So Star Wars: The Last Jedi is not a hit in China, opening second and only earning half the box office takings of The Ex-Files: The Return of the Exes, a low-budget comedy about manchild exes.
Yeah, this movie beat out Star Wars.
This is not really a surprise to anyone who follows China’s box office trends. Low budget local comedies have consistently beaten out Hollywood blockbusters for over 10 years now. Chinese audiences like to see representations of their lives and modern China. Lost in Bangkok and its sequels, and Detective Chinatown and its upcoming sequel, are huge. The latter’s sequel is big enough to film in the heart of Times Square in New York City just a few months ago with a full US union crew.
I’ve been seeing a lot of speculation on why Star Wars isn’t popular in China and why The Last Jedi isn’t a success, everything from “They must hate the SJW agenda too,” or “they must have heard it sucks!” to “pandering to China doesn’t work.” None of them get it. There are very normal reasons why the Chinese audience doesn’t give a toss about Star Wars.
One: Star Wars does not have over 30 years of accumulated fandom or brand recognition in China. The original trilogy was never shown in China in the 1970s or 1980s. They have no nostalgia or sentimental attachment to it. The original trilogy has been shown in China since and was met with a shrug. The average age of the China moviegoer is 21, and they don’t have any patience for the production values of old movies. They don’t even give a toss about Shaw Brothers movies, which was a gamble that Celestial Pictures lost when they thought restoring the whole movie library and trying to release it in China would make money.
Two: Considering the Star Wars movies have haphazardly been culturally appropriating imagery and ideas from Chinese and Japanese Cinema, why would the Chinese audience care about movies that are expensive carbon copies of movies they grew up watching their entire lives? Jedi knights are based on Samurai from Japanese movies and the wandering swordsmen from Wuxia movies. The name “Jedi” was derived from the Japanese term “jidaigeki”, which means “period drama”. The central premise of Star Wars, about a rebellion fighting against a brutal empire, is a plot that the Chinese have always known about from “The Water Margin”, AKA “Outlaws of the Marshes”, AKA “All Men are Brothers”, a novel about a band of rebels fighting a corrupt regime written way back in the Ming Dynasty that’s still taught in schools all over Asia.
Chinese culture has a long tradition of Wuxia fiction and movies — a genre which doubles as both their equivalent of the Tolkein-esque fantasy epic and the superhero genre. The swordsmen and women of Wuxia fiction using their inner chi energy in martial arts to fly and perform superhuman feats is hardly different from the Force.
Chinese audiences have been used to the idea of a force-like energy everyone possesses for nearly a hundred years now. To see the use of the Force in a Star Wars movie is nothing new. It’s just a duller version of Wuxia movies set in space. To the Chinese, it’s another Friday opening. They’ve had dozens of Wuxia movies and TV shows where people pull all kinds of crazy Force-type stunts that go way beyond throwing each other in the air and lifting rocks, even if the CGI budget is lower. Dozens of those movies are all over Netflix right now. You can go look if you’re curious.
And for those people who say, “China isn’t interested in movies from outside China”, that is not true. The Transformers movies are huge in China, mainly because audiences like to sit in cinemas with air conditioning during the height of summer to watch really expensive CGI explosions that they don’t do themselves, so who cares about the story? The Marvel movies are huge in China. If anything, the Marvel movies are event movies to them the way Star Wars films are to Western audiences.
At the end of the day, Chinese audiences get to decide what they like and don’t care what everyone else thinks, and that’s the way it should be.
Disney has absolutely nothing to worry about with Star Wars. It’s making bank in the rest of the world, hitting a billion dollars and climbing. Yes, they would like Star Wars to dominate China too, but hey, you can’t have everything.