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Zhang Yimou’s snowy period spy thriller “Cliff Walkers” debuted in China this Labor Day holiday weekend with $37.7 million. But it was outrun by local rom-com “My Love,” which took a comfortable box office victory.
That tale of young love starring Taiwan’s Greg Hsu and Zhang Ruonan of the popular TV show “Cry Me A Sad River” opened Friday to earn $65.1 million over three days, according to data from Artisan Gateway. Produced by Youth Enlight Pictures and directed by Han Tian (“Only the Wind Knows”), it grossed almost double the earnings of any competitor.
Hsu is one of a small handful of Taiwanese actors who declared political fealty to Beijing in March by vocally throwing his weight behind a state media-supported boycott of Western fashion brands worried about potential forced labor in the Xinjiang cotton industry. Critics say China has held more than a million ethnic Uighurs in the region in “re-education” camps against their will as part of a campaign that U.S. government officials have called a genocide.
Maoyan is currently projecting based on opening figures that his tear-stained rom-com will go on to earn a happy $137 million.
Meanwhile, “Cliff Walkers” came in second. It opened Friday in China, with day-and-date openings also in the U.S., Singapore and Hong Kong. Starring Zhang Yi, Yu Hewei, Qin Hailu and Zhu Yamen, the 1930s-set film tells the story of four Soviet-trained Chinese spies who parachute into the wintry northern puppet state of Manchukuo, only to find that they’ve been set up and are now in hot water.
Local impressions of the film were mixed, with viewers giving it 9.1 out of 10 on Maoyan but just 7.7 out of 10 on the often more discerning Douban platform. Maoyan currently predicts a $123 million lifetime total for the title — more than Zhang Yimou’s most recent films “Shadow” or “One Second,” which grossed $10.6 million last November.
The other films topping the box office this weekend were all thrillers that opened on Saturday, May 1 — a day later.
New Classics Media’s thriller “Home Sweet Home” was third with a $19.4 million two-day debut. Directed by Taiwan’s Leste Chen (“Battle of Memories”), it stars Hong Kong’s Aaron Kwok, Duan Yihong (“Battle of Memories”), Tiffany Tang Yan, and Wendy Zhang Zifeng. Zhang is still basking the glow of the unexpected hit “Sister,” in which she stars as a young girl who must take care of her little brother after their parents die in a car crash. The film, still in theaters, has grossed $132 million so far.
In fourth place was Erdong Pictures’ new Hong Kong police corruption thriller “Money Empire,” which may have changed its English name to “The Unbeatable.” It grossed $13.8 million in its first two days. Directed by Wong Jing and Woody Hui, the film stars Louis Koo, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Francis Ng and Gordon Lam.
iQiyi Pictures’ corruption crime thriller “Break Through the Darkness” debuted Saturday to a two-day sum of $7.3 million. Written and directed by actor Lu Yulai, the film stars Jiang Wu (“Shower,” “To Live”), Zhang Songwen (“Shadow Play,” “The Bad Kids”) and Jin Shijia (“iPartment”).
This Labor Day weekend proved much more competitive than usual, with an incredible 18 new releases scheduled to open Friday and Saturday. The weekend aggregate was $160 million — a sum relatively comparable to similar weekends in 2019, before the pandemic, indicating that business has largely bounced back.
Over the weekend just before Labor Day in 2019 (April 26-28), the three-day weekend box office was a high $182 million, thanks to the debut of “Avengers: Endgame.” The weekend just after Labor Day (May 3-5) saw sales of only $86.8 million, as “Avengers” fever tapered.
There remains one notable difference. In 2019, three of the top five films in both weekends were foreign imports. This year, China hit the $160 million mark almost entirely on the back of local titles — thanks in part to protectionist scheduling that pushed foreign films out of the holiday weekend.
In other words, the combined box office draw of “My Love,” “Cliff Walkers” and a handful of thrillers pulled a punch almost equal to the record-breaking sales of “Avengers: Endgame.” China’s box office is back in business, but with the flow of American films stanched by COVID-19, local films have become its lifeblood.