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The homegrown comedy Hello Mr Billionaire opened to a stellar $131 million this past weekend, dominating the Chinese box office and sparking debate across social media in the country.
Loosely based on the 1985 Richard Pryor comedy Brewster’s Millions, the movie’s debut boosts its hopes of becoming the breakout summer hit at the local box office. Hello Mr Billionaire tells the story of an underachieving soccer player’s attempt to reasonably spend 1 billion yuan ($147 million) in a month as a condition of inheriting the 30 billion yuan ($4.4 billion) in assets from his late Taiwanese uncle.
Here are five things to know about the comedy everyone is talking about in China right now.
1. It was based on Brewster’s Millions
Both Hello Mr Billionaire and Pryor’s Brewster’s Millions were based on the 1902 novel of the same name by American writer George Barr McCutcheon. The book is one of the most adapted in film history, adapted 13 times including Hello Mr Billionare. As well as several Hollywood adaptations, Brewster’s Millions has been adapted four times for the Indian market, once for Brazil and now China.
2. Universal Pictures initiated the project but ultimately stepped down
Universal produced the 1985 Walter Hill-directed comedy Brewster’s Millions and initially approached Hello Mr Billionaire‘s writer-directors Yan Fei and Peng Damo to do a local remake. As the project progressed, Universal dropped out of investing but still authorized elements of Richard Pryor’s film to be used.
3. It was made by members of a famed Chinese comedy troupe
The film reunited the creative team behind 2015 hit Goodbye Mr Loser, the wildly successful Chinese comedy troupe Mahua FunAge, which has grown into a 5 billion yuan ($75 million) enterprise since its establishment in 2003. Although the film was not made under the Mahua FunAge banner, the directing duo Yan and Peng, as well as the comedy’s leading man, Shen Teng, are all contract players in the troupe.
4. It depicts very Chinese notions of wealth
The film deals with very China-specific conceptions of wealth and privilege, as well as reflecting the government’s attitude to morality. Thus, the character in the film was not allowed to spend money on philanthropy, drugs, gambling, or the purchase and destruction of expensive pieces of art — all things the government and its censors frown upon. Instead, the character invests in unfinished property, garbage stocks, and hopeless innovations. To his surprise, and chagrin, all the investments make positive returns through whimsical circumstances, doubling his initial billion.
5. It has sparked a debate in China
Hello Mr Billionaire opened with a bang at the box office, but it has ignited debate in China. The film has polarized critics and led to some to describe it as “spiritual opium.” Much of the controversy has focused on the depictions of “tasteless and vulgar” conspicuous consumption, as well as the portrayal of gold diggers flocking to the spendthrift main character.
Hello Mr Billionaire shows the main character’s attempts to spend money backfiring for comedic effect, and the fact that he ends up richer by accident has struck a nerve in a country that is grappling with rising income inequality. China is now home to 800 of the world’s billionaires, and their extravagant spending, power and prestige has become a source of great controversy. In attempting to show a more farcical side to China’s 1 percenters, Hello Mr Billionaire has only caused more consternation and resentment among some.
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