By Xiao Yang
This article focuses on the most successful films in the market of Mainland China in recent years and notes that most top-grossers are local Chinese movies. The article provides several perspectives in viewing this phenomenon, including the development of Chinese social media, the rising nationalism, and the blurred boundary between commerce and politics in Chinese filmmaking.
While the film market of Mainland China was dominated by Hollywood blockbuster hits such as the serieses of Kung Fu Panda, Harry Potter, and Fast & Furious in the 2000s and the early 2010s, local Chinese films have occupied the list of top box-office grossers in recent years. As of 2021, among the top-10 box office grossers in Mainland China, nine of them are local Chinese movies. The only imported Hollywood movie is Avengers: Endgame (2019), which grossed around 4.25 billion yuan (629.1 million US dollars).
What have beaten imported Hollywood blockbuster movies these years are local “baokuan films (爆款电影)”. The word is equivalent to “movie top-hits” and is used widely online to describe movies that succeed at box office and are well-regarded by audiences.
Baokuan films of each year in Mainland China from 2016
Co-produced by Mainland China and Hong Kong SAR, The Mermaid was the top-hit in 2016, setting a new box office record with nearly 3.4 billion yuan gross overall. The film was released in theaters on the first day of the Chinese New Year holiday, and it grossed more than one billion yuan at the box office in four days. With a theme of human beings’ commercial activities that lead to pollution and the extinction of wildlife, the film tells a story about how a businessman has been aware of environmental issues after meeting a mermaid and falling in love with her. The unprecedented records set by The Mermaid show the potential of the Chinese film market for the first time.
Wolf Warrior 2 features a Rambo-like Chinese hero, Leng Feng (played by Wu Jing), who rescued Chinese and local citizens during a civil war in an anonymous African country. The depiction of China as a modern, powerful, and responsible country in the world, together with the repetitive signs such as the Chinese army, the national flag, and the emphasis on the pride of being a Chinese resident, has elicited heated debates about the film’s unveiled nationalist expression. However, this cannot deny the fact that Wolf Warrior 2 had attracted numerous audiences and had dominated the summer film market, grossing nearly 5.6 billion yuan at the box office in Mainland China only. This record had remained for four years until it was surpassed by The Battle of Changjin Lake (2021).
Bearing some resemblance to Wolf Warrior 2, Operation Red Sea also features an overseas mission of the Chinese army intending to rescue Chinese residents from a group of terrorists. Instead of a single hero, the protagonists are eight members of a team this time. The film was directed by Dante Lam, a Hong Kong director whose Operation Mekong (2015) had already been a baokuan in Mainland China three years before.
Nezha, an animated film retelling the story of a famous Chinese boy-god, is the highest-box office-grossing animated film in Mainland China so far. The animation was welcomed by audiences not only because of its on-screen visual spectacles achieved by 3D technology, Computer-generated Imagery, and IMAX format but also because it perfectly combined traditional Chinese legend with Hollywood narratives as well as sentiments that were emphasized by audiences.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused filmmaking in China in 2020. When the spread of the virus had been controlled in August, movie theaters reopened. The Eight Hundred, released in-theater on August 21st, 2020, became one of the limited blockbuster choices for audiences who were craving for entertainment after the release of lockdown restrictions. The war/epic film, exhibiting the struggle of the Chinese army in a battle of the Second World War, combines pedagogical functions with visual spectacles and sentimental stories. It grossed more than 3.1 billion yuan at the box office. This record also made it the top grosser in the worldwide in 2020.
Hi, Mom, directed by the comedian Jia Ling in memory of her mother, was a dark horse during the Lunar New Year in 2021. While during this time there were only seven movies in theatres due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hi, Mom won audiences’ endorsement as it resonated with their need for family intimacy. The film grossed around 5.4 billion yuan in Mainland China, making Jia Ling the female director of a top-grossing film in the world.
The film, as a “dedication film” to celebrate the 100-year-memorial of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, was screened on September 30th, the day before October 1st, the Chinese National Day. The Battle at Lake Changjin presented the People’s Volunteer Army in the Korean War against America. On November 24th, 2021, after nearly two months in theaters, the film surpassed Wolf Warrior 2 at box office gross and became the new highest grosser in the overall record of the Chinese film market.
