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Can ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Strike It Rich at the China Box Office?

Three and a half months after its U.S. release, “Crazy Rich Asians” finally hits the ground in China on Friday. But it’s up in the air whether the movie can enjoy the same kind of success in the world’s second-biggest movie market.

On the face of it, the Cinderella story of a Chinese-American academic who unwittingly falls for one of Asia’s wealthiest and most eligible bachelors might seem a natural hit in the Middle Kingdom, with its all-Asian cast, Asian setting, some dialogue in Chinese and a happy ending. 

But what made the film so groundbreaking and distinctive in Hollywood – its lineup of Asian actors – is nothing new in China, where nearly every theatrical release features primarily Asian talent. The depiction of opulence and wealth also sits uneasily at a time when the Communist government is cracking down on both real and fictional excess.

And the China release comes well after the buzz around the film in the rest of the world has already died down. On major Chinese ticketing platform Maoyan, thousands more users have indicated that they want to see Bollywood dramedy “102 Not Out” and mainland teen romance “Twenty” than “Crazy Rich Asians,” all three of which open Friday.

“I don’t quite think this one will do well in terms of box office here,” said one Chinese exhibitor, who nevertheless plans to allocate about 10% to 20% of the company’s screens to the film. “I don’t think the subject is that relatable to young audiences in China. I’m not quite sure how they will find that story interesting.”

Many of those keen to see the film would have already watched it online by now, she added.

Those close to the production team say they have no way to predict the film’s performance, as no directly comparable titles have been released recently in China. The country sets a quota on the number of foreign films it allows in and rarely imports romantic comedies. “We’re just very, very happy it got in,” a source close to the production told Variety.

The closest comparisons might be with “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” which launched in China in August, or Amy Schumer’s “I Feel Pretty,” which was released in September. Both performed abysmally, bringing in just $602,000 and $206,000, respectively. Another point of comparison might be action-comedy caper “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” which still took in only $8.9 million.

Kevin Kwan’s original “Crazy Rich Asians” novel was never a phenomenon in China, where it can’t even be purchased in Mandarin, and the cast of the film is little-known to Chinese audiences except for Michelle Yeoh, who has a loyal fan base. In the Chinese marketing poster, Yeoh is placed close to the center.

While the film may vividly showcase extravagant wealth, its marketing in China has sought to emphasize aspects more in line with the Communist regime’s “core socialist values” — a potentially smart move as authorities crack down hard on luxury spending by officials and issue new restrictions on content deemed “overly entertaining” or focused on wealth accumulation.

Last week in Beijing, director Jon M. Chu essentially disavowed every word in the film’s title. “The film is a satire,” Chu told the state-affiliated Global Times. “It’s not about ‘crazy rich’ or ‘Asians’ actually – it’s about the opposite of that. It’s about how all those things mean nothing and it comes down to our own relationships and finding love and our own families.”

Although the title “Crazy Rich Asians” (in Chinese) was used for the film in Taiwan and Hong Kong, in mainland China it’s been changed to what translates roughly into English as “An Unexpected Gold-Digging Romance,” casting a certain aspersion on the characters.

Warner Bros. has even been using Communist Party-approved terminology to describe the movie. “American humor is perfectly combined with Chinese style, and the independence and ‘positive energy’ of the female characters is especially touching,” the studio wrote on its official Weibo social media account, using a phrase that refers to the sunny, inspirational material preferred by Chinese authorities.

Reactions from Chinese viewers who’ve already seen the film has been mixed, with users on key platform Douban giving it a middling aggregate rating of 6.2 out of 10. Though the film opens with a quote by Napoleon that sets its sights on the Middle Kingdom (“Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will wake the world”), many mainlanders felt they saw little to do with themselves onscreen.

“The opening quote is extremely misleading: China’s rise has no connection to this deceitful film full of stereotypes,” wrote one user, adding that the emphasis on popular U.S. topics of ethnicity and identity made it feel that the film had “built a church, hung up a few red lanterns and sang a few songs about Asia’s glory to promote the American spirit.” Another review summarized the film this way: “A bunch of aliens with Asian faces fall into a pile of money.”

But others remained excited to see an Asian breakthrough in Hollywood. Whatever the gripes, one user wrote, “let’s first celebrate and support the box office, I guess, so that we have a chance to see more Asian stories.”

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