This past summer, NeZha, an animated movie inspired by a well-known Chinese myth, became a dark horse with almost $700 million in box-office receipts. Following its unbelievable success in China, NeZha flew abroad and was released in several countries.
Although the box-office performance of NeZha is not as outstanding as that in Chinese market, the film still received satisfactory box-office revenue compared to other Chinese movies that have entered foreign theaters. In the first weekend of its release in the US, NeZha sold $1.5million worth of tickets across over 70 theaters. Compared to the top-grossing movie Angel Has Fallen, which hit a $15 million box-office income but was available in over 3000 theaters, NeZhahad a much higher box-office income per theater. However, the success regarding box-office cannot hide the fact that NeZha is still mostly a carnival for Chinese immigrants.
When the lights came on and audiences started pouring out of the theater, it is clear that most of them are Chinese speakers. When I asked the only four non-Chinese audience members I saw in the theater why they came to watch Ne Zha, they were either accompanying their Chinese friends or they were learning Chinese. When asked whether they enjoyed the movie, they all praised the action sequences and the technological aspects, but complained that the English subtitles moved too fast. Reviews on Rotten Tomatoes also reflect people’s complex feeling about this movie in the western market, “There are several eye-popping action sequences”, but “you just feel like you’re wandering some trackless wilderness.”
In recent years, China has become a stronger power of the global movie market. However, the attention that Chinese movies receive in the international market is not comparable to the consumption power that the Chinese market has demonstrated. Similar to its predecessors, NeZhawas released exclusively by Well Go USA Entertainment, whose recent releases include Lee Changdong’s Burning, Zhang Yimou’s Shadow and Yuen Woo-Ping’s Master Z: TheIpMan Legacy. Although Well Go is experienced in introducing Chinese movies to the USA market, its limited power in the market also restricted Chinese movies’ accessibility to a broader population. On the other hand, most Chinese movies are not aimed to face international markets in their production process, and therefore, audiences without a Chinese cultural background find it hard to feel emotionally connected to the imported movies, especially when they have to read subtitles to understand what the movie is about.
Nevertheless, NeZha is still bringing an empowering message to the overseas market that China is trying to expand its cultural impact though developing its own intellectual properties and telling a story that can be understood globally. Despite translated subtitles making it hard for people to understand the movie fully, the spirit of the movie is still contagious cross-culturally. When asked which line left the deepest impression, all four interviewees said “If fate isn’t fair, fight it till the end”, which Ne Zha underscored several times in the movie.
In recent years, cultural output has become a keyword of the Chinese entertainment industry. Relying on the increasing population of overseas Chinese, many Chinese movies are trying to expand their markets outside China. However, restricted to the culture and language barriers, the influence of most movies is still limited to Chinese immigrants. Both Japan and Korea have explored their own approaches of cultural output, which proved that there are some that can be understood across cultures. From a giant to a powerhouse in the entertainment industry, China still has a long way to go.
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