STARWARS FLARE UP

For his­tor­i­cal rea­sons the world’s fore­most sci-fi fran­chise has a gi­gan­tic blind spot. But a new ven­ture could re­launch it into the hearts of Chi­nese film­go­ers, says

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE -

When my Amer­i­can friends talk to me about Star Wars, it usu­ally takes me a long time to ex­plain to them why their fa­vorite sci-fi fran­chise has not caught on in the Mid­dle King­dom the­way ithasin the rest of the world.

The big­gest piece of the puz­zle lies in 1977, the year the first in­stall­ment de­buted. That was right af­ter the end of the “cul­tural revo­lu­tion” (1966-76). There were spo­radic men­tions of the run­away hit in the Chi­nese press as I re­mem­ber, but I did not get to see the film un­til the early 1980swhen­it­was screened for a lim­ited au­di­ence as part of an Amer­i­can film fes­ti­val. There­was­apal­pa­ble feel­ing of dis­ap­point­ment — or en­nui at best — among­col­leges­tu­dentsandteach­ers.

The rea­son was sim­ple: The 1980s was a time of reck­on­ing and re­flec­tion. Most Chi­nese who went to see for­eign fare at the cin­ema wanted se­ri­ous drama that dealt with grave so­cial is­sues. We were not ready for en­ter­tain­ment and we did not care­much­for the then rev­o­lu­tion­ary spe­cial ef­fects. In other words, we were the polar op­po­site of whatChi­nese film­go­ers are to­day.

The Em­pire Strikes Back was aired on some city chan­nels in 1988, but tele­vi­sion sets had not yet reached ev­ery Chi­nese house­hold and the most pop­u­lar shows back then were Hong Kong kung fu se­ries, which had mam­moth fic­tional worlds of their own, such as adap­ta­tions of Louis Cha nov­els.

The 1990s changed the equa­tion when video discs in­tro­duced a cen­tury of world cin­ema to a huge au­di­ence base. When Star Wars: Episode I — The Phan­tom Men­ace was re­leased in China in 1999, it was ex­actly 22 years — ap­prox­i­mately one gen­er­a­tion — af­ter a global whirl­wind was whipped up by the orig­i­nal movie. Film at­ten­dance in China was at the peak around 1980, but StarWars was not avail­able to make the all-im­por­tant first im­pres­sion, and even if it had, judg­ing from pub­lic re­ac­tion to other Hol­ly­wood sci-fi movies that found their way to China then, it would prob­a­bly have been met with a luke­warm re­cep­tion. And when China emerged as a mar­ket jug­ger­naut in the late Noughties, the new wave of movie­go­ers showed lit­tle in­ter­est in a fran­chise that should have wowed their par­ents — had their par­ents been liv­ing in an­other coun­try, that is.

The mis­match be­tween a cul­tural prod­uct’s tim­ing and its au­di­ence’s men­tal­ity could not be more poignan­ti­fy­ous­tudythe­p­op­u­lar­i­ty­ofHol­ly­wood fran­chises such as Harry Pot­ter, The Lord of the Rings, Trans­form­ers, The Avengers, X-Men and other su­per­hero se­ries. They all ar­rived in China in the new cen­tury. Though Trans­form­ers can trace its roots to the tele­vi­sion car­toon­shown on the Chi­nese tube in the 1980s, nostal­gia-ori­ented view­ers make up a frac­tion of to­day’s grow­ing au­di­ence, which has an av­er­age age of 21. Tosell StarWars to this­de­mo­graphic would be like sell­ing them their grand­fa­ther’s Oldsmo­bile.

This is not to say that Ge­orge Lu­cas’ cre­ation does not have loyal Chi­nese fans. But you just won’t be able to find one who got hooked on it in 1977. A Chi­nese Star Wars on­line fo­rum was launched in 2001. It has 50,000 reg­is­tered users, of which 10,000 are ac­tive, which, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Southern Week­end ar­ti­cle, cor­re­sponds to the ac­tual size of the fran­chise’s Chi­nese fan base. Chen Tao, in charge of the fo­rum, says that most Chi­nese fans are res­i­dents of Beijing or Shang­hai, in their 30s, well ed­u­cated and have English pro­fi­ciency. What an en­try bar­rier.

