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Star Wars in China: Is There a New Hope?

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To every American, whether or not you’re a die-hard fan, Star Wars is understood to be a thing of great gravity. When a new movie is announced, the earth beneath us quivers. When a detail of its universe is misrepresented, outraged voices rise up together as a mighty howling wind. The franchise paved the way for so much of modern sci-fi, without really falling into the genre itself — more accurately, Star Wars is an opera, with factions vying for power, overlapping family ties (that sometimes result in incest — very operatic), and great heroes of prophecy seeking to fulfill their purpose. It’s a full-scale universe with its own rules, history, and forces of good and evil, continually cycling in and out of equilibrium. It just happens to take place in outer space with laser swords.

One reason we hold Star Wars to a religious degree of importance in the states is because we’ve seen the history unfold. We know what A New Hope represented in 1977. We’ve seen the shockwaves that followed resonate across the globe, in comic books, toys, and collectible coffee mugs. Audiences had never seen special effects like that, and the film launched its entire cast into a lifetime of stardom.

Star Wars’ cultural significance comes in no small part from an understanding and appreciation of the franchise’s 40+ year history. John Sunderland/The Denver Post, via GettyImages

In China…it’s different, to say the least. In 1977, the country was still recovering from the devastating impact of the Cultural Revolution, and commercial screenings of Hollywood films were nonexistent. In fact, the first introduction of the franchise in China didn’t happen until the largely-despised sequels went to theaters in the late ‘90s and 2000s. They didn’t perform well (Revenge of the Sith was the biggest earner at just $11.7 million). Star Wars didn’t become a household name until 2008’s Clone Wars animated TV series.

As a result, audiences really don’t know why they should care about anything happening in Star Wars today, or why they should care about the films of yesteryear. If you talk to a viewer of the newest film, The Last Jedi, they’ll likely ask you “who are all these people and why do they matter?” If you try to show them the original trilogy, they certainly won’t be wowed by the special effects as we once were, or by the nonexistent sense of nostalgia.

Star Wars never made it to China in the ’70s, and its eventual bumpy introduction to the mainland still influences how audiences perceive the franchise. Photo: A bootleg Star Wars comic book from the ’80s.

To make matters worse, Disney’s new trilogy is only shrinking in the Chinese box office. The first film, The Force Awakens, earned $124 million. A spinoff, Rogue One, earned just $69 million. The latest film, The Last Jedi, pulled in just 9.5 million on opening day, and experienced a startling second weekend drop of 92%, to total out its earnings at $42.5 million.

Disney execs observing the Chinese box office

It’s a problem without an obvious solution. But some might also ask, does it need to be solved at all?

Star Wars is enough of a hit at home to keep the train chugging along. The measly winnings of The Last Jedi in China didn’t stop the film from breaking $1.3 billion worldwide. But nonetheless, given Disney’s all-consuming expansionist attitude, the diminishing performance of its treasured franchise in the world’s number two market is unlikely to be met with calm acceptance.

Still, China’s growing population of internationally-minded young people is probably the best bet Disney has. While the Star Wars films will probably never meet Chinese audiences’ taste for sci-fi (China is more into the bright colors, animated raccoons, and constant space ship battles of Guardians of the Galaxy than the drab, dialogue-heavy arcs of Star Wars), the younger generation is increasingly eager to explore overseas media, and to examine its origins.

Compare this top-rated review on Douban, China’s alt-cool social network, of The Last Jedi:

“Watching the premiere, the entire film feels insulting to the IQ of the audience. The rebel forces can’t do anything but think about things. The Empire isn’t sure about how to rule the universe. The final decisive battle between Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren turned out to be a holographic projection. I really think Kylo Ren isn’t like other Empire leaders…in Star Wars, the Dark side always had the brains, but unfortunately looks like those one have died out…”

And this insightful review of A New Hope:

“To make sure I understood the plot, after watching the first three episodes, I decided to watch a documentary on the series and the aftermath of the original 1977 release. In 1977, without computer graphics, when nobody knew how to create these effects, George Lucas shot the incredibly imaginative Star Wars. The creativity is excellent and the style is exquisite, and we have to acknowledge its significance in ushering in a new era.

The movie itself isn’t terribly exciting today. Generally speaking, it’s quite satisfactory and the visual effects are acceptable. The plot is old but complete. But watching it, we can peek into some interesting aspects behind shooting the future of the space opera in 1977.”

The two reviews, whether you agree with them or not, show a keen critical eye for the integrity of the Star Wars universe, and an appreciation for the historical role Star Wars played at the time of its debut. While Douban users can’t really be said to represent the average Chinese moviegoer, opinions like these run counterpoint to the tired “Chinese audiences just want explosions” cop-outs you often hear from English-language entertainment reporting. On Douban, The Last Jedi holds a score of 7.3, and A New Hope scores 8.3.

So will changing cultural currents and a generation of curious young people be enough to save Star Wars in China? I don’t know. I’m just a writer. But it looks like that’s basically all we got right now — to actively orient the film to be more successful in China would inevitably mean failure on the homefront, still the world’s biggest market, especially for Star Wars. If the Chinese film market continues on its current growth path, Disney might one day find themselves looking desperately to that new generation, and uttering a classic sentence:

Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip-hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers.

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