EXCLUSIVE: Writer-director Chen Sicheng’s Detective Chinatown 2, the sequel to his 2016 hit, has nearly quadrupled that film’s box office to become the No. 3 movie ever in China. With $464M through Thursday, the movie has surpassed The Fate Of The Furious to fall in line behind Wolf Warrior 2 ($854M) and The Mermaid ($527M). The buddy pic that shot largely in New York, is produced by Wanda, Shine Asia and China Film Group. I recently spoