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When writing about Jackie Chan’s recent “CZ12”, I almost started with writing “Where to begin?… sigh…”. Then I realised that this is exactly what I had thought (and written) when I started writing about the recent “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons”. I see a pattern emerging … popular Chinese films often leave me flabbergasted, making me wonder about this and that. In particular, they make my wonder why there are so few good ones. And why the not-so-good-ones still attract such large audiences. There are plenty of things to be considered (censorship eradicating any challenging material; professional training institutions not up to snuff; differences in general pop culture, of course  … ) and maybe there will be time some day to write them down.

Not now. Now I engage in a different adventure. A perilous one. I have recently written (for a German film industry magazine) about the perceivable trend of Chinese movie audiences to turn their backs on average Hollywood superhero franchise output, and hand their rising middle-class income over to the cashier to see domestic films instead. Some odd and unexpected candidates stormed the box office charts over the last year, the astonishing success of the low budget screwball comedy “Lost in Thailand” marking the turn of tides (now most successful Chinese film ever, and most definitely most profitable one).

When looking at the list of the 10 most successful Chinese films at the Chinese box office over the last year that I compiled for that article, I realised that almost nobody outside China has ever heard of these films, more certainly nobody has seen them. So what about going through this list one by one and writing short comments about them, to share the pleasure, if there is any to be found. And forcing myself into exposure to cutting edge Chinese pop culture while I am at it.

The experiment will not have dimensions as described in A.J. Jacob’s heroic task of reading the Encyclopedia Britannica cover to cover, or his equally astonishing project to live one year in full compliance with the Old Testament. Still, I am already quite scared of having to make sense of the success of the likes of “Tiny Times” (which sounds like a dumbed-down and sexed-down version of “Sex in the City” – if thinking about that concept does not blow your mind already…). And I am truly terrified of exposing myself to the subtle humour and elaborate character development I am used to from previous Jackie Chan movies –  there’s one on the list, whether I like it or not. Others are more interesting, with a drama about 1942 Hebei during the Chinese-Japanese war, or… well, that’s the one I am looking forward to. Maybe Andy Lau’s Oriental James Bond effort “Switch” will feature some eye candy (even though I read he already apologised to his fans for starring in it, but hey –  what does he know? He’s just a pretty boy!). And one of them I have already written about, said umpteenth screen version of “Journey to the West”, so only nine to go! And the good news is: not a single historic costume drama about the adventures of some rotten or heroic Qing, Ming or Tang emperor on the list (with the exception of “Journey…”, but let’s do the right thing and ignore that, especially I’ve gone through that experience already and kind of survived). May it be that the Chinese audience has finally had it with the funny hats and Gong Li’s swelling cleavage? Let’s not celebrate too early…

Here we go: starting today, in loose sequence, the most successful domestic Chinese movies of the last year. Buckle up… The list based on the total domestic (i.e. mainland China) box office revenue goes like this:

  1. Lost in Thailand
  2. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons
  3. CZ12 – Chinese Zodiac
  4. Painted Skin: The Resurrection
  5. So Young
  6. American Dreams in China
  7. Finding Mr. Right
  8. Tiny Times
  9. Back to 1942
  10. Switch
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