The success of James Cameron's Avatar announced China's arrival as one of the world's most vibrant film markets -- and also one of the most unpredictable. Opening in the first week of January 2010, the 2D version of the movie was pulled early from cinemas by government authorities to make way for better performances by domestic productions. China's 3D infrastructure was also not nearly as developed then as it is today. Nonetheless, the film was the biggest cinematic event in Chinese history.
"Lost in Thailand" (Xu Zheng, 2012), $202.1 million
Actor-turned director Xu Zheng’s comedy, about the misadventures of three Chinese men in Thailand, is not just the highest-grossing Chinese-language film ever – it’s probably the most profitable by a wide margin (the film was reportedly made for just $4.8 million). Thanks to the huge earnings of the film, producer Enlight Media is now the second biggest domestic studio player by revenue in the Chinese market, behind only Huayi Brothers.
"Transformers: Dark of the Moon" (Michael Bay, 2011), $173.6 million
Michael Bay’s white-knuckle robot-on-robot fight-fest opened in China a month after it bowed everywhere else in the world -- reportedly to allow Beginning of the Great Revival, the domestic film commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, all the exposure and screens it needed to break box-office records. The result: Transformers eventually took three times as much as Revival.
"Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons" (Stephen Chow, 2013), $166.8 million
Hong Kong comedy actor-director Stephen Chow first established a cult following in mainland China with his 1990s adaptations of the same classic Chinese novel that serves as the basis of Journey to the West. Those popular early efforts -- the A Chinese Odyssey series -- are nothing compared to Journey in financial terms though. Even though Chow doesn't appear in this effort, Journey passed the 1-billion yuan threshold ($160 million) in China in just 16 days, four fewer than Lost in Thailand took to reach that milestone -- which serves as something of a marker for definitive blockbuster status in China.
"Titanic 3D" (James Cameron, 2012), $152.4 million
Titanic 3D enjoyed the highest opening-weekend performance in China ever and stunned industry watchers when it generated more revenue in the country than in the U.S. Not that Chinese moviegoers got to see the film in full, though: censors cut the Kate Winslet nudity scene. Some Weibo users (China's version of Twitter) joked that local officials must have been worried audience members “may reach out their hands for a touch and interrupt other people’s viewing.” That online joke was misreported in the West as an actual government statement, and given coverage as such from the Guardian to the Colbert Report.
"CZ12" (Jackie Chan, 2012), $141 million
At the same time that 58-year-old Jackie Chan scored the biggest box office hit of his career, he made one gaffe after another in the press, from publicly advocating curbs on civil rights in Hong Kong, to dissing his career-making Rush Hour films (calling them the movies he "most dislikes"), to suggesting that the U.S. is “the biggest corrupted country in the world” (sic).
"Painted Skin: Resurrection" (Wuershan, 2012), $113.3 million
The sequel to Gordon Chan’s first Painted Skin project held down the title of biggest Chinese film ever for five months before the Lost in Thailand juggernaut came along. But the film’s short reign wasn’t short of controversy, as many commentators noted that the film benefited from a decision by government authorities to delay the release of The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises to give Wuershan a competition-free run in the box office.
"Let the Bullets Fly" (Jiang Wen, 2010), $108.8 million
The commercial success of Let the Bullets Fly stems very much from Jiang Wen’s audacious, no-punches-pulled critique of contemporary China and its discontents, as the film takes aim at both rampant corruption at the top and cowardly indifference among the masses (at the time of the film's release, many rumors circulated about censors trying to pull the film from its record-breaking run). Jiang’s film Devils on the Footsteps (2000), a dark satire which questions nationalism, remains banned in China.
"Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" (Brad Bird, 2012), $108.5 million
The M:I franchise stumbled in China a bit during its last installment -- the country’s censors objected to MI3's depiction of Shanghai as a city filled with indifferent citizens and ugly laundry lines -- but Tom Cruise’s latest assured all was well for the IMF team in the far East: the film topped the China box-office for three straight weeks. And proof that Chinese viewers take their popcorns movies seriously, during the film's release an online article exploring the scientific plausibility of Cruise’s suction gloves was a viral hit on Chinese social media.
"Aftershock" (Feng Xiaogang, 2010), $108.2 million
Feng Xiaogang’s gripping chronicle of a family recovering from a devastating earthquake in northern China in 1976 – which left more than 300,000 dead – was China’s first Imax production. The shaking opening sequences of utter chaos only served as a prologue for the film’s main narrative, though: many critics have attributed Aftershock's to the way in which it is actually more of an allegory for the country’s surge towards prosperity.
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