Why baokuan films?
Although most baokuan films listed are movie blockbusters produced with big budget, superstars, and visual spectacles, there were also melodrama films produced with relatively small budget becoming baokuan, such as Goodbye, Mr. Loser (2015), Dying to Survive (2018), and Hi, Mom (2021). This is to say, baokuan films are not a filmmaking mode as Hollywood blockbuster movies but rather a phenomenon describing movies that succeed in both market performance and audiences’ word-of-mouth in Mainland China. The successes of previous baokuan films can only mean that they were liked and supported by audiences at large, and sometimes the government as well during the time they were in theaters.
The advent of baokuan films, first, benefits from the Web 2.0 epoch. The ubiquitous Internet and social media has made opinions and experiences easy to share and circulate online. This not merely transfers the way of film marketing (which is, from offline to online) but also largely increases the visibility of film audiences’ word-of-mouth. The boundary between audiences and marketers has been dissolving because audience, enabled to produce their own contents as well, endorse their favourite movies, directors, and stars through User-generated Content (UGC) social media represented by Tiktok (the Chinese version called Douyin) and Bilibili. Acknowledging this fact, film marketers and opinion leaders usually try to guide audiences’ online word-of-mouth. For instance, stars, celebrities, and hired opinion leaders on weibo often engage in discussing a film currently playing in theaters, helping to spread a film’s positive word-of-mouth.
Second, the baokuan film phenomenon is closely related to the nationalism wave in China since the 2010s. This ascending sentiment results from the state’s advocacy (such as the “Chinese Dream”) and the uncertainty of neoliberal globalization. In the domestic film market, many local Chinese films outperformed the imported Hollywood blockbusters at both box office and prestige. Compared with the audiences before the mid-2010s, Chinese audiences in this period are likely to support local films which represent a sense of “the rising of the Chinese film industry”. The nationalist sentiment is also attested by the content and genres of many popular films. War/action films featuring China’s overseas missions and its important role in globalization including evacuating Chinese citizens, countering terrorism and drug dealing, and peacekeeping were welcomed. On the other hand, Chinese nationalism as a significant element in these films also explains the huge gap between their domestic and overseas box office gross – they cater to Chinese audiences more than international audiences.
Last but not least, baokuan films show a convergence of entertainment and politics in the Chinese film market. from the films listed above, it can be seen that many of them are the so-called “main melody films (zhuxuanlv dianying/主旋律电影)” in China. Originating from propaganda films in Mao Zedong’s era, films conducting the state’s pedagogical objectives have forged an important category in the Chinese film industry, which used to be isolated from entertainment films and art films. While apparently main melody films are sponsored by the Chinese state, many films, exemplified by Wolf Warrior 2 and Operation Mekong (2015), were produced and released by private enterprises rather than state-owned film companies. These commercial films embody official ideologies after finding it profitable resonating with the growing nationalist sentiment amid Chinese audiences. At the same time, state-sponsored main melody films have seen marketization in the past decade, signified by The Founding of a Republic (2009) produced by the China Film Group and employed a large number of stars in commercial movies. Currently, many main melody films were initiated by the state but produced by private companies and commercial film directors. This has become a filmmaking modality to make main melody films more acceptable in the market.
The emergence of locally produced baokuan films in China and their box office successes in the domestic market, accordingly, remark a specific time in the Chinese film industry in which the propaganda traditions have merged with commercial filmmaking strategies. This might signal a transformation in Chinese filmmaking where propaganda has become more ubiquitous and in disguise under visual spectacles. But it could also be a temporary phenomenon in response to the government’s global strategy and China’s role in globalization in the specific period from the mid-2010s, which is subject to change in the unknown future.
About the Author
Xiao Yang is a Ph.D. candidate in Film Studies at Monash University. She is exploring the political economy of contemporary Asian cinema, neoliberal globalization, and the Chinese film industry. She has recently published in the Journal of Chinese Cinemas. Her PhD thesis focuses on the transformation of Chinese commercial filmmaking since the mid-2010s, taking top box office grossers such as Wolf Warrior 2, Hi, Mom, and The Wandering Earth as cases.
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