Check out the list of the top 10 highest grossing films of 2017 and you’ll see many familiar faces. Disney, as expected, dominate with 50% of the list coming from their magic castle - 60% if you include the deal with Sony to get Spider-Man: Homecoming in theatres - and franchises reign supreme. Four films grossed over $1bn, including Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the age of the blockbuster secured another year of success, even amidst one of the toughest Summers the North American box office has ever seen. At number 6, with a total gross of over $870m, there is something of an anomaly. It’s not a superhero film or established universally adored saga. It’s a sequel, but one to a movie most of us probably haven’t heard of on this side of the planet. Its biggest star to Western audiences is Frank Grillo, and the chances are it never screened in your local multiplex.
Wolf Warrior 2, directed by Wu Jing, is the sequel to 2015’s Wolf Warrior, the story of a hot-head Chinese soldier who takes on the most dangerous missions around the world, this time heading to an African country to take down arms dealers and save the locals. To date, it is the highest grossing Chinese film ever released, and in its home country it is the second highest grossing film of all time behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens. China even submitted it as their entry for the Best Foreign Language film at the 2018 Oscars, which is kind of like Crank 2 becoming the awards contender of the season.
This movie has fascinated and baffled me ever since I saw it begin to climb up the 2017 top ten earlier this year. So much of the trade news for the past couple of years has been focused on the growing necessity of the Chinese box office to bolster Hollywood blockbusters like the Transformers franchise and Warcraft, a domestic flop that was a massive hit in Asia, that we’ve almost overlooked the discussions of how Chinese cinema works as its own entity. This is a country with a fascinating history of film that’s emerged as its own strange and almighty ecosystem over the past decade. What was once a market shut off to the world is now a potential goldmine, one that can save a studio’s fortunes and drag a potential flop back into the black. In only five years, China’s box office has come to dominate the international scene, and Hollywood is bursting at the seams to invest in that. The difference here is that they don’t seem to have much interest in investing in the films China makes for its national audiences. They just want to tap into that market and reap the benefits with the same stuff they usually make. They’ll tailor their tried and tested blockbusters for that crowd - think of how much Chinese product placement there was in the last two Transformers movies - but they’re not about to start telling Chinese stories or giving Asian actors leading roles.
That’s actually something many Chinese audiences have grown tired of. They’re bored of the breadcrumbs North American cinema hands them and expects them to be grateful for. Such instances, where major stars like Fan Bingbing are given tiny cameo roles in franchises to appease Asian audiences, are derisively referred to as ‘flower vases’, more decorative than substantive. Transformers: Age of Extinction was produced by Chinese companies, full of Chinese product placement, partly shot and set in China, and released in Hong Kong before it even reached American shores, but its stars were still uniformly white. It’s no wonder the sequel seriously under-performed in China last year.
Wolf Warrior 2 is part of a trend of Chinese cinema that seeks to replicate the style and themes of classic Hollywood blockbuster fare but with distinctly nationalist angles. Reviews have noted how the story - gung-ho mercenary saves oppressed people in their own country from evil corporation - is essentially a retread of the Stallone/Van Damme era of Hollywood cinema, where big muscled dudes with the weapons to match take on The Man. Imagine the biggest excesses of the Reagan era, but with opposing politics: Think Communist Rambo. The story is typically white saviour slanted - outsider saves the poor Africans - but here, the bad guy is white and the hero is Chinese. This isn’t unusual in Chinese film, and some critics noted that by those standards, Wolf Warrior 2 is more focused on good clean patriotism than Communist Party propaganda. It’s gone down well with the party, who praised its box office success. It’s good business to appease not only audiences but authorities.
What’s striking about films like Wolf Warrior 2 is that, assuming their box office is accurately reported, they don’t need to go to many foreign markets to make bank. The film did play worldwide, including very limited screenings in America, but the grosses made there were mere sprinkles on top of an already decadent cake. Wolf Warrior 2 was released during China’s annual Summer ‘blackout period’, during which time, no overseas films receive a major release. That meant it only had to compete with fellow domestic movies, and it easily surpassed those numbers, grossing over five times what the distributors expected it to. After only twelve days of release, it became the highest-grossing film in China. Questions have arisen over the accuracy of these numbers and if they can be trusted. American accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers announced last June that they had been hired by the MPAA to audit the Chinese box office results of certain big movies due to perceived irregularities. One of the accusations made was that the numbers on Chinese productions were being massaged while American efforts were downplayed in order to create the illusion of unstoppable national dominance. In a year where the North American box office saw some of its lowest numbers in decades, this isn’t great news for the studio systems who have invested their long-term futures in the Chinese box office growing and benefitting them every single year.
After a brief period of stagnation, China’s box office expanded by a staggering $2bn this year, taking its 2017 haul to $8.6bn. It was also revealed that the Chinese government would begin offering financial incentives to cinemas that increased the performance of local titles. Wolf Warrior 3 has already been announced, but don’t expect any North American distributor to give it a big release.