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J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 2015’s biggest film by far, grossed $125.4 million at the Chinese box office when it was released there earlier this year.
That’s a lot of money. But it’s a much smaller share of the blockbuster’s worldwide total — just 6 percent of its $2.06 billion global haul — than many other Disney blockbusters have achieved in the booming Chinese movie market, which is on track to surpass North America as the world’s biggest box-office territory in 2017.
Disney-Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, for example, grossed $240.1 million in China of its $1.4 billion total, or 17 percent. Disney Animation’s Zootopia has done one better, earning 27 percent of its worldwide gross so far — $231.5 million of $852.5 million — in China.
As THR reported in the lead-up to Force Awakens’ release, due to unique historical and cultural factors, the Star Wars saga doesn’t have the same deep nostalgic draw in China as it does in most other places of the world.
Disney is trying to change that. Having blitzed Chinese media for Force Awakens with a multifaceted marketing campaign designed to bring a galaxy far, far away a little closer to the hearts of Chinese filmgoers, the studio’s natural next step is to welcome some of China’s cinematic universe into the Star Wars fold. To that end, Disney cast two of the country’s biggest stars — Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen — in supporting roles in Gareth Edwards’ forthcoming spinoff prequel, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Fans everywhere got a brief glimpse of the actors in action — both wielding some pretty badass weaponry — when the first Rogue One teaser trailer dropped last week.
Here are five things to know about the two Chinese additions to the expanding Star Wars roster.
1. Donnie Yen is today’s standard bearer of Hong Kong kung fu flicks.
First off, Donnie Yen is considered a Hong Kong star, not a mainland Chinese one — a distinction that is increasingly important to some film figures in the former British colony. Yen, now 52, spent his youth in Hong Kong and later attended high school in Boston before dropping out to focus on studying the Wushu martial arts tradition, with a two-year stint in China training with the Beijing Wushu Team. He later studied tae kwon do, Wing Chun, Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, Muayi Thai, karate and further fighting styles. After returning to Hong Kong, Yen landed small action and stunt parts in kung fu movies throughout the 1980s. His big breakthrough came in 1992, when he scored a lead role facing off in a fight scene against Jet Li in Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China. Li and Yen later reprised their rivalry in Zhang Yimou’s Oscar-nominated Hero, in which Yen memorably wields a spear in a beautiful fight sequence against the unnamed sword fighter played by Li. In recent years, Yen has become one of the biggest box office draws in mainland China, thanks to his leading role in fight franchise Ip Man, a biographical kung fu series about Bruce Lee’s teacher Yip Man, along with starring parts in major Chinese fantasy hits such as The Monkey King, which earned $181.9 million in 2014.
2. Yen’s presence probably means Wushu meets Stars Wars.
Although the hints in the teaser trailer are thin, it looks like Yen will be putting his many martial arts skills to good use in Rogue One. In the brief glimpse we get of him, he’s dressed like a galactic Ronin and carrying some sort of metal-tipped staff, which he promptly brandishes to chop down a Storm Trooper with a sweet one-two move. Rumors suggest Yen’s character is an update on the kung fu archetype of the “blind swordsman.” If you look closely, he does seem to have his eyes closed in the trailer.
3. Yen’s fight skills have already won him praise from two of North America’s most formidable fighters — Iron Man and Iron Mike Tyson.
In Ip Man 3, the latest installment of his fan boy-beloved franchise, Yen trades blows with none less than former heavyweight boxing champion of the world “Iron” Mike Tyson. The two fighters were brought together for the project by mutual respect: “I’ve seen every one of his boxing matches. It’s my pleasure to be able to make a film with him, and we became friends,” Yen told THR in December, adding: “He said the reason why he took on the role in Ip Man 3 was because he enjoyed watching the first two Ip Man films.” Tyson reportedly broke a finger during stunt fighting but the pair remained pals.
Yen’s moves in Ip Man have also won him the admiration of avid Wing Chun practitioner Robert Downey Jr., aka Tony Stark aka Iron Man. “I received a phone call last year from Robert Downey Jr.,” Yen said. “He has been practicing Wing Chun for 10 years. We talked for half an hour about Wing Chun. From that moment onward, I realized the range of influence of Ip Man.”
4. Actor-director Jiang Wen is a pillar of the Chinese film industry.
Jiang Wen has a few seconds in the trailer, too. The revered Chinese actor-director can be seen sporting dreadlocks and firing some sort of heavy artillery. The word from the geeks is that he plays a rogue weapons expert of some kind, but no character sketch has been officially confirmed.
Jiang played a lead part in Hibiscus Town, Xie Jin’s 1986 drama, which was nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar. He became even better known to international film lovers for his leading performance in Zhang Yimou’s now classic Red Sorghum, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1987. He’s written and directed artful dramas of his own (In the Heat of the Sun, 1994), but in recent years he’s achieved much larger exposure by directing and starring in the hit period action-comedy pictures Let the Bullets Fly (2010) and Gone with the Bullets (2014). Aside from appearing in Rogue One, he is said to be in discussions with the Russo brothers, the directors behind Marvel’s Captain America franchise, about directing a Chinese-language project backed by their new Anthem & Song studio venture.
5. Disney’s China play has had a mixed reception in the Middle Kingdom.
Around the same time that it was trending everywhere else in the world via YouTube, the Rogue One teaser trailer hit the internet in China on local online video services like Youku Tudou and Tencent’s QQ Video (YouTube is blocked in China). On Tencent, the video has received just shy of 1 million views.
The comments section beneath the video — like comments sections in most languages — is a mixture of enthusiasm, cynicism and snark.
“I support Brother Donnie for marching into Hollywood!” wrote a user named Shalewo Zhiyuwo.
Another named Shui Zhao appeared more sensitive about being pandered to: “This is the typical approach, adding Chinese elements to make money in China.”
User Gu Dou Shuo was harsher: “Hollywood probably paid these Chinese actors only so they can get the Chinese film market. We can clearly see from the trailer that they are not the leading actors. Why are they so silly to take these roles that aren’t even necessary for the story? They should learn from Bruce Lee and shoot their own movies.”
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