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.
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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.
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.
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