Photo taken on Jan. 23, 2023 shows people at a cinema in Xi'an, northwest China's Shaanxi Province. (Xinhua/Li Yibo)
by Zhang Yunlong
BEIJING, Jan. 27 (Xinhua) -- After enduring the negative impact of COVID-19, China's cinemas welcomed crowds of moviegoers during the Spring Festival holiday, raising hopes for the film industry's recovery.
"The audiences are all back!" said Dong Wenxin, a cinema manager in the eastern Chinese city of Jinan, who was thrilled to see the return of crowds to her theater.
It is the first Spring Festival holiday after the adjustment of the country's response to the virus. The week-long holiday ends on Friday and is usually a lucrative moviegoing period in China.
The holiday box office sold 126 million tickets as of 7 p.m. Friday, generating a whopping revenue of 6.65 billion yuan (about 982 million U.S. dollars), according to box office tracker Maoyan.
The earnings overtook that of the same holiday last year, making this year's Spring Festival holiday the second highest-grossing to date.
Six domestic titles were released on the Spring Festival, or Chinese Lunar New Year, which fell on Jan. 22 this year.
Topping the holiday box office chart was the twist-filled "Full River Red," Zhang Yimou's first foray into the "suspense plus comedy" genre. The ending of the movie moved many to tears, with thousands of soldiers reciting prose by patriotic Song Dynasty (960-1279) general Yue Fei in concert. The historical drama raked in 2.55 billion yuan, accounting for 38 percent of the box office total.
It was followed by Guo Fan's "The Wandering Earth II," a prequel to the 2019 sci-fi blockbuster "The Wandering Earth," which pulled in 2.13 billion yuan.
Third place on the chart went to the animated film "Boonie Bears: Guardian Code," the newest installment in one of the longest-running movie franchises in China. It grossed 743 million yuan.
The other films are Cheng Er's spy actioner "Hidden Blade" which stars Tony Leung Chiu-Wai; "Deep Sea," an animated fantasy from Tian Xiaopeng, the helmsman of "Monkey King: Hero is Back"; "Five Hundred Miles," a comedy starring Zhang Xiaofei, a comedienne best known for her part in the 2021 dark horse "Hi, Mom."
In addition to the holiday movies' variety in terms of genre, the high quality of the films has been widely hailed by cinema managers, critics, and wider audiences.
Four of the six titles received a rating at or above 7.0 out of 10 on the review platform Douban, with 8.2 for "The Wandering Earth II" and 7.7 for "Full River Red."
"Telling a great story that resonates with the audiences is above all else," said Zhang Yimou in a televised interview.
Zhang said he drew inspiration from the "revolving scenic lamp" in traditional Chinese culture. He set up his movie characters inside a traditional courtyard in north China's Shanxi Province, where they must pass through numerous long, narrow alleys to interrogate different people and solve a murder case.
Yu Opera, a traditional opera of central China's Henan Province, was also used as background music to echo the feeling of tension when the movie characters hurried through alleys, he said.
Adapted from the Chinese novel of the same name by Liu Cixin, "The Wandering Earth" is set in the future and tells of an audacious attempt to save Earth, with the sun about to expand into a red giant and devour the planet.
Many moviegoers said they were amazed by the "space elevators" rendered in "The Wandering Earth II." In an interview, Guo described the filming of "space elevators" as a "nightmare," highlighting the difficulty.
Fu Ruoqing, a senior executive of China Film Co., Ltd which is a co-producer, commended "The Wandering Earth II" as a new milestone in China's movie history, "whether in terms of the sci-fi values the film has conveyed or in terms of the exquisiteness and delicacy of the filmmaking and the screenplay."
In the movie, Chinese scientists displayed and presented the ability and possibility that humankind could put Earth on a wandering journey and thus helped with the decision-making, Fu noted in a televised interview. "It is also an observation out of respect for a human community with a shared future," he said.
Fu's remarks resonated with many internet users.
"'The Wandering Earth II' tells about thinking in big picture and about 'a human community with a shared future,'" read a post on the social media platform Weibo. "Conflicts did exist... but in the interaction of conflicts, the destiny of humankind becomes a community, where there are no winners, only consensus."
In China, moviegoing has become a holiday routine for many people, and the Spring Festival holiday, with the National Day holiday and the summer break, are the three biggest movie seasons.
Still, the box office surge this holiday surpassed the expectations of many observers, including Rao Shuguang, president of the China Film Critics Association, who watched four movies in a single day -- the Spring Festival -- in a cinema on Chunxi Road, the southwestern city of Chengdu.
"I have never seen so many people in a cinema," said Ming Jinwei, a blogger and regular moviegoer in Beijing, who posted online a photo of crowds at the Guang'anmen Cinema.
"The movie and tourism sectors saw not just rebound, but rather explosive growth," Ming said.
The lifting of many COVID-19 restrictions helped fuel China's holiday travel and shopping spree, which analysts say also mirrored the vigor of China's economy.
Rao said the movie frenzy made him feel that Chinese films will be off to "a new start towards a better future" after being hampered by COVID-19 for years.
There have been calls from critics for more quality films to draw more moviegoers back to cinemas, citing its significance to the overall film industry recovery.
The view echoes worries among cinema chain managers that young people are increasingly accustomed to going online for films and dramas rather than attending theaters.
"This year's holiday films are generally of high quality, so the audiences are willing to go to the cinema," said Dong, the cinema manager in Jinan. "Can we continue to provide films of this level in the future?" she asked. ■