Nation's movie market surges ahead after pandemic

Robust recovery sees audiences return to theaters in numbers

By XU FAN | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2024-01-15 07:49
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Cinemagoers in Shanghai wear fancy dress on New Year's Eve. CHINA DAILY

Blockbusters prevail

Signaling a changing trend in recent years, Chinese audiences now prefer local stories, evidenced by the fact that all 10 of the highest-grossing blockbusters last year were produced by domestic companies.

Last year's box office champion, Zhang Yimou's historic suspense film Full River Red, and runner-up, director Guo Fan's sci-fi epic The Wandering Earth II, were released during the Spring Festival holiday, the nation's most competitive box office season.

The success of Full River Red, the fictional account of a group of grassroots daredevils seeking revenge for Yue Fei, a patriotic general framed and executed during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), is largely attributed to its skillfully written script and the touching performances of a stellar cast, which includes Shen Teng, Yi Yangqianxi and Lei Jiayin.

The movie earned 4.54 billion yuan to top the charts last year in China, and was also the eighth highest-grossing film worldwide.

Widely regarded as a game-changing franchise in reviving homegrown sci-fi works, The Wandering Earth — the first installment of which was released in 2019 — returned to Chinese screens with a second edition, earning 4.03 billion yuan to take second position in last year's box office rankings.

Released in a total of 39 countries and regions, the movie was one of the most influential Chinese blockbusters screened abroad last year.

In addition to the main plot of the first installment, which tells of humans embarking on a 2,500-year-long expedition to escape the dying sun, The Wandering Earth II further contemplates digital life in exploring how human consciousness can be preserved on the internet to achieve "immortality" and the continuity of civilization.

Film critic Yuan Yun'er, who is based in Beijing, said these concepts are intertwined with cutting-edge Chinese scientific advances such as aerospace and artificial intelligence, which have sparked greater interest among sci-fi enthusiasts.

"China's progress in scientific research and development provides fertile ground for inspiration in sci-fi works, which are also among the most promising genres to represent Chinese stories abroad and attract overseas audiences," she added.

Rao Shuguang, president of the China Film Critics Association, said movies adapted from real-life cases or which focus on highly relevant social issues have also emerged as a prominent category, captivating a large audience.

Such popular films include No More Bets, which was inspired by numerous cyberfraud cases in several Southeast Asian countries; Never Say Never, based on the story of the founder of a fighting club who helps children from poverty-stricken families in Sichuan province; and Beyond the Clouds, which tells the true story of Zhang Guimei, a teacher who dedicated her life to rural girls' education in Yunnan province.

In addition, Endless Journey, a crime film adapted from a literary work inspired by a true story, stood out as the top box office grosser in China last month. The movie was one of 69 screened in December, a significant rise from the 19 shown during that month in 2022.

The film portrays an unlikely hero, a former police officer who persists over 12 years in hunting down the person responsible for the murder and sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl.

Rao said, "The success of movies such as Endless Journey, which are based on real-life stories, reflects the changing tastes of Chinese audiences. Today's theatergoers now prefer stories that are related to modern China, or which touch upon familiar subjects."

Traditional culture, nurtured by China's long history, has also served to inspire filmmakers.

Examples of this range from Chang An, a successful animated movie that retells the stories of respected poets during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), to Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms, a fantasy epic inspired by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) novel Fengshen Yanyi (Investiture of the Gods).

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