No prizes for a reprise

Summer box office is up but ‘idol’ Wang Junkai’s film struggles

Wang Junkai-w

Wang Junkai: pop icon whose new movie has failed to excite

When films perform poorly at the box office in China, it isn’t uncommon for producers and directors to go on media tours explaining how the project was a labour of love or how they struggled to get it financed. Some even claim to have mortgaged their homes to keep the project afloat. The idea: win some interest and sympathy from the public.

Last week, it was Hong Kong actor Louis Koo’s turn to plead his case for his own passion project, Warriors of Future.

The sci-fi action-adventure, which was released in early August after almost three years of delays, stars Koo in the lead role, heading up an elite combat team that fights off an alien plant named Pandora.

Koo, a sci-fi fan, was also the executive producer.

Not helping the film’s prospects was that it arrived on screens at the same time as Moon Man, another sci-fi-themed flick starring comedian Shen Teng. While the latter went on to make Rmb2.6 billion ($379 million) at the box office, Warriors of Future has taken a far more modest Rmb370 million.

Appearing on a livestream to drum up interest in the movie, the 52 year-old Koo looked exhausted (he had visited 10 theatres in a single day as part of his promotional duties). He explained that the film took him over a decade to produce and cost Rmb500 million just to make, which means that he needs at least Rmb1 billion in ticket sales to break even.

Later a video appeared on social media of the actor-producer checking his phone repeatedly to see the latest figures on ticket sales, accompanied by a sigh of disappointment each time.

The video came with the tagline: “Ten years of hard work, but the result is so heartbreaking”.

Pop icon Wang Junkai is also disappointed that his latest film The Fallen Bridge isn’t the commercial success he hoped. Instead, much of the response from audiences has been negative. “The film is so boring that the girl next to me fell asleep midway. Junkai’s talent managers: you need to do a better job at finding film roles for him,” one reviewer wrote on Douban.

Wang, 22, was the leader of the boyband TFBoys, along with Yi Yangqianxi and Wang Yuan (the two Wangs are not related). While Wang Yuan continued his solo singing career, Yi and Wang Junkai pivoted into acting. Wang has previously starred in TV drama Reborn (out last year) and patriotic-style films like My People, My Homeland.

In The Fallen Bridge, the singer-actor plays an autistic man named Meng Chao. After a bridge collapses, a body emerges from the water. The daughter of the deceased is determined to find out how her father perished and asks for Meng’s help. Together, the two uncover the truth behind his death.

Wang’s character Meng lives on the fringes of society because of his autism. In preparation for the role, the Chongqing-native lost weight, dressed in ragged clothing and went for days without washing his hair just to look dirty and unkempt. However, it wasn’t enough to win over his critics.

“The rebelliousness of Wang Junkai’s character is all very surface level. His acting skills look weak and immature amid the already incoherent screenplay,” chastised Blue Whale Media. “Other than his physical appearance, his performance feels very lacklustre.”

“The character Meng Chao is very complicated. As a result, what’s required of an actor is much greater. He needs to be able to elicit empathy, which means that he needs a certain level of understanding about the character’s suffering,” claimed ThePaper.cn. “Even though Wang Junkai tries very hard to dress down and look sloppy, his chiselled jawline and eyes are still disconnected from the marginalised character he is portraying in the story.”

Wang’s performance has also attracted unfavourable comparisons with that of his former bandmate Yi. In 2019, the 21 year-old Yi starred in the anti-bullying drama Better Days, in which he played a troubled teenager, alongside actress Zhou Dongyu. His performance impressed critics and audiences alike and the film went on to collect Rmb1.5 billion at the box office.

Needless to say, some of the similarities between the two roles led to speculation that Wang was trying to replicate Yi’s success by rebooting-cum-repackaging Better Days. Chatter comparing the two movies was fuelled further by the decision to cast starlet Ma Sichun as the female lead in The Fallen Bridge. Ma and Zhou Dongyu – the actress in Better Days – jointly won the Golden Horse Award for Best Actress together for their performances in the 2016 movie Soul Mate. So fans were soon speculating that the producers were playing with the pair’s close association when they cast Ma opposite Wang – hoping audiences would associate it with Zhou’s role in Better Days (alongside Yi), and hence recapture some of that winning chemistry for The Fallen Bridge.

If that was the plan, the convoluted strategy hasn’t paid off. On Douban, the TV and film review site, Better Days received an average rating of 8.2 out of 10, much better than the middling 6.3 earned by The Fallen Bridge.

Despite the less than enthusiastic responses to Warriors of Future and The Fallen Bridge, the summer season has been a productive one for the Chinese film industry. As of August 20, total box office sales for the period had exceeded Rmb8 billion, surpassing the summer of 2021. The biggest winner was Moon Man, followed by Lighting Up the Stars with Rmb1.7 billion in ticket income.

Meanwhile, in another boost for the sector, the China Film Administration has announced that it will join forces with the country’s largest movie ticketing platforms to give away Rmb100 million worth of discount vouchers between August and October to encourage more moviegoers to go back to cinemas.

That said, some of that potential customer base gripe that ticket price is not the biggest factor in persuading them to watch a movie.

“Instead of stimulating consumers through subsidies, the authorities should encourage the film industry to produce more quality films by liberalising censorship,” one told the South China Morning Post.

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