Move Over, Patty Jenkins: How China’s Jia Ling Became the World’s Highest-Grossing Female Director

Hi, Mom
Courtesy Tiger Pictures Int’l

She may not be a household name anywhere other than her native China, but Chinese helmer Jia Ling has officially overtaken Patty Jenkins as the world’s highest-grossing female director for a single film.

After an extended three-month run, Jia’s Chinese New Year blockbuster “Hi, Mom,” finally left Chinese theaters Tuesday. It has grossed $838 million (RMB5.41 billion) since its Feb. 12 debut, according to Maoyan data and using an exchange rate of $1 = RMB6.44)

That sum makes it the 79th highest grossing film in the world of all time, behind Marvel’s “Thor: Ragnarok” ($854 million) and just ahead of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” ($837 million). It also finished above Patty Jenkin’s 2017 “Wonder Woman,” which earned $823 million. “Hi, Mom” surpassed “Wonder Woman” in early April, 54 days after its release. (Some sources using different rates of exchange may arrive at different totals and rankings.)

Locally, the title has now surpassed the 2019 animation “Ne Zha” to become the second highest ever grossing film in China, behind 2017’s “Wolf Warrior 2,” which earned $854 million, or $881 million at today’s currency conversion rate (RMB5.69 billion). Jia is now just one of 11 Chinese women who have directed films that grossed over $15.5 million (RMB100 million).

Incredibly, Jia has hit these milestones with her first feature, on the back of ticket sales from China alone, and amidst a pandemic that left cinemas there capped at 50-75% their maximum capacity.

“Now that our box office has reached 5.4 billion, I want to thank you guys, but I don’t know what to say,” Jia wrote in one of her first personal reflections since the film’s debut, posted to her Weibo social media account on May 9, Mother’s Day. “All of it was unexpected — unexpected to the point that although I’d been prepared to heavily promote the film, once it came out [and was so successful], I was practically embarrassed to do so.”

Jia, 39, is known for her prowess as a performer of a popular type of Chinese stand-up comedy, known as crosstalk. She rose to national prominence after appearing in 2010 at CCTV’s annual Spring Festival Gala, one of the most watched TV programs in the world.

“Hi, Mom” originated as a highly personal theatrical play, written, directed and starring Jia as a reflection and homage to her relationship with her mother, who passed away when she was a girl.

The film adaptation, hilarious and heart-rending in turn, is also written and directed by Jia, who stars. She plays a fictional version of herself as a woman grieving over her mother’s accidental death who finds herself suddenly transported to 1981, where she tries to befriend her mom and direct her towards a better life.

The success of “Hi, Mom” has rocketed Big Bowl Entertainment, the company Jia founded in 2016 to produce it, into the position of becoming a major contender in China’s film space, potentially comparable to Mahua FunAge (“Mr. Donkey,” “Goodbye, Mr. Loser”).

It has also minted a proper star out of lead Zhang Xiaofei, and propelled the film’s one well-known name Shen Teng on to become China’s highest grossing actor, with the cumulative box office generated by his films now beyond the $3 billion (RMB20 billion) mark.

Surprise Upset

The success of “Hi, Mom” has been a true underdog story.

This was an unknown title with a basically little-known cast going into Chinese New Year, the most lucrative but also the most competitive movie-going week of the year.

Even its own main producer, Beijing Culture, bet against it, selling off most of its stake in the film. The financially troubled firm hedged its risks on the reportedly $62 million (RMB400 million) budgeted film and signed a minimum guarantee agreement with distributors Maoyan Entertainment and Shanghai Ruyi for a reported $232 million (RMB1.5 billion), according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Then came the surprise.

While frontrunner “Detective Chinatown 3” — a big budget franchise spectacle starring China’s most viral stars — broke records as expected on day one, “Hi, Mom” surpassed it in single-day sales by day four. Sales for “Hi, Mom” beat “Detective Chinatown’s” cume in just 10 days.

“It just shows the magic of movies, that you really can’t predict how well something will perform. No one had expected ‘Hi, Mom’ to be as big as it was — including Beijing Culture,” Shawn Yue, a producer on “Detective Chinatown 3,” told Variety in March.

Given how much China’s cinema programmers are swayed by word of mouth metrics, a big factor in the initial surge of support for “Hi, Mom” was its strategy for gaming an usually fierce ratings war.

Yue praised the “Hi, Mom” team’s marketing efforts — “they spent a lot of money to ferment their word of mouth,” he admits — but suspects the film also benefited from the pleasure and sense of accomplishment viewers got from propelling it to the top.

Troves of viewers started rating “Hi, Mom” five stars and “Detective Chinatown” one star, encouraged on perhaps by the thrill of helping “a new David emerge to kill Goliath.”

“Enough Already”

Later on, “Hi, Mom” benefited from an unusually long 90-day release, which has made it the subject of online criticism.

Films in China are typically given a month-long release period that can be extended to two months in the case of unusually high-performing titles. But “Hi, Mom” was given two extensions, making it the first film in Chinese history to reap the benefits of two holiday release windows — the massive February lunar new year and the May 1 Labor Day holiday. It also managed to hit Mother’s Day on May 9 as well, when it was also released for free on various streaming platforms for a limited time.

“Enough already,” many Weibo commenters said in response to the news of its second extension, chastizing the film for appearing desperately greedy.

Bloggers scratched their heads incredulously as they considered that “Hi, Mom” alone has grossed more than the entirety of Zhang Yimou’s oeuvre of more than 40 films put together, or Feng Xiaogang in his whole career.

Jia’s heartfelt Mother’s Day post appears to have smoothed most ruffled feathers, however.  “Yesterday I watched ‘Soul’ — a great film — and realized that I’ve been obsessed with certain things in recent years, and had forgotten how to appreciate much of the scenery around me,” she said, explaining her plans to finally learn to ski and spend time catching crayfish in her hometown with friends.

She concluded with a touching tribute to her muse, her mom.

“In this world, there once was a person who lived for me… When the person who lived for you in this world is gone, it’s even more important for you to live well in her stead,” she wrote.