’s appropriate that only film producers of the most confident type would dare to release a film during next week’s Year of the Tiger Spring Festival holiday.

The weeklong Chinese New Year vacation is the country’s busiest box office period and February’s Year of the Tiger holiday window is more fiercely competitive than ever: a total of eight new features are expected to launch on the big screen on the first day of the holiday alone. Some film distributors have already waved the white flag, deciding to pull their titles from the holiday schedule. Others have kept their nerve, including the producers of The Battle at Lake Changjin 2: Water Gate Bridge, the sequel to China’s highest grossing film of all time. Most commentators expect it to be a smash hit as a sequel to the first film in the franchise (see WiC559), recounting the history of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army in the Korean War (or ‘The War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea’, as it is better known to Chinese).

This time round, the Chinese troops have to fend off an American onslaught at Water Gate Bridge. Their mission is even “colder, bloodier and more cruel”, teases the film’s director Tsui Hark.

Audience numbers could be huge. Lake Changjin 2 is ranking first in votes in the “want to watch” metric on Maoyan, a ticketing platform. Insiders hope the patriotic action flick could even surpass its predecessor, which took Rmb5.7 billion ($890 million) at the local box office last summer.

First it will have to see off the threat from Nice View, a drama featuring Yi Yangqianxi, one of the biggest names of the moment in Chinese show business (he has a minor role in Lake Changjin 2 too). Comedy Too Cool to Kill will also make its debut on the same day, along with writer-director Han Han’s new film Four Seas, which stars new faces Liu Haoran and Liu Haocun (they’re not related), as well as veteran director Zhang Yimou’s Sharp Shooter, another story about the Korean War.

Three animated films will also debut at a similar time. The Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf, a long-time stalwart of the Chinese New Year period, is back again for the holiday. It will compete against Boonie Bears: Back to Earth and Run, Tiger, Run.

“Behind the eight films released during the Spring Festival is the involvement of more than 130 studios and distributors, including all the big names like Bona Pictures, Alibaba Pictures and Enlight Media. For the studios, the importance of the Spring Festival box office has gone up year after year, it has become the biggest battleground in the film industry,” Yiyu Guancha, an entertainment blog, reports.

Despite the huge box office takings over the Spring Festival, the holiday season has proven to be a ‘winner takes all’ scenario in recent years. Between 2016 and 2021, it has become the norm that the top three highest grossing films account for more than 80% of total ticket sales, says China Business News.

That helps to explain why at least five films have suddenly dropped off this year’s schedule. For instance, the highly anticipated Advancing of ZQ, produced by Mahua FunAge Pictures, a Beijing theatre troupe-turned-film producer (see WiC384), was withdrawn early this month. The comedy will no longer be released on February 5, with Mahua FunAge claiming that its post-production schedule had met delays.

Similarly, Breaking Through, a film conceived as a celebration of next month’s Winter Olympics in Beijing has been quietly delayed, this time with no explanation. A further three animation films decided to dodge the holiday season, perhaps fearing a big-screen bloodbath.

“In recent years, the biggest winners during the Chinese New Year holidays end up taking the lion’s share of the box office. And with the buzz Lake Changjin 2 is already getting, it will be very hard to compete against such a formidable rival,” another industry insider told China Securities Journal. “Other films don’t want to be relegated to ‘also-rans’.”

In 2021, total movie ticket revenue in China reached Rmb47.3 billion, or almost 75% of that for 2019, the pre-pandemic peak and then the highest ticketing income of any market worldwide. In terms of output, a total of 697 films were domestically produced, a record high too.

Locally-made movies have also been given a boost by diminished competition from foreign titles. “The shortage of imported films, in the short term, will have a specific impact on the market. But in the long run, it also gives domestic films an opportunity to overtake foreign equivalents. Before the pandemic, to support domestically produced films, the country had to restrict the number of imported movies. Now there’s no need for such restrictions. It has certainly helped the healthy development of the domestic film industry,” reckons China Business News.

Only 21 revenue-share Hollywood imports were released in China in 2021, not even close to the 34 quota agreed in an initial deal signed in 2012 by then-vice presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden, reports US entertainment publication Variety.

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