×

China Box Office: ‘Better Days’ Steps Out as World’s Top-Grossing Film

After two battles with Chinese censors, edgy Chinese youth drama “Better Days” came out on top this weekend as the highest-grossing film in the world with a $81.5 million three-day debut, according to data from consultancy Artisan Gateway.

Globally, “Better Days” bested the worldwide haul of Disney’s “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” by a few million dollars and Warner Bros.’ “Joker” by about $20 million, according to Comscore.

In China, “Better Days” obliterated all other titles, earning 10 times more than “Maleficent,” its closest competitor, which grossed $8.6 million this past weekend. In just three days, “Better Days” has not just scored double the total China gross of the Angelina Jolie-starring title, but also out-earned the Disney flick’s $65 million North American haul so far.

“Better Days” was helped by the fact that two of the biggest contenders set to debut alongside it had their Friday openings canceled. Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” has been suspended pending further cuts, and Chinese director Li Shaohong’s Communist-themed war epic, “Liberation,” has been pushed back indefinitely, reportedly for post-production reasons.

Just days ago, it remained unclear whether or not “Better Days” would see the light of day. Authorities have yanked it from screening on two occasions already this year: first its intended debut at the Berlin Film Festival in February, and again its planned theatrical release in late June.

Popular on Variety

Though vague “post-production reasons” and “pre-release estimates” were cited as reasons at the time, censors apparently also took issue with the film’s violence. China has no film rating system, and has in recent years upped its policing of content involving or intended for minors, amid a broader crackdown on topics deemed contrary to “core socialist values.”

The film confirmed only last Tuesday that it would hit screens, just three days before its debut, leaving almost no time for much promotion or pre-sales. Though unusual, such rush jobs are becoming more frequent in China as content awaits last-minute approvals from the authorities, with marketing teams consoling themselves by embracing the idea that it’s politically safest to keep a low profile.

“Better Days,” directed by Hong Kong’s Derek Kwok-cheung Tsang, tells the story of a brutally bullied but strait-laced high schooler who gets entangled with a young crook and embroiled in a murder. Popular actress Zhou Dongyu spends most of its 135-minute run-time having her face bloodied or dripping snot from weeping. Jackson Yee — the superstar idol from TFBoys, here in his first acting role — fares rather worse. Zhou, 27, is nearly a decade Yee’s senior.

Chinese audiences enjoy stories that pull at the heartstrings, and most viewers gave the film top marks and numerous crying emojis for packing an emotional punch. It currently boasts a 9.6 out of 10 user rating on the Maoyan ticketing platform and a respectable 8.4 out of 10 on the more urban youth-oriented Douban website.

At the Beijing gala opening Friday night, Tsang referenced the film’s travails only obliquely. “It truly wasn’t easy to be able to show this film to you tonight,” he said, flanked on either side of the stage by Yee’s two dozen bodyguards.

Chinese actor Zhang Yi (“Operation Red Sea”) stood up and said: “No matter what this film went through before, you can now be braver going forward.”Another celebrity friend of the production team cryptically urged those present not to over-sensationalize their social media postings about the film “so that more people will be able to see it.”

The film concludes with a montage list of all the central government’s recent policies intended to curb schoolyard bullying.

Meanwhile, two holdover patriotic titles made to celebrate China’s National Day anniversary held onto their slice of the box office after almost a month in theaters. Bona Film Group’s “The Captain” was the weekend’s third-highest earner with $7.4 million, according to Artisan Gateway, while “My People, My  Country” came in fifth with $4.5 million. They are now China’s ninth- and 10th-highest-grossing films of all time, behind last summer’s “Dying to Survive.”

In fourth place was Hong Kong courtroom drama “Guilt By Design,” written and co-directed by Lai Siu Kwan, Sze Pak Lam and Yongtai Liu, and starring Nick Cheung (“Unbeatable,” “Beast Stalker”). It grossed $7.3 million in its opening three days.

Trailing behind them all was Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man,” which only opened in mid-October but has already sunk from view. It has grossed $31 million (RMB219 million) in China so far.

More Film

  • Claire Denis attends the 32nd European

    Claire Denis and Phedon Papamichael Join Doha Film Institute's Qumra Lineup

    The Doha Film Institute has added French auteur Claire Denis and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (“Nebraska”) to the lineup of star talent who will act as mentors for the Qumra Masters program during its upcoming Qumra event dedicated to fostering fresh Arab film fare that is opening up to TV projects. They join previously announced [...]

  • Persian Lessons Russian Cinema

    'Persian Lessons': Film Review

    In “Schindler’s List,” most of the actors spoke English, using accents to indicate their characters’ origins. In “Son of Saul,” the cast struggles to communicate in a mish-mosh of languages, as Jews of different nationalities were thrown together in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Stories about the Holocaust — so vital in trying to reconcile the horrors of the [...]

  • KARNAWAL

    Beta Cinema Celebrates ‘Karnawal’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Beta Cinema has acquired international sales rights to debut Argentine director Juan Pablo Félix’s “Karnawal,” winner of the Le Film Français, Ciné Plus, Gomedia and Titrafilm awards at December’s Ventana Sur. “Karnawal” featured co-producers from five countries: Argentina’s Bikini Films, Brazil’s 3 Moinhos Produçoes, Chile’s Picardía Films, Mexico’s Phototaxia Pictures, Norway’s Norsk Filmproduksjon and Bolivia’s [...]

  • Italian Xmas movie

    Italy's True Colours Scores Slew of Early EFM Sales (EXCLUSIVE)

    Italian sales company True Colours has scored multiple sales at the EFM on several titles including Christmas comedy “Once Upon a Time in Bethlehem,” which was Italy’s top-grossing domestic title in 2019. “Bethlehem,” which scored roughly $17 million domestically, toplines comic duo Ficarra and Picone as a thief and a priest who time-travel to Palestine [...]

  • All-the-dead-ones

    Caetano Gotardo, Marco Dutra Talk Berlin Competition Entry ‘All the Dead Ones’

    Directed by Caetano Gotardo and Marco Dutra, Brazilian Berlin competition entry “All the Dead Ones” kicks off in Belle Epoque 1899 São Paulo. Ana, the daughter of a plantation owner and her nun sister attempt persuade a reluctant Ina, a former slave, to perform an ancient African ritual to cure their mother. A time warp [...]

  • The Daughter

    Caramel, Mod, Film Factory Unveil Manuel Martin Cuenca’s ‘The Daughter’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Caramel Films has boarded Manuel Martin Cuenca’s “The Daughter,” produced by Fernando Bovaira (“The Others” ) at Mod Producciones and Cuenca’s own La Loma Blanca. Pic was unveiled at Berlin’s European Film Market by its sales agent, Film Factory Entertainment. Set to be released in Spain by Caramel in late 2020, “The Daughter” marks the [...]

  • Sugar Rush

    Berlin: Nigeria's FilmOne Makes Global Push With China-South Africa Pact (EXCLUSIVE)

    FilmOne Entertainment, the Nigerian distributor and production company, has gone into production on the first movie to cash in on the $1 million film fund it launched with China’s Huahua Media and South Africa’s Empire Entertainment in December. “Kambili,” by director Kayode Kasum, is the first of what FilmOne co-founder Moses Babatope expects to be [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content