China has celebrated its second Chinese New Year since the outbreak.

Actually, this is not very accurate. Since last year’s Chinese New Year, when the situation of the epidemic was still unclear, almost everyone in China was too worried about the unknown to celebrate a holiday. In the festive atmosphere, this year’s Spring Festival can be said to be the first Spring Festival after the epidemic.

It is conceivable that many Chinese people put the emotions that have been stored up for two years, and burst out in this festival. On Feb 12, the first day of the Chinese New Year, the box office reached 1.737 billion yuan in a single day, surpassing the Chinese box office in 2019 and setting a new record for the global single-day box office in a single market. The film industry, which was hardest hit by the outbreak, is finally showing signs of recovery. Many cinemas still have an admission limit, but that hasn’t stopped audiences from snapping up the limited seats. During the Spring Festival, I went to the cinema several times, and the theatre was crowded.

Among all those films, Detective Chinatown 3 stood out on its first day, grossing 1.058 billion yuan, also setting a new record for both domestic box office and global box office. However, after a few days on the air, it began to slow down and even began to be outperformed by other films.

What’s going on?

It’s not going to happen overnight

Detective Chinatown 3 belongs to a film series directed and written by Chen Sicheng, who directed and wrote the first and the second installments of the series. Incidentally, the director of the online version of Detective Chinatown did not include Chen Sicheng.

Previously, Detective Chinatown was a low-budget film that endeared audiences with clever design and a good story, taking in 823 million yuan at the box office by the end of 2015. This gave investors confidence, and gave Chen Sicheng the courage to try higher-cost productions. Detective Chinatown 2 was released during Spring Festival 2018 and grossed 3.397 billion yuan.

There are many reasons for the success of the Detective Chinatown series at the box office, but the success of each part is different. 

In Detective Chinatown, the writing of Chen Sicheng became a central element of the film’s high ratings and good word of mouth. Many people believe that in the Chinese festival atmosphere at the end of the year and the beginning of the year, movies with popular plots and a happy atmosphere are the most likely to achieve box office success. 

It could be found that during the Chinese New Year, comedies indeed have had better box office in the history of the market. On the contrary, involving murder, detective elements of the suspense film, is generally considered to be weak competitiveness.

But Chen Sicheng manages to combine murder with comedy. With quirky plots and exaggerated stories, Chen Sicheng not only creates an interesting murder case, but also ensures an atmosphere of relaxation and joy. In addition to the writer’s skill, the temperament of the two lead actors also has great contributions.

Wang Baoqiang is a famous actor in China. Although his appearance is not very handsome, his outstanding acting skills and natural temperament suitable for comedy make him one of the best comedians in China. 

On the other hand, although young Liu Haoran has not accumulated much in his acting career, he has an excellent appearance and idol temperament, which makes him popular among young Chinese women.

Chen took the bold step of casting the two actors in the lead roles of three Detective Chinatown films, giving the film both comedy elements and idol elements that appeal to audiences who might otherwise be uninterested in suspense films.

The two lead actors are not perfect. Liu Haoran is young and inexperienced, and his acting skills have not been recognized by the public. Although Wang Baoqiang has rich experience and excellent acting skills, he plays a role with obscene style and exaggerated behavior in the movie, so it is difficult to show his exquisite acting skills. 

As a result, viewers have often criticized the Detective Chinatown series for its two leading actors’ lack of necessary skills. Fortunately, judging by the box office, that may not be a serious problem.

Another possibility is that despite the performance is not good enough, Detective Chinatown still has something else that is particularly appealing.

Chen Sicheng’s clever script may achieve two birds with one stone or even more. 

You are reading Panda!Yoo

A blog about modern Chinese culture and consumption trends. If you are interested in Chinese food, drinks, games, movies, novels, dramas, please follow us.

Join 1,558 other subscribers

On the one hand, as mentioned above, this quirky story successfully combines comedy and suspense. What you may not know is that the culture of Chinatown is quite different from that of China today, which will make most Chinese people feel strange and novel. 

Fresh cultural elements not only serve as a key driving force for detectives, but they can also create conflict and misunderstanding, enhancing the tension of the plot. 

In fact, in the plot, Chinatown is just a gimmick. The story background is not so much a foreign Chinatown, but a real foreign country.

On the other hand, Chinatown is both very Chinese and very festive (a little bit stereotypical), meanwhile, to a Chinese audience, it also means something fresh and interesting and foreign. 

Thailand in the first film, the United States in the second film, and Japan in the third film are all popular tourist destinations for Chinese people, which not only enriches the picture of the films, but also makes the promotion of the film in a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere — after all, many Chinese people will take advantage of the statutory holidays to travel abroad. 

It is natural for Chinese audiences to associate festivals and relaxation with the mention of Thailand, the United States, and Japan.

