You’ve probably heard about the highest-grossing film of the year. “Black Panther” has been breaking records since it opened earlier this year, recently surpassing “Titanic” to claim the third-highest domestic gross of all time. More surprising are the two films that follow: “Operation Red Sea” and “Detective Chinatown 2,” which have earned $568 million and $531 million worldwide, respectively. The vast majority of those earnings are from their native China, which by certain metrics is now the largest film market in the world.
In February, the People’s Republic set a world record for monthly sales in a single market when moviegoers spent 10.1 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) at the box office. Most theatrical offerings that month were domestic productions, whereas March saw the release of such imports as “Ready Player One,” “The Shape of Water,” and, yes, “Black Panther.” The result: a nearly 50 percent decline in ticket sales.
So what are these movies dominating the Chinese — and, by extension, global — box office? Far and away the most successful is last year’s “Wolf Warrior 2,” which made a massive $874 million in China alone — the second-highest gross in a single market of all time after “The Force Awakens.” Directed by and starring Wu Jing, the action film came with a provocative poster showing Wu’s character giving the middle finger with an “I fight for China” patch affixed to his uniform. Under that lewd gesture is a tagline: “Anyone who offends China, no matter how remote, must be exterminated.”
In this case “anyone” is a group of mercenaries in an unnamed African country who make the grave mistake of attempting to help rebels stage a coup. (Their leader, known as Big Daddy, is played by Frank Grillo.) This goes about as well for them as it does for the foreign villains in any ultra-patriotic American action film you can think of.
“Wolf Warrior 2” hasn’t held its box-office record for long, and neither did its predecessors. When “The Mermaid” was released in early 2016, for instance, it quickly became China’s most successful film of all time. Its financial impact proved more memorable than the movie itself: A romantic fairy tale with a heavy-handed environmental message and distracting CGI, it traded in slapstick humor and surprisingly graphic man-on-mermaid violence that did little to advance its lovey-dovey underpinnings.
It’ll take a lot to dethrone “Wolf Warrior 2,” but recent history suggests its days are numbered. That these records are being set and broken at such a rapid pace is clear evidence that the Chinese box office is a force to be reckoned with; the question now is how much longer it can continue to grow before inevitably plateauing.
There’s more than audience taste at work, of course. China regulates the number of foreign films that can play in theaters at any given time. As of 2016, there are more screens in China than there are in America, and box-office revenues have increased 144 percent there since 2012. (America has seen a six percent increase in the same period, though it obviously started out much higher.)
“Operation Red Sea” is another action film, this one a naval thriller concerning the Chinese Navy’s efforts to rescue more than 500 citizens caught up in the Yemeni Civil War. Costing a reported $70 million to make, it opened in fourth place during its opening weekend and didn’t reach the #1 spot until its third week. “Detective Chinatown 2,” which was also released domestically on February 16, is much lighter fare. A fish-out-of-water mystery/comedy set in New York, it features both English and Mandarin dialogue. (Its predecessor made $126 million against a budget of just $15 million.)
Thirteen of the 20 highest-grossing movies in Chinese history are domestic productions; the top four — “Wolf Warrior 2,” “Operation Red Sea,” “Detective Chinatown 2,” and “The Mermaid” — were all released within the last two years. The foreign films that do perform well are a mixed bunch, from two “Transformers” and “Fast and Furious” entries apiece to “Zootopia,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and, oddly enough, “Warcraft” (which made a paltry $47 million in America compared to its $213 million take in China).
“Warcraft” isn’t exactly an outlier in that regard. “Rampage” earned $55.7 million in China during its opening weekend, which is $20 million more than it made here during the same time frame. Success in one market doesn’t guarantee success in another, and it’s increasingly common for tentpole fare to underperform domestically while cleaning up abroad — especially in China.
“Until about 10 years ago, in the absence of a well-articulated set of national and cultural values, Hollywood stories and the ethics they promoted were aspirational to many Chinese,” Wu Haiyun writes in a well-argued essay on this phenomenon. “But now, we’re tired of them. They strike us as conventional at best, irrelevant at worst.” She continues:
In China, the ideals of the American Dream are paling into significance as the country’s self-styled Chinese Dream produces the growing wealth and status of large numbers of people while promulgating different values: collective effort, patriotism, and self-sacrifice for the cause of national rejuvenation.
Wu’s argument — that Americans like movies in which the individual triumphs and Chinese prefer films about collective success — has merit, but it also overlooks the lizard-brain appeal of a “Wolf Warrior 2.” At heart, it’s another film about a gun- and knife-wielding badass who kills foreign bad guys indiscriminately. A more cynical reading of such movies’ massive success might suggest that Chinese audiences like the same thing Americans do: big, dumb blockbusters in which the heroes look and speak like them.
For obvious reasons, these films have done a better job of capturing the popular imagination in China than Hollywood exports. What they haven’t yet done is replicate that success abroad. They might even be considered victims of their own success: “Wolf Warrior 2” and “The Mermaid” are, in their own ways, niche entities despite their massive popularity. China may soon be the world’s biggest market, but it’s still only one market.