Hollywood films and local arthouse led the Chinese box office this weekend, with “Jumanji: The Next Level” taking the lead with a $24.7 million debut, while Lou Ye’s Venice title “Saturday Fiction” was abruptly yanked from the lineup of releases.
Remarkably, Diao Yinan’s stylish and bloody neo-noir “Wild Goose Lake” did almost as well as “Jumanji” in its opening weekend, taking $19.4 million to come in second. Starring Hu Ge, Gwei Lun Mei, and Liao Fan, the crime thriller debuted in competition at Cannes in May, but appears to have undergone four minutes of cuts, given the listed 113-minute runtime of the version screening in China.
Disney’s “Frozen 2” came in third with $9.6 million, bringing its cumulative box office in China up to $105 million.
Local crime thriller “The Whistleblower” made $4.3 million in its debut. The film features Tang Wei, the starlet who was once banned from mainland filmmaking for her early-career role in Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution,” which authorities found too steamy. It was directed by Xue Xiaolu, a female helmer best known for her last collaboration with Tang, the 2013 romantic comedy “Finding Mr. Right.”
The Rian Johnson-directed murder mystery film “Knives Out,” starring Daniel Craig and Chris Evans, came in fifth with $4 million. It has now earned $24 million in China.
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Initially, Lou’s “Saturday Fiction” was scheduled to come out this past Saturday, which would have turned ticket sales into a bit of a showdown between Tang in “The Whistleblower” and the black-and-white wartime drama’s megastar, Gong Li. “Saturday Fiction” debuted in competition at Venice in the fall, and also stars Taiwan’s Mark Chao, Japan’s Joe Odagiri and France’s Pascal Greggory.
Its cancellation wasn’t officially announced until 10 a.m. the day it was set to start screening. The film’s official Weibo social media platform put out a statement that the team had “decided to adjust” the original release date, offering “sincere apologies.” The movie is now listed as due in 2020 on Chinese ticketing platforms.
“Lou Ye’s got a target on his back, so it’s almost like anything he does” gets extra scrutiny, Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Johnny Ma told Variety. “They just make it hard for him. I don’t even know how he keeps going.”
Ma has worked closely with Lou’s longtime collaborator Nai An, who starred in and executive produced his first film, “Old Stone.” His second feature, “To Live to Sing,” finally squeaked through China’s strict censorship process, but his first feature did not. Lou and Nai both received five-year bans on filmmaking for 2006’s “Summer Palace,” and many of his films have never hit Chinese theaters.
“It must be heartbreaking every time you make a film that it never comes out the way you want it – not because you couldn’t get there, but because you had to keep cutting, cutting, cutting, because his budgets are so big now” that he needs the mainland theatrical release, Ma said. “I feel like at a certain point, it’s like, ‘This is my movie; even if it does get banned, I don’t care.’ But [now] he can’t do that.”