A flop in a country far, far away

The latest movie in the "Star Wars" franchise didn't set the box office on fire. Maybe it's time Hollywood concentrated on good stories rather than adding more Chinese elements.

The year was 1977. A young man sat in a movie theater as the very first Star Wars movie played on the silver screen. The ticket vendor had let him in for free because he’d already come to see it so many times. He mouthed along with the alien languages, knowing each inflection and pause by heart. He would probably see it again. He would never forget it.

Flash forward almost a decade, to a black and white screen television in China, where a young girl was seeing Harrison Ford for the first time in “The Empire Strikes Back.” She didn’t know who any of these stars were, and was amazed by the technology and story set in space. “Han Solo” was just another action hero, the jedi perhaps like the roaming knights in old wuxia stories, or the classic “Water Margins.” The movie wasn’t in theaters; her sister had found the right on-air time on CCTV so they could watch it together.

The man in question is my father, who would go on to tell me this story many times, with a wry grin. The girl, a good friend of mine in Hangzhou. Though their Star Wars stories are utterly different, I think they point to the crux of what modern-day Disney is trying to crack as it still tries to make Star Wars big in China.

By now, it’s no surprise that China has not proven to be a huge fan of Star Wars. For “The Last Jedi,” the most recent movie, Disney took a gamble: While the rest of the world released it on December 15, Disney pushed for a January release before another wave of foreign films entered the Chinese market.

Did the gamble pay off? Not really, as many news articles have pointed out. The movie only made US$28 million on China’s opening weekend, which would be almost unheard-of in the United States, since it’s Star Wars! But in the weeks leading up to the film’s release, I watched its rise (or lack-thereof) on Alipay’s movie ticket app. It never attracted much interest, whereas the remake of “Jumanji,” got a lot more buzz. The Chinese box office was led by the romantic comedy “The Ex-File 3: The Return of the Exes,” which was on its second week in the cinema. This definitely wasn’t a mistake: When I and a friend went and saw “The Last Jedi” in the theater, it was almost empty.

It’s not for lack of trying, perhaps even trying too hard. My friend and I groaned every time the screen lit up with captions describing each new character as they appeared onscreen. I read about theaters running “The Force Awakens” in weeks leading up to “The Last Jedi.” Then of course, I couldn’t help but wonder if there were moments of what has been called “The China Syndrome” in Hollywood, which is when films are tailored to Chinese audiences in the hope of gaining favor (the most infamous example being the minutes of added footage for China to "Iron Man 3.") Still, Star Wars didn’t stick.

I’ve been seeing Hollywood execs shrugging their shoulders at what is being called “the unpredictable Chinese audience,” and as a result, more movies add in more Chinese actors or Chinese locations, or Chinese products, or really anything that might appeal to Chinese viewers on the surface.

Will this gamble pay off? Maybe, but I don’t think it will pay off big.

The crux of the matter goes back to my father and my Chinese friend. Disney is assuming that Star Wars is as gigantic in the rest of the world as it is in America, forgetting that in places like China, the original trilogy wasn’t shown back in its heyday. The stars and characters onscreen were just faces far, farther away than we in the US could possibly imagine. In fact, according to Variety, those classics didn’t make it to the Chinese big screen until the 2015 Shanghai International Film Festival, in which all six movies were screened (and oh, do I pity first-time viewers who watched the prequels, wondering “Is this really what the hubbub is all about?”)

The fact is that Star Wars doesn’t have the nostalgia factor in China, and Star Wars nowadays relies heavily on nostalgia. Chinese people didn’t grow up wondering if Greedo shot first, or what it would be like to own a lightsaber. When Han Solo showed up in “The Force Awakens,” he was just another character for most viewers, save for a few die-hard Chinese fans. Perhaps filmmakers are starting to figure this out, because the Chinese title for the next upcoming Star Wars movie about Han Solo has been re-translated and re-branded to remove “Star Wars” completely, and now just reads: 游侠索罗 (“Ranger Solo”). But even a change of title won’t make Star Wars stick, if you ask me, because so much of Star Wars’ mystique goes back to memories like my father’s.

You know which recent American movie probably had a deeper nostalgia factor for Chinese viewers? “Jumanji.” No, not because the original had Robin Williams, and no, not because it’s an amazing movie. It’s because “Jumanji” was among the first Hollywood fantasy adventure movies to be imported to China.

I think when it comes to bridging the gaps with Chinese and Western viewers, it’s really not as “unpredictable” as Hollywood executives might think. It really just comes down to trying to understand China beyond easily-inserted products, or a place steeped in so-called nostalgic love for America. Rather than showing a character using a Xiaomi phone, filmmakers should perhaps focus on what makes a good story, and how this can better bridge cultural gaps. Perhaps then, they might understand why a film like “Coco” without anything overtly Chinese in it did so well in China: Because it touched upon something universal. And whether someone saw it on a small black and white television or multiple times in a movie theater, the connection would still be there, no matter how many galaxies were in-between.

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