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.
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.