'Life of Pi' Beats Local Challengers to Retain Lead at Chinese Box Office

Ang Lee’s film tops takings rankings in China for the second week in a row despite the release of historical epics "Back To 1942" and "The Last Supper."

HONG KONG – Chinese filmmakers suffered a further setback at home this week, when Ang Lee’s Life of Pi reigned at the box office despite the challenge of two newly released locally produced historical epics.

Life of Pi, which was into the second week of its run, took 160 million yuan ($25.7 million) from Nov. 26 to Dec. 2, according to figures from China Film News, a portal run by the official State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. Feng Xiaogang’s Back to 1942,  secured 130 million yuan ($20.9 million), with Lu Chuan’s period drama The Last Supper lagging behind with 40 million yuan ($6.4 million).

Admittedly, both Back to 1942 and The Last Supper were released only on Nov. 29, but Life of Pi’s takings were still a surprise, as it was taken off the popular Imax circuit to make way for Back to 1942.

Critics have described Life of Pi’s resilience in China as an “upset.” Quoted in the Guangzhou newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily, a blogger called “Bright Light Dark Shadow” wrote: “I bet Ang Lee wouldn’t have expected something like this – and Feng Xiaogang and Lu Chuan wouldn’t have expected this even more.”

Critically acclaimed at home and abroad – it won a prize at the Rome international film festival last month – Back to 1942, which stars Chinese A-listers Zhang Guoli and Zhang Hanyu as well as U.S. actors Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins, is still expected to be rack up impressive takings during its continuing run. But this short-term defeat adds to what has amounted to a disappointing year in terms of Chinese productions’ performances, with Painted Skin: Resurrection being the only homespun movie landing a berth in the Top Ten highest-grossing films in the country in 2012.

It’s amidst such gloom that rumors circulated widely about two Hollywood blockbusters, Skyfall and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, being bumped to a release in early 2013 so as to give Chinese productions a clear run in local cinemas, with commentators pointing to how The Dark Knight, The Amazing Spider-Man and Prometheus – which all took bows in other markets across different weeks in July – were released during the same weekend in China in August

Ironically, Back to 1942 and The Last Supper were made to suffer the same fate this time round, as both films were pitched head-to-head after a string of changed release dates – a situation caused by the political uncertainty surrounding the run-up to the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party last month.

Feng has also criticized the Imax chain for whipping up a media frenzy for Life of Pi. In a press conference in Guangzhou promoting Back to 1942 last week, the mainland director – who is well-known for his fiery broadsides against his detractors - said: “I don’t want to sound like weaving conspiracies here, but they have done promotion… by saying Life of Pi will only be released [on Imax] for a week, and you’ve got to come see it quickly as after this week there will only be Back to 1942.”

He was referring to the exclusive deals offered by the Imax chain in China, stipulating there will only be one film being released in the large-size format at any given time.

Meanwhile, The Last Supper – which was hotly tipped for a premiere at Cannes in May – was originally to open in China in early July. Speaking at a forum at the Shanghai International Film Festival in June, Lu and his producers hinted at state intervention as the reason for the subsequent postponement of the local release of the film, which revolves around the power struggle between two warlords seeking to become the ruler of an unified China after the end of the Qin Dynasty.