Chinese epic nabs highest-grossing film of 2020, leaving US cinema in its wake

The year just gone may have been an aberration, but the Chinese film industry’s box-office challenge to Hollywood has been evident for years

Guan Hu’s The Eight Hundred, a Chinese epic concerning the Sino-Japanese War

Guan Hu’s The Eight Hundred, a Chinese epic concerning the Sino-Japanese War

 

Hooray! Another article featuring the words: “Twelve months ago, who would have guessed that…” Few are the blowhards who have not fitted that opening to their own field of interest.

It works particularly well with cinema box office. A quick search of experts’ predictions from the start of last year unearths many titles that will now end up competing for the highest-grossing film of 2021: Top Gun: Maverick, Dune, Fast & Furious 9. A few pundits thought that Mulan, eventually released digitally here, or Tenet, emerging to ambiguous results in cinemas during late summer, would become the highest-grossing release of the year.

Nobody guessed the winner. Taking in some $461 million, Guan Hu’s The Eight Hundred, a Chinese epic concerning the Sino-Japanese War, becomes the first  film in a language other than English to top the charts for its year of release. Taking almost every penny of its haul within the People’s Republic of China, it follows previous victors such as Gone With the Wind, Lady and the Tramp, Love Story, Top Gun and Avengers: Endgame into the record books.

The news gets weirder. The second-highest grossing film, My People, My Homeland, is also Chinese (though some sources have it at No 3, just behind Bad Boys for Life). Demon Slayer: Mugen Train, a Japanese manga, makes it in at No 5. Jiang Ziya, a Chinese animation, and The Sacrifice, another war film from that country, are at numbers 8 and 10. Fully half the top 10 is Asian, 40 per cent from the People’s Republic.

These figures would have double “Who would have guessed that…” status for the sages of January 2020. At that point reports were coming in of a mysterious virus in China. The notion the illness would ultimately result in that country dominating the year’s box office would have seemed – to put it mildly – somewhat counter-intuitive: Who would have guessed that the virus would spread worldwide and still be devastating western economies when Chinese audiences again felt confident attending cinemas?

And who would have guessed that US studios would, in some screwy way, end up seeing Chinese ascendance as a hopeful sign for their own business? Yet that is where we are. As the gloomiest prognosticators prepare death notices for theatrical exhibition, the Asian recovery confirms there is life beyond Covid. And this was achieved without a vaccine. Six months down the line, Americans (and the Irish, the French and the Brazilians) really could be queueing up to see Black Widow and whatever the next Spider-Man is called.

The historical figures offer some confirmation that the geographic shift is a pandemical aberration. The Eight Hundred is the lowest-grossing title to top the yearly charts in a quarter of a century. You have to go back to Die Hard With a Vengeance in 1995 to find a winner that took less than $460 million. Last year, Avengers: Endgame gathered around $2.8 billion.

So, if infection rates can be got back under control, everything will go back to normal. Right? American cinema will rule the world. Marvel will rule American cinema. Disney will rule Marvel. Kiss the big yellow shoes of the helium-voiced anthropomorphic mouse.

China has found a way of developing the high-end product that once only America could deliver

This is not the whole story. Chinese productions have been creeping up the inside rail for years as Asian audiences develop stubborn resistance to some of Hollywood’s most potent strains. In 2019, The Wandering Earth, a Chinese space drama, secured the second-highest opening take ever in any territory. (It is available here on Netflix but has generated little attention outside its home nation.)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens remains the highest-grossing film ever in the US, but it could make only No 16 on its year of release in China. The Force Awakens took scarcely a quarter of the bounty gathered there by the same year’s zany local comedy The Mermaid. Last year, Disney retooled Mulan, its animated 1998 hit, with the Chinese market in mind, but it ended up as one of the company’s least successful live-action remakes in the nation.

Many Hollywood franchises do, of course, prosper in the East. The remake of The Lion King did well. Asian audiences love Marvel and Fast & Furious. The unavoidable conclusion, nonetheless, is that, sometime before Covid hit, the growing Chinese market was shaking off its dependency on American content. The UK and Ireland have hits with small- to medium-scale independent domestic productions. China can afford to mount monster blockbusters on a scale that would cause the Hulk to go even greener.

In short, as it has done in so many other areas, China has found a way of developing the high-end product that once only Hollywood could deliver. Whatever shape the worldwide theatrical market takes after the pandemic, it seems unlikely the US will ever again have such dominance.

Who would have guessed that? Well, if notorious flop Doolittle can finish in the year’s top 10 (and it has), then more or less anything can happen.       

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