China’s Lunar New Year box office tops US$1 billion, with YOLO fat-to-fit story still No 1

China’s total box office for the eight-day Lunar New Year break ending Saturday reached 8 billion yuan (US$1.1 billion) and 163 million views, with YOLO taking the lead with 2.7 billion yuan, according to official figures.

Following close behind YOLO (“You Only Live Once” or Re La Gun Tang in Chinese) – the story of an overweight woman who becomes fit through boxing training – was Pegasus 2, directed by Chinese novelist Han Han. It took 2.4 billion yuan, while animated film Boonie Bears rounded out the top three with 1.38 billion yuan.

Award-winning director Zhang Yimou’s Article 20 was at No 4 with 1.34 billion yuan.

Box office takings were up by about 18.5 per cent compared to the 2023 new year period, which lasted seven days, and viewership had increased by more than a quarter, the China Film Administration said on Sunday.

But Hollywood and Hong Kong films were once again conspicuous by their absence.

The Movie Emperor, starring Hong Kong legend Andy Lau Tak-wah, was the only film with any connection to the city, but it was withdrawn from cinemas on Saturday due to unsatisfactory viewership.

The mainland produced and directed film had released on February 10, Lunar New Year’s Day. It would be released “at an appropriate time in the future”, production company Huanxi Media announced on Weibo.

As of Sunday morning, China’s box office since January 1 had reached 11 billion yuan, with over 96 per cent contributed by domestically made films, the film administration said.

The week-long Lunar New Year holiday, a time for family reunions across the country, is traditionally one of the most popular and competitive periods for films to debut in China.

Comedian Jia Ling, 41, has become a household name this year after directing and starring in YOLO, which she adapted from the Japanese original 100 Yen Love. Jia lost more than 50kg (110lbs) in a year to portray the protagonist, and her transformation sparked lively discussions on Chinese social media on body image and self-esteem.

China’s big holiday films spark social media debate about body issues and justice

The film has also emerged as a feminist message, as it portrays a woman’s love of a sport traditionally dominated by men. Jia’s new look after her weight loss also features strength and muscle, defying China’s mainstream patriarchal beauty standard that women must be slim, fair-skinned and young.

The film was rated 7.9 out of 10 on well-known review site Douban.

“[Unlike mainstream Chinese cinema] the film has big women, but they do not make a fool out of themselves; it has married women who cheat on their husbands, but there’s no slut-shaming; it has an excellent guy, but he’s not any women’s saviour,” a commenter on Douban said. “This is why we need director Jia Ling.”

No 2 on the box office list, Pegasus 2, deals with the ups and downs in the life of a former champion racing car driver, while Boonie Bears tracks the adventures of a forest guide and two bears. Three-time Oscar-winner Zhang’s Article 20 tackles the controversial topic of the right to self defence under China’s eponymous criminal law.

Four films in all were withdrawn this holiday period, including Lau’s The Movie Emperor. The others were Viva La Vida, a romcom about a terminally ill couple in love, and two animated films. All aim to reschedule after the holidays.

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