Star Wars spinoff gets Chinese stars

By Amy He in New York | | Updated: 2016-12-08 14:02

The last Star Wars film released in January 2016, The Force Awakens, earned a healthy $125 million at the box office in China, but it paled in comparison to the record-smashing $936 million it made in the US.

In an attempt to attract the Chinese audience to the Star Wars universe, Disney and Lucasfilms on Jan 2 will release in China a Star Wars spinoff – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – that will feature two of China's big stars: Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen. Yen is one of the biggest action stars in Chinese cinema and Jiang has starred, written, and directed action vehicles in the last several years.

In addition to Yen and Wen, the cast includes Felicity Jones as the lead hero, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, and Forest Whitaker.

The difference in box office receipts in the US and China for The Force Awakens has been attributed to the lack of cultural symbolism that the Star Wars franchise has in China. Disney promoted the movie heavily up to its release, including celebrity endorsements and various events across the country.

What also hurt the movie was that it wasn't able to secure a day-in-date release, coming several weeks after the North American release, during which pirated copies could be distributed.

Will using the Chinese stars increase the box office take in China?

Jonathan Papish, a film analyst who tracks the Chinese box office for China Film Insider, said that Chinese viewers have become sensitive to Hollywood "throwing in fluff parts for Chinese performers or hokey Chinese product placements" and can "smell the pandering from a mile away" since it has been happening for years.

Other blockbusters like X-Men: Days of Future Past and Independence Day: Resurgence featured Chinese actresses in small roles. But he said he's hopeful about Yen and Jiang's involvement in Rogue One: "Many people who saw The Force Awakens complained about the stale light saber battles, that they'd been seeing better fight sequences in Chinese mainland and Hong Kong cinema [and] television for years," he said.

"In Rogue One, Donnie Yen — and to a lesser degree Jiang Wen — has been given an integral role that utilizes his world class martial arts skills. This is a natural fit that organically makes sense in the Star Wars Universe — far from sticking Angelababy in a fighter cockpit a la Independence Day," said Papish.

What should also help Rogue One's performance in China this time around is that Disney "no longer needs to start from scratch" in developing familiarity of the Star Wars brand, said Stanley Rosen, professor of politics at the University of Southern California.

The spinoff is set in 1977, prior to the events of the very first Star Wars movie, so "this is a good opportunity for Chinese fans to get in at the beginning of the saga, and then watch the films in chronological sequence," he said.

While Rosen said he doesn't anticipate the film to be as successful as it is in North America, it will probably do better than The Force Awakens did earlier this year.

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