A new take on an old epic, the animated film “Monkey King: Hero Is Back” has broken all box office records – and reveals plenty about China’s cinemagoers. It’s a recipe for domestic success, DW’s Frank Sieren writes.
It took a while, but it happened: The new Chinese animation movie “Monkey King: Hero Is Back” has broken all box office records. Director Tian Xiao Peng and his design team spent eight years working on their adaptation of the famous Chinese classical epic “A Journey to the West.” The result has trumped Hollywood: In the 14 days since its release, the film has grossed $100 million (91 million euros), reaching No. 1 in the animation box office charts not only in China, but all over the world. It overtook Hollywood’s “Kung Fu Panda 2.”
With this new record, China’s film industry – especially animation – has catapulted itself to the top. Until recently, the animation sector was dominated by films such as “Big Hero 6” or “Ice Age” from the US or “Doraemon” from Japan.
Moreover, two weeks after hitting the screens, the film is still being shown in at least 10 percent of China’s cinemas. Usually, nobody remembers what was playing two weeks before – especially in China, where the program often changes on a daily basis.
Unusual funding methods
This all points to an enormous budget, considering the special effects, especially in terms of 3-D. However, “Monkey King” only cost the equivalent of $16 million, which were scraped together painstakingly over eight years. Some $113,000 were raised via an Internet campaign. Private investors were offered the chance of naming their children in the credits if they gave a large contribution. Famous Chinese actors also promoted the production over the years, particularly by using WeChat, a messaging platform that boasts over half a billion users.
The budget for “Kung Fu Panda 2” was $150 million. So how was “Monkey King” able to become the most successful animated film in the world? The size of China’s population has a role to play of course: With some 750 million inhabitants living in cities, there is a huge number of potential cinemagoers. But this alone does not suffice. Otherwise, all Chinese films would be more popular than flicks from abroad, and this is not the case. “Monkey King” does something new: It allows us to understand China’s audience better.
Not only did several million Chinese people watch the film once – many of them watched it twice, three times or even five times and more! Most can barely wait for the next episode. This shows how emotional Chinese consumers can be, enamored by a Chinese hero with Chinese values that stem from an ancient, renowned Chinese legend. The box office figures have woken up the film world and highlighted what is possible in China. Directors and screenplay writers can now plunge deep into China’s vast history. Moreover, the box office numbers will encourage investors to take more risks.
Even if action-packed and technically brilliant Hollywood movies are introducing more and more Chinese elements and actors – and are sometimes even set in China – they cannot compete when it comes to tapping into deep-rooted emotions the way that Chinese mythology can. “Monkey King” might be about “going west,” but it is clear now that Chinese filmmakers would be better off staying put and examining their own traditions and stories if they want to continue filling the cinemas.