The Spring Festival holiday resumes growth in status as a bonanza for the film industry

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Moviegoers wait for showtime in a cinema hall in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, on January 24 (VCG)

The films released for this year's Spring Festival holiday (January 21-27) made up a platter of diverse genres: a historical twist-filled comedy, a sci-fi epic, an espionage thriller set during World War II, a modern romantic comedy, and two animations targeting different groups—one family friendly and the other more for grown-ups seeking a tearful movie experience.

By the end of the holiday, these films had yielded combined box office revenues of 6.76 billion yuan ($1 billion), the second-highest for the Spring Festival holiday in China, right after the 7.8 billion yuan ($1.16 billion) of the holiday period in 2021, and much higher than the 6.04 billion yuan ($901 million) of the holiday period in 2022.

The winners

Many expected The Wandering Earth II would top the holiday line-up in terms of ticket sales. The film is the sequel of The Wandering Earth, which was released during the Spring Festival holiday in 2019 and became a landmark in Chinese science fiction films by raking in 4.688 billion yuan ($700 million) that year, the fifth highest of any film in China's movie history.

After leading the pack during the first two days of the holiday, the earnings of The Wandering Earth II were overtaken on the third day by those of Full River Red, directed by Zhang Yimou, one of China's most celebrated directors.

Telling a story of revenge set during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), Full River Red takes its name from a well-known poem that is believed to be composed by Yue Fei, a heroic patriot of that period.

The story begins with a murder case in a large traditional courtyard house. Characters walk through interlacing narrow alleys to interrogate local residents. Rhythms of Yuju Opera, a traditional opera of central China's Henan Province, were adopted as the background music to echo the plot.

Audiences hailed the film for its suspenseful historical theme and tight plot. "Even though it was two hours and 40 minutes long, I never felt it was boring," one moviegoer told Beijing Review after watching the film in a cinema in Beijing. "It is full of twists and it is a cool way to tell the story."

By the end of the holiday, Full River Red took first place with ticket sales of about 2.61 billion yuan ($388.6 million), followed by The Wandering Earth II with over 2.16 billion yuan ($321.6 million), according to Xinhua News Agency.

The animated film Boonie Bears: Guardian Code also broke a record by grossing 746 million yuan ($111 million) during the holiday season, becoming the highest-earning animation during a Spring Festival holiday.

The plot revolves around the family of the Boonie Bears brothers. Since 2014, the Boonie Bears franchise has released a film per year, with six of those being released during Spring Festival holidays. For many families, watching a Boonie Bears film in a cinema has become a regular holiday activity.

Twists and turns

High expectations were also placed on fantasy animation Deep Sea, as its director Tian Xiaopeng had made box office history with his debut film Monkey King: Hero Is Back eight years ago. Released during the summer vacation of 2015, Tian's debut film was China's first animated film to take more than 1 billion yuan ($149 million) in gross sales.

Deep Sea tells the story of a teenage girl's journey under the sea. The girl, suffering from depression, has dreams about adventuring deep under the ocean. The movie adopted particle Chinese painting technology, which combines Chinese ink painting with 3D technology. It is the first movie that fully utilizes the technology to create breathtaking scene of the deep sea and to show the inner world of people with depression—the entanglement, struggle and imagination. Tian hopes the movie will call more attention to the issue of depression.

The movie's visual spectacles were applauded by audiences, but comments on its plot have gone to extremes. Some claimed to be fully absorbed by the plot and couldn't help shedding tears, while others said the film paid too much attention to special effects and the story itself was dull.

At a live-streaming talk with viewers on China's video sharing platform Douyin on January 26, Tian admitted that he had thought that the movie might only appeal to a niche audience during the Spring Festival holiday, a time of family reunions and re-connection, but financial pressures precluded the team from putting the release off until the next film season, the summer break. He also revealed that he will go back to the Monkey King story for his next movie.

Apart from the six movies, Ping Pong: The Triumph, directed by and starring Deng Chao, made only a brief debut during the Spring Festival season. Telling the story of the Chinese men's national table tennis team in the early 1990s, the movie was released on January 24, four days later than the other festival movies. However, out of the fear to be outshone by the blockbusters, on January 25, it announced its retirement from the holiday lineup as ticket sales on the first day did not meet expectations. The movie is set for rerelease on February 17.

More than box office

The Wandering Earth II has not only ranked second in terms of sales, but also made headlines for the appeal of its merchandise. Adapted from the eponymous novel by Liu Cixin, the movie tells how humans make audacious efforts to propel the Earth out of the solar system to escape the rapidly expanding sun.

With the release of the movie, a crowdfunding project was launched on the e-commerce platform Taobao for producing niche merchandise, including robotic dog models and USB flash drives. Over 100 million yuan ($15 million) was raised by January 30, with more than 433,000 orders being placed, 1,000 times its original goal of 100,000 yuan ($15,000).

Moreover, Wang Xiaolei, Director of Xi'an Film and Television Data Evaluation Center, said the Spring Festival holiday marked "a new start" for China's film industry after the pandemic response was optimized in late 2022.

"The box office sales of these six movies continued to grow after the holiday. As of January 29, the Full River Red maintained its lead with 3.16 billion yuan ($465 million), followed by The Wandering Earth II with 2.57 billion ($378 million). By January 31, total ticket sales for January in China surpassed 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion)," Wang said. 

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