A global fan group, called “Fight­ing 501st”, has 45mem­bers­from the Chi­nese main­land out of a world­wide base of 7,000 mem­bers. The Chi­nese branch was set up in 2005.

If the orig­i­nal six-part Star Wars had missed the Chi­nese boom, the new one, ti­tled Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens, could re­boot the fran­chise in the world’s sec­ond­largest film mar­ket — ex­pected to over­take the North Amer­i­can mar­ket in a year or two. While the new story has un­set­tled some long-time fans in other coun­tries, it is per­fectly po­si­tioned to win a gen­er­a­tion of new view­ers who are not emo­tion­ally moored to the orig­i­nal.

The re­sults may well de­pend on the first week of its China release set for Satur­day. If history is any in­di­ca­tion, crit­i­cal praise can get a movie only so far — specif­i­cally in the range of 500-800 mil­lion yuan ($77-$123 mil­lion) for a Hol­ly­wood sci-fi work. In­ter­stel­lar grossed 755 mil­lion yuan and The Mar­tian 586 mil­lion. In­cep­tion, ar­guably the big­gest talk of the town for its genre, raked in 460 mil­lion in 2010, which could have eas­ily dou­bled given the in­crease in newscreens.

Star Trek, the other Hol­ly­wood sci-fi fran­chise with deep roots, has fared even more poorly. Star Trek Into Dark­ness, the 2013 movie di­rected by J.J. Abrams, to­taled only 351 mil­lion yuan in China, hardly an up­lift­ing fig­ure for aHol­ly­wood heavy­weight.

Hol­ly­wood block­busters that climbed over the bil­lion-yuan bench­mark in China have one thing in­com­mon: com­puter-gen­er­ated spec­ta­cles ga­lore. They are re­view-proof. The Trans­form­ers fran­chise was lam­basted with­more and more neg­a­tive re­views, but its box-of­fice per­for­mance sim­ply im­proved with each new in­stall­ment. The turnout of so-called “small-town youth”, the bulk of the new movie au­di­ence base, has shown an in­or­di­nate ap­petite for non-stop spec­ta­cles, be they chases, ex­plo­sions or in­ter­ga­lac­tic fight­ing. They have not shown much pa­tience for nu­ances of nar­ra­tive art or fine di­a­logues. Not yet.

All this means the ex­ist­ing Chi­nese fan base for StarWars, even if it were 100 times larger than it is, will not be able to out­per­form a sin­gle episode of Tiny Times, the four-part glam­our porn that at­tracted some­where be­tween 10 to 20 mil­lion teenage girls. Ideally, it should have built-in qual­ity and in­ter­pre­tive ma­te­rial to help it hit the 500-mil­lion-yuan mark and then enough spec­ta­cles to tide it over 1 bil­lion.

Iron­i­cally, too much back story, the kind of thing that in­vari­ably wins ap­plause in theWest, could be a turnoff for the Chi­nese who are yet to warm up to it. Big-bud­get re­leases too dense with cross-ref­er­ences and al­lu­sions, a fa­vorite with cinephiles, have met with blank stares or even open ridicule from the pub­lic. How­ever, the taste of Chi­nese film au­di­ences could be amor­phous. In a fron­tier at­mos­phere any­thing can hap­pen.

Con­tact the writer at ray­mondzhou@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

Yang Yang con­trib­uted to this story.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Chi­nese ac­tor Don­nie Yen (far right) with cast and crew mem­bers (from left to right) pro­ducer Kath­leen Kennedy, di­rec­tor J.J. Abrams, ac­tress Daisy Ri­d­ley and ac­tor John Boyega at a pro­mo­tional event in Shang­hai for Star Wars’ lat­est in­stall­ment StarWars:TheForceAwak­ens.

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