Which Chinese film performed the best in the UK in 2019?

Abominable, an animation coproduced by US’s DreamWorks and China’s Pearl Studio. The story is about a Shanghai school girl’s adventure to help a Yeti returning home in the Himalayas. Released in the UK by Universal on October 11, it grossed £2 million across more than 582 theatres nationwide. Despite the content being different from usual animations from the US, it touched both children and adults. Most audience I talked to also expressed to be intrigued and impressed by the ‘Grandma’ character and her homemade buns. After all, cinema continues its magic to narrow cultural barriers.

We are in a different era and perception certainly needs changing. Chinese cinema still involves kung fu (such as IP Man 4) but its fast changing aesthetics and diverse storytelling are now beyond most stereotype memories. Very soon if not already, blockbuster films that global audience see on a big screen are increasingly financed by Chinese companies. To give some examples in 2019. A Dog’s Way Home, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Ad Astra were backed by Bona; Ugly Dolls, A Dog’s Journey, Gemini Men were backed by Alibaba Pictures; while Men in Black: International, Terminator: Dark Fate, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood were backed by Tencent Pictures. However, strictly speaking, these productions cannot be considered as Chinese films, but to be understood as an investment from Chinese companies’ attempt to take a share in the global box-office.

Just like Hollywood, the Chinese film industry has been experimenting different ways to export its culture and value. Its ambitions are clear: 1) to rescue or revise any stereotypical image of China that has been portrayed/embedded in global cinema; 2) to present a more positive image of China or Chinese culture (both ancient and contemporary) to the global audience; 3) to connect with global audience through a sense of shared humanity. Regardless these ambitions are achievable or not, Hollywood has a new rising competitor.

However, this is a long race. Comparing to the top film of the UK box-office in 2019, Abominable was far behind. Disney’s Avengers: Endgame took the first place by grossing £88.6 million [over 40 times more Abominable’s record].

The distribution of Chinese films in the UK has always faced dilemma. Most arthouse cinema audience who have a habit to watch foreign films are not normally interested in Chinese blockbusters. This group of audience also has a very distinct taste and definition of what Chinese cinema is. On the other hand, commercial cinema goers are not used to foreign language films and therefore often ignore Chinese blockbusters films in the UK. The ability for Abominable to go over this dilemma was the advantage from its English dubbing as well as its genre being an animation. But the dilemma described above will continue to be a disadvantage for the distribution of Chinese films in the UK (and possibly globally). Should Chinese films be dubbed in English for them to reach wider audience? Currently most cinema chains in the UK would only schedule a Chinese blockbuster film if they know that it will bring them extra customers (mainly Chinese students). On the other hand, arthouse cinemas are quite unlikely to book a Chinese blockbuster film but Abominable in this case, became an additional choice for their weekend or kids programmes. Though, animation cannot be the only genre to adapt as a way to forward.

In my opinion, Abominable’s case could be acknowledged as an encouragement in general. For once, the concept of a Chinese film has reached global audience beyond adults; and for once, it is a Yeti and no longer a dragon. Being the best performing Chinese film in the UK in 2019, Abominable has created a new space for imaginary, for the next generation to define what a Chinese film could mean for them and how they can be inspired from it.

Being the best performing Chinese film in the UK as a coproduction with the US, shouldn’t this also be valued as a promising possibility for meaningful collaboration toward consensus?

For those who care about film and diplomacy, the questions raised above should continue to occupy our productive thinking in 2020. You may download a full report about all Chinese films distributed in the UK in 2019 and their performance, here.

Note: Not mentioning independent Chinese films in this article does not automatically mean that the author is ignoring such topic. It will be discussed in a different context, to be followed.

Image credit: Abominable (c) Universal

You may also be interested in this article: “The best performing UK film in China in 2019” .

or “‘Abominable’ Introduces Viewers To Unseen China, Director Jill Culton Says”.