Besides, the foreign setting means that stories and plots that might be questioned on the Chinese mainland will face less political and cultural pressure. It is easy to imagine how off-putting it would be to show a film about a domestic murder during the Chinese New Year.

On top of that, the story of the first film was interesting enough, the shooting was exquisite and the exotic scenery of Thailand made Chinese people enjoy sitting in the cinema. This is the very beginning of the success of the series.

Not enough delicate

But things have been quietly changed. As many viewers have discovered since the release of Detective Chinatown 2, Chen Sicheng and his series have changed dramatically.

After the release of the second film, there was criticism that the high-level design of the murder in the first film did not carry over to the second film. By contrast, the case and reasoning of the second film were a little cliche, and many viewers said that it was easy to figure out who the killer is. 

In the third film, the problem got worse. If the second case is threadbare, the third is even far-fetched. Moreover, since most of the film’s information does not revolve around the case, and there are few characters involved in the case, the killer becomes easier to guess.

A total of 630000 people took part in the rating of Detective Chinatown 3 on Douban, a Chinese film rating website, as of Feb. 20.

This is honestly reflected in the audience ratings. On Douban, the series slipped from 7.7 in the first film to 6.6 in the second, dipped below 6 in the third, and will most likely never get back above 6. This means that, in the eyes of most rating viewers, the third film, which broke the single-day box office record in Chinese film history, is just a bad film that doesn’t qualify.

Why is that? Chen Sicheng`s clever design made the first Detective Chinatown such a surprise success, but also left a source of trouble. Of course, some of those who loved the first movie recognized the film’s hybrid nature (comedy + suspense). But for a larger audience, there is only one part of Detective Chinatown they will enjoy.

Some people think it’s a good suspense movie, while others think it’s a pure comedy. This means that the relative excellence of the first film has raised the expectations of both audiences for the sequel. 

As the budget rises and production costs skyrocket, Detective Chinatown becomes more of a popcorn film with star actors and visual effects. With a subtle plot no longer the focus for Chen Sicheng, the quality of the case falls. As a result, those who saw good suspense in the first movie will inevitably become increasingly disappointed and eventually suspect that they’re seeing a pure popcorn movie in the third — something they probably didn’t want to see.

On the other hand, although comedy is an enduring genre of Chinese films, it is not suitable for shooting series, let alone adopting large budgets and large production. However, the comedy elements of Detective Chinatown are limited by the framework of the whole film, and it is difficult to achieve major changes and breakthroughs. 

As a result, the same actors used the same performances in three consecutive films, inevitably leaving the audience tired. As a result, viewers who treated Detective Chinatownwas a comedy grew tired and ultimately gave a bad evaluation.

As a result, Detective Chinatown 3 did have a big-budget and inviting famous Japanese actors throughout several generations — Satoshi Tsumabuki, Masami Nagasawa, Shota Sometani, Honami Suzuki, Tadanobu Asano, Tomokazu Miura, and international superstars like Tony Jaa, yet it didn’t take care of the core fan base that began to amass in the first installment.

Nowadays, Detective Chinatown has become a more popular popcorn movie for most Chinese audiences, but no longer a major concern for suspense and comedy lovers. If I had to sum up Detective Chinatown 3, I can`t clearly figure out the reasons for the success of the first. On the contrary, I now think that the complex design of comedy and suspense is no longer appropriate, but rather hampering the director.

Of course, such a high production budget and a roster of talented actors make Detective Chinatown 3 a holiday movie worth watching. After all, during Spring Festival, people just want to relax and have something to talk about. Tony Jaa, Masami Nagasawa, Suzuki Honami, Tadanobu Asano, Tomokazu Miura, and a series of actors, isn’t that enough to appreciate and discuss?

Still very successful

Despite the low score, Detective Chinatown 3 is still doing well at the box office, and I believe investors will be quite satisfied, and we can certainly look forward to a fourth installment in the series.

In addition, while the plot is stilted and a little short of jokes and tears, the film is still good enough in cinematography, music and other details to show the high cost behind it. More importantly, the film shows Chen Sicheng’s ability to call on resources from abroad and arrange many stars to perform their duties. 

It also shows the courage and determination of the Chinese film industry to challenge big-budget productions. It’s ironic, but the fact that a movie with no plot can take in more than 3 billion yuan is a sign of the maturity of China’s film industry.

In a variety of senses, today’s Chinese film has gone out of a completely different from Japan and Korea’s new road. 

While there are still many shortcomings, Chinese filmmakers may have surpassed their Japanese and South Korean counterparts when it comes to their ability to secure investment, tap multiple sources, shoot big-budget films and turn a profit. 

In the future, China’s “popcorn movies” are most likely to break out of the old Asian formula and go Hollywood.