China Box Office: ‘Journey to the West’ Nears All-Time Domestic Release Record

"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. 

Stephen Chow's fantasy epic is now just $9 million away from topping "Lost in Thailand's" recent record of $202.6 million, while "Upside Down" is the week’s surprise import hit.

HONG KONG – Now standing within a whisker of becoming the highest-grossing domestic release ever  in China, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons’ suddenly hinges on competition from Jim Sturgess.

Yes, you’ve read it right: while the long-running and largely inevitable surge of Journey to the West has been much chronicled over the past week -- the film has now generated $192.9 million (1.2 billion yuan) during its four-week run in mainland Chinese cinemas -- the highlight of the weekend was the surprisingly strong performance of Upside Down, a futuristic thriller starring Sturgess as a man trying to defy gravity and social order to court a woman of a higher social class (Kirsten Dunst).

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Ranked behind The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in the weekly-earnings standings, the film has already taken $6.8 million (42 million yuan) from its opening day on March 8 to March 10, according to figures released on the state-backed China Film News blog -- a sum nearly on par with the total, 11-day box-office take of Les Miserables ($8 million/50 million yuan). The Lord of the Rings prequel meanwhile, added $8.4 million (52 million yuan) to its total Chinese revenue of $46.6 million (290 million yuan) during the past week.

The Chinese success of Upside Down, which was directed by Juan Diego Solanas and will be released on March 15 in the U.S. by Millennium Entertainment, is partially down to the presence of Sturgess, who has established some face recognition in the country for his recent role in Cloud Atlas. The Wachowski-Tykwer multi-linear movie was very well-received in China, taking $27.3 million (170 million yuan) despite its local distributors chopping nearly 40 minutes off the film in what they admitted to be an attempt to placate censors.

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Apart from Upside Down, Journey’s quest for record-breaking posterity will also come down to the performance of imported productions A Good Day to Die Hard (opening in mainland China on March 14) and Resident Evil: Retribution (March 17), as well as Chinese productions Finding Mr Right (March 21) and Ip Man: The Final Fight (March 22).

Jack the Giant Slayer and Oz: The Great and Powerful will take their bows in the country on March 26 and 29, respectively.