Will the Force be with China?

The Star Wars fran­chise has been a vic­tim of both tim­ing and cul­tural fac­tors in the coun­try’s movie mar­ket. Xu Fan ex­am­ines ex­pec­ta­tions for the lat­est in­stall­ment.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE - Con­tact the writer at xu­fan@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Star Wars will re­turn to Chi­nese screens in the first week­end of 2017, but the big ques­tion for the world’s se­cond-largest mar­ket may still be: How much fur­ther can the new space opera go on its ex­pe­di­tion to col­lect Chi­nese hearts?

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a spinoff pre­quel and the eighth movie of the world’s most pop­u­lar sci-fi fran­chise, will open on the Chi­nese main­land on Jan 6.

Last week, the ma­jor cast — Os­car-nom­i­nee Felic­ity Jones, Mex­i­can lead Diego Luna and Chi­nese mega stars Don­nie Yen and Jiang Wen — warmed up the forth­com­ing block­buster in a whirl­wind Bei­jing tour. Along­side them stood Gareth Ed­wards, the di­rec­tor pre­vi­ously known for Godzilla and Mon­sters.

The casting of Yen and Jiang marks the Hol­ly­wood fran­chise’s first use of Chi­nese faces as ma­jor char­ac­ters in Star Wars’ 40-year his­tory.

In the new tale cen­ter­ing on a group of un­likely he­roes fight­ing against the Em­pire, Ye stars as a blind monk with stun­ning mar­tial arts skills while Jiang plays his best friend, a weapons ex­pert.

Early on, their casting news dom­i­nated do­mes­tic head­lines. Some Chi­nese crit­i­cized the two — who can lead any big movie — for “de­grad­ing them­selves” with sup­port­ing roles in a for­mu­laic Hol­ly­wood block­buster. That’s es­pe­cially since Jiang is known for his de­fi­ant, re­bel­lious style and re­sis­tance of main­stream cul­ture.

Both say that Star Wars’ ap­peal for their chil­dren played de­ci­sive role in their ac­cep­tance of the roles.

Most in­dus­try watch­ers see the ad­di­tion of Chi­nese el­e­ments as a strat­egy of Dis­ney to change Star Wars’ gloomy track record in China.

In Jan­uary, the sev­enth Star Wars film, The Force Awak­ens, was re­leased across the coun­try but ended with a lack­lus­ter per­for­mance.

“Some in­sid­ers pre­dicted The Force Awak­ens would sur­pass 2 bil­lion yuan ($286 mil­lion), but it stopped at 826 mil­lion yuan,” re­calls Jiang Yong, a Bei­jing-based in­dus­try watcher.

Jan­uary’s movie ticket sales saw a year-on-year rise of nearly 48 per­cent — the peak of China’s box of­fice bo­nanza. Most of Hol­ly­wood blockbusters eas­ily sur­passed the bench­mark of 1 bil­lion yuan dur­ing that pe­riod of rapid growth.

Many earned much more, such as Fast & Fu­ri­ous 7 at 2.4 bil­lion yuan and Trans­form­ers: Age of Ex­tinc­tion at nearly 2 bil­lion yuan.

How­ever, a look back finds the Force seem­ingly not be­ing with Star Wars films in the Mid­dle King­dom over the decades.

Un­like most movie mar­kets, which have been ex­cited about the sci-fi fran­chise dur­ing the past 40 years, China has shown less en­thu­si­asm.

The Star Wars pre­quels — the orig­i­nal tril­ogy was not re­leased on the Chi­nese main­land — earned only 141 mil­lion yuan here be­tween 1999 and 2005.

Most an­a­lysts be­lieve that the Star Wars pre­quels came too early to catch the golden phase, as China’s box-of­fice boom and Chi­nese movie­go­ers’ pas­sion for the big screen be­gan grow­ing in 2009.

Zhang Xiaobei, a sci-fi movie di­rec­tor and vet­eran com­men­ta­tor, says China’s cul­tural cli­mate then couldn’t em­brace Star Wars with the fer­vor it re­ceived in the West start­ing in the late 1970s.

“Star Wars catered to Western young­sters’ pur­suit of nov­elty, East­ern mys­ti­cism and anti-main­stream aes­thet­ics,” says film re­searcher Zuo Heng, who adds that the se­ries did not bring the same sense of nov­elty to China.

“With­out the nos­tal­gia and his­tory, Star Wars movies are not dif­fer­ent from, or su­pe­rior to, any other heavy ef­fectsstud­ded Hol­ly­wood blockbusters to young Chi­nese,” ex­plains Zhang.

But in­sid­ers be­lieve change will come.

Zuo likens Star Wars to The Great Wall, the largest Si­noUS co­pro­duc­tion of mas­sive bat­tles on China’s ar­chi­tec­tural mas­ter­piece, but says the casting of Yen and Jiang could mean a big­ger ef­fect for Rogue One.

“Their roles — rarely bear­ing such weight in a Hol­ly­wood big fran­chise be­fore — may arouse in­ter­na­tional in­ter­est in China,” says Zuo.

Jiang, who watched the preview last week in Bei­jing, says the duo played by the Chi­nese stars are im­pres­sive. In ad­di­tion to vet­eran per­for­mances, they present a se­ries of comedic mo­ments.

“Such sup­port­ing roles some­times grab au­di­ences more than the lead char­ac­ters, mak­ing them a bit eas­ier to be re­mem­bered by in­ter­na­tional au­di­ences,” says Jiang.

Jiang adds that the young gen­er­a­tion, with more ac­cess to Hol­ly­wood movies and bet­ter English, is ex­pand­ing the fan base.

“When some fa­mil­iar lines or char­ac­ters appear, the young­sters scream and clap. You can sense the dif­fer­ence be­tween decades ago and now,” says Jiang, who first watched the Star Wars movies in the 1980s.


A pro­mo­tional event is held in Bei­jing for the up­com­ing Diego Luna, di­rec­tor Gareth Ed­wards and actor Jiang Wen. RogueOne:AS­tarWarsS­tory, fea­tur­ing (from left) Don­nie Yen, Felic­ity Jones,

will be shown on the Chi­nese main­land from Jan 6. Stat­ues of Stormtroop­ers stand at the en­trance of a


RogueOne:AS­tarWarsS­tory Bei­jing cin­ema.

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