Can it be only 12 months since Star Wars last dominated movie screens? It seems 2016 was a journey from The Force Awakens to Rogue One, with a helluva lot of other franchises in-between.
Asian audiences are as compelled as anyone to follow Hollywood’s recycling program, but they also remain committed to homegrown product. Sure, Zootopia deserves a nod for its ability to claim more number one slots in Asia (South Korea, two weeks; China, two weeks; Japan, four weeks) than any other Hollywood film. But let’s put aside Fantastic Beasts, the Marvel/DC superhero pot pourri and Star Trek and look at what else Asia enjoyed at the movies in 2016:
The undeniable champion of the Asian box office in 2016 was Japanese anime production Your Name. Directed by Studio Ghibli alumni Shinkai Makoto, it was number one at the Japanese box office 12 times over a 13-week period. With its story of a country girl and a Tokyo boy whose destinies – and bodies – are aligned by the arrival of a comet, this film eloquently explored feelings of trauma in the nation’s history without once mentioning Fukushima or Hiroshima.
Speaking to the Japanese heart made Your Name the second most popular local film ever (cumulative gross of over US$177 million and still counting), but it also shone elsewhere in Asia, including Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and, in particular, China, where it has (so far) made $US80.5 million. Your Name’s future continues to be bright. The film’s [minor spoiler alert] time travel component will make it a must-see for South Koreans in 2017. And just as it descends from its local stratospheric success, distributor Toho is set to release an IMAX version in Japan in mid-January.
A sluggish start for South Korea’s box office in 2016 increased anxiety in an already pressured film industry. With a conservative local government staring down the Busan International Film Festival and rumors (confirmed in October) of a government blacklist for unco-operative industry players, Koreans were worried about the future of their film industry. But as receipts fell behind schedule, along came animator Yeon Sang-ho to save the day with his cheeky, live-action feature debut, Train To Busan.
Zooming past the 10 million admissions mark that the South Korean industry has come to accept as the true measure of success, this fast-paced zombie movie accrued US$77.2 million domestically as well as picking up money by the carriage load in a range of international territories.
China and Hong Kong
Even before the 1997 handover, many Hong Kong film-makers saw the writing on The Great Wall and modified their sensibilities to appeal to the mainland market. While some directors tried keeping faith with the irreverent style of a city that once was the epicentre of Asian cinema, others, like Stephen Chow, embraced the CGI effects that bigger (Chinese-backed) budgets would permit.
Far outpacing films by other former Hong Kong stalwarts such as Dante Lam (Operation Mekong), Cheang Pou-soi (The Monkey King 2) and Wong Jing (From Vegas To Macau III), Chow’s The Mermaid picked up US$7.7 million as it topped the HK charts in the first quarter of 2016. And, of course, that was small scale compared to what The Mermaid reeled in from the mainland. The biggest film of the year and top of the Sino chart for three weeks in February, The Mermaid accrued a whopping US$528 million in China.
The instability of Thailand has impacted a range of local industries over recent years. Occasionally, a Thai film has managed to break through the stormy political atmosphere and in 2016 the most successful Thai film was One Day (local title: Fan Gun Khae Wan Diaw). Released in September, this romance, directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun, centers on an IT engineer played by Chantavit Dhanasevi (star and co-writer of Pisanthanakun’s 2010 Korean-set, romantic comedy, Hello Stranger) who is too timid to express his love for a work colleague, played by actress Nittha Jirayungyurn. During a company trip to Hokkaido, the geek’s dream girl is struck by amnesia after a skiing accident, creating the opportunity for the hero to pretend he is her boyfriend.
Managing to secure US$3.2 million dollars in a country where your average movie ticket costs US$2.50 (no wonder it’s called the land of smiles), One Day also played in Singapore and Vietnam in October, but so far its Japanese setting has been insufficient to get the film released in that market.
The top Bollywood – or to use that market’s preferred appellation, Hindi – film of 2016 was Sultan from Yash Raj studios. Pulling in US$87 million, this sports and romance tag-team match featured controversial star Salman Khan as a wrestler who marries another wrestler played by the far more alluring actress, Anushka Sharma. And while “Bollywood” is the Indian cinema that everyone knows, much was made of a KPMG report released earlier this year that stated: “It is expected that the cinema in Southern India, especially Tamil and Telugu, shall soon surpass Bollywood in terms of the share of box office collections by language.”
Right on cue, the closest box office competitor to Sultan was the Tamil gangster film Kabali. Mostly shot in Kuala Lumpur, with additional scenes in Bangkok, Hong Kong and Chennai, this action thriller made a killing in July as it ran up the largest opening weekend of any Indian film worldwide and accumulated US$52 million in its domestic market alone.