Is China Important?

As previously mentioned, after only one week in China, 92% of theaters dropped The Last Jedi and the film was pulled entirely after the 2nd weekend. The Star Wars brand is so toxic in China, that Disney is dropping “Star Wars” from the title of the Han Solo movie being released there.

But does this matter?

In the face of this news, many supporters claim that The Last Jedi was never expected to do well in China because the “cultural differences” were just too great, and there just wasn’t the same kind of nostalgic fervor for the films since they were never seen there until just recently.  Recently being 1999’s The Phantom Menace, nearly 20 years ago.

In contrast,

Jimmy Wu, chairman of nationwide Chinese cinema chain Lumiere Pavilions, told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s performed much worse than we could have expected.”

So while supporters are claiming The Last Jedi was never expected to do well in China, insiders are stating that it performed worse than it was expected to in China.

But let’s back up a moment to the Chinese premiere of The Force Awakens, to help us gain a wider context of this issue.

Disney has spared no expense in marketing the franchise in China prior to the release of The Force Awakens:

“The company has made a series of calculated moves in recent months to create buzz around the new film: Buildings in Shanghai have been lit up with red and blue to look like competing lightsabers; 500 stormtroopers amassed atop the Great Wall of China; and last year Disney and 20th Century Fox struck a deal with Chinese internet giant Tencent to let China residents stream the entire *Star Wars *saga online.”

Despite this, The Force Awakens performed poorly in China, and some attributed that to the franchise’s lack of “cultural cachet” in the far east nation.  Except for the fact that The Force Awakens actually broke records in China, for its first Saturday opening.  Only during the second weekend did the film drop 72%.  This indicates that while TFA had a strong opening weekend in China, moviegoers there weren’t willing to come back for subsequent re-viewings, a scenario that would replay elsewhere.

Shortly before the release of The Last Jedi some pondered how Episode VIII: The Last Jedi would perform in China.

The Wrap proclaimed:

“The good news is that with “The Last Jedi,” Disney will have the advantage of marketing to an audience that is now familiar with these characters and also has new characters like Rey and Finn to become attached to.”

One does wonder if The Last Jedi should have performed better in China, given that the two previous films, The Force Awakens and Rogue One, had been previously released there much more recently, and thus had established some recent history.  Instead, it performed far less than those two predecessors.

Variety boldly claimed:

“There’s little doubt that “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” will attract a following in China, where it opens this Friday. How big a following is the question.”

Others claimed that The Last Jedi’s mythology mirrored that of the Founding Mythology of the Chinese Communist Party.

“The closest real-world analogue to the experience of the Resistance and the Rebel Alliance may be that of the Chinese Communist Party. The founding mythology of the CCP is well known; only twelve members (enough to fit on the Millennium Falcon) attended the first party meeting in 1921. The CCP came into existence in the years after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, with contending forces fighting for supremacy. A brief alliance with the Nationalist Party led to some success against warlords, but in 1927 the alliance broke; in the wake of the Northern Expedition, Chiang Kai Shek turned on the CCP, massacring thousands of communists in Shanghai. Similar massacres took place in other parts of the country, resulting in the elimination of almost two-thirds of the CCP’s strength.”

Others wrote of how The Last Jedi wove in Chinese cultural elements into its narrative, such as wuchu, Macau, the Red Thread of Fate, and of course, Yin and Yang.  

The increasing cultural diversity in the casting was thought to appeal to a wider international market:

“Disney will be watching the exact box office figure, but it won’t matter for their long term goals. The company already has plans to open a new Disneyland theme park in Shanghai, and along with Donnie Yen has cast huge Chinese star Jiang Wen in the upcoming Star Wars* *films. “This is a longer term play,” says Jonathan Landreth, editor of the website China Film Insider. “They’re hoping to prime the pumps.” Disney is looking to the future—and in that future, China has a leading role.”

However, Chinese audience members saw the disconnect in the behavior of familiar characters to be far greater than anything cultural:

“Wang and Chen both described the new film as visually appealing but riddled with issues such as atypical behavior from established characters. Luke Skywalker was particularly disappointing to Wang, who felt that the character’s brooding behavior didn’t jibe with the resilience and fearless optimism of the young Luke he had come to know from the original trilogy.”

“In Star Wars, it seems only Darth Vader had a brain — it’s such a shame he’s already dead.”

The Chinese it seems saw the same problem in the film that other cultures did, and claimed that, “the whole film really insults the IQ of its audience.”

Additionally, the diverse casting did nothing for the Chinese audience.  One Chinese fan stated:

“These actors aren’t very beautiful, which may deter a lot of Chinese from seeing the recent films,” said Chen. “We fans often joke that if Finn were played by Will Smith, Chinese people might be more inclined to watch it — because he’s very handsome.”

And now, a Hindi Bollywood film is outperforming The Last Jedi in China.

This begs two questions:

  1.  How much “cultural cachet” does a Hindi Bollywood film have in China?
  2.  How much “cultural cachet” did Episode IV have when it premiered in the United States in 1977?

Although the Star Wars franchise is widely recognized as a “global cultural phenomenon,” after the release of the The Last Jedi and its poor performance in China, apologists began to exclude China from said globe.  Many make the following argument, or some variation thereof:

“The first ‘Star Wars’ came a year after the end of the Cultural Revolution in China, and back when the original films came out no foreign films were allowed to be screened in the country,” noted Stanley Rosen, professor at USC’s US-China Institute. “China only began screening foreign films on a revenue-sharing basis in 1994, so interest in ‘Star Wars’ wasn’t passed from generation to generation as it has in the U.S.”

I, however, have a different theory.

That in the context of a cultural disconnect, or the lack of a nostalgic emotional connection, the Chinese are effectively able to see the new films for what they are.  The Chinese perception of the film craft in The Last Jedi is not tainted by the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia.  After all, Star Wars had no “cultural cachet” in America either when it debuted in 1977 and it became a hit anyway.  So the whole “cultural cachet” argument carries no weight, and in this context, China is very, very important.

I also suspect, that while living under an oppressive communist regime, the average Chinese citizen has probably had their fill of social justice lecturing, and aren’t too keen to be subjected to any more of it than they have to be.  Of course, it’s highly unlikely that any of them would ever express this, for fear of being sent to a laogai if they did.

For more information, visit the Star Wars China website.

ChineseCosplay

Chinese cosplayers demonstrate “cultural cachet.”

 

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