China’s Box Office gets Loopy during Mid-Autumn Festival

Falling on the eighth month in the Chinese calendar, the Mid-Autumn Festival, or Moon Festival, is one of the most important holiday periods in mainland China, with this year’s celebrations starting on September 30. For a week, most people are on holiday, which means that students and workers are free to travel back to their home provinces to spend time with families. Citizens are able to participate in a variety of activities, the most popular of which is perhaps the eating of delicious mooncakes, the highly glutinous pastry snacks that contain a number of fillings ranging from red bean, to nut, to lotus seed, to more modern flavours, such as coffee or chocolate. Aside from maintaining such traditions, the Mid-Autumn Festival is also a time for leisure and socialising, which means that the mainland multiplex circuit remains busy, even though many potential ticket buyers are in transit. Over the past weekend, Rian Johnson’s terrific science fiction thriller Looper (2012) starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt opened in China, with this release date being simultaneous with its launch in the United States. This opening made international news based on weekend box office estimates that suggested Looper had become the first new Hollywood film to gross more money in its opening weekend in China than in the United States. Titanic 3D (2012) actually accomplished this feat in April, but was a re-release of a global phenomenon rather than a new title. Looper opened to a respectable $21 million domestically, with estimates reporting a gross between $23 million and $25 million in China over the same period. A few days later, however, it transpired that some theatres had mixed up their currencies, meaning that the weekend box office gross for Looper in China was actually $4.2 million. If the Mid-Autumn Festival of 2012 has probably been much like any other in the homes of Chinese families, it will have been particularly hectic in the exhibition department of China’s film bureau (SARFT), as the producers of Looper and news outlets such as Deadline were eager to confirm reports of a new box office record.

Looper may not have made industry history this past weekend, but it is still worth discussing in the context of the mainland China market, particularly with regards to its financing background.  As a great admirer of Johnson’s previous features, Brick (2005) and The Brother’s Bloom (2008), I was keen to see Looper based on the director’s credentials alone. However, news of his latest project’s Chinese connections further piqued my interest. Looper is actually a US-China co-production, partly financed by the Chinese company DMG. Significant changes were reportedly made in pre-production to ensure that the film would be suitable for theatrical release in China, where the recently expanded but still strict import quota only allows for 34 foreign titles per year in the marketplace. One of the problems facing Chinese directors who have tried to operate within the science fiction genre has been the inability to incorporate time travel elements due to rules enforced by the film bureau, as it is stipulated that science fiction should be rooted in science fact. Looper has perhaps been able to bypass this restriction due to its co-production status, but Johnson had to make other adjustments in order to secure half of the required $30 million budget. The film deals with highly specialist hitmen known as ‘loopers’ whose targets are sent back in time from the future to be killed in the present, making it easier to dispose of the bodies. Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is a ruthless employee of this shadowy organisation, but hesitates when his latest hit turns out to be the future version of himself (Willis), resulting in a violent chase. In the original screenplay, the older Joe has been living in Paris since his retirement, but in the revised version, he has spent his later years in Shanghai, where he has become romantically involved with a Chinese woman (Qing Xu), who offers the former killer a chance of redemption. Speaking to The Guardian, the director sidestepped the issue of creative compromise, claiming that, “In many ways Shanghai was a more natural setting for a sci-fi movie than my beloved Paris.”

In the future presented by Looper, China is the world’s largest superpower and, in the mainland version of the film, the country is also responsible for inventing time travel. These changes do not undermine the film in any way, and are credible in context due to China’s economic acceleration. China is now the world’s second largest economy, having overtaken Japan in 2011, and could surpass the United States in 2020, according to a 2010 report published by Standard Chartered Plc. While it would be wrong to suggest that directors should make whatever changes are requested in order to secure funding from cash-rich Chinese producers, Looper at least represents an example of a relatively smooth negotiation between art and the politics of commerce. Next summer’s comic book blockbuster Iron Man 3 (2013) is also being co-financed by DMG, with the Walt Disney Company moving some of the production to China, and the film reportedly featuring at least one major Chinese character: Xu’s love interest role in Looper is small but was evidently notable enough to meet DMG requirements in the area of casting. The use of Shanghai locations in Looper is also effective, echoing the manner in which Michael Winterbottom ‘found’ the future in the city’s centre in Code 46 (2003). It will be interesting to see if the cultural and political conditions of co-production will be more evident in Iron Man 3, which is the latest instalment in a Marvel franchise, whereas Looper is a stand-alone project with a self-contained identity that arrived with less mainstream expectation. Due to its industry status as an original science fiction film made on a budget that is medium-sized by Hollywood standards, Looper is less comparable with the upcoming Iron Man 3 than it is with Duncan Jones’ surprise hit Source Code (2011), which was funded by European companies and posted similar domestic numbers. With the major Hollywood studios preferring to invest in costly but safe franchise properties over mid-range innovation, Chinese co-production could prove helpful to directors from the independent sector that wish to explore genre territory without becoming contractually tied to sequels and spin-offs.

I went to see Looper at the Wanda Cinema at Xinjiekou, Nanjing, a central venue where the film was showing in the English language with Chinese subtitles, as opposed to a dubbed version. Based on my prior experience of going to the cinema in China during holiday periods, I had expected more of a queue for tickets, as my wife’s cousin had lined up for a few hours at an Anshan, Liaoning province multiplex over Chinese New Year so we could see Tom Cruise scale a Dubai skyscraper in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011). However, the cinema was fairly quiet, and I was able to select a suitable seat, a sign that the box officer figures that had been reported one day earlier were perhaps erroneous. As with many other examples of China’s internationalisation, its cinema chains, of which Wanda is the market leader, initially appear to be equal to those found anywhere else in the world, but flaws are evident in crucial areas, notably sound level and lighting. Yet it is perhaps churlish to complain about such shortcomings when a smart genre film like Looper can be seen on the big screen, rather than through pirate DVD. I thoroughly enjoyed Looper, with its clever storyline, stylish visuals, and first rate performances: aided by facial prosthetics, Gordon-Levitt does a great job of suggesting a young Willis without lapsing into a dramatically restrictive impersonation. The changes required by the Chinese co-producers are actually referenced in some amusing exchanges between Joe and his boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels), who informs the hitman that he should learn Mandarin instead of French because China is the future. Some distraction came from an inconsiderate audience member on my row who took a call on his cell phone, behaviour which is sadly accepted in China: the person sitting behind me during a 2010 festival screening of a Jia Zhangke production used his cell phone constantly, so Rian Johnson is in good company in terms of having his work disrespected in this manner. Coverage of China’s multiplex market complete, I will now enjoy some mooncake, and wish readers of VCinema a happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

Further reading on the performance of Looper at the mainland China box office can be found at China Film Biz, where industry consultant Robert Cain provides a number of reasons why it was unlikely to have set a new record in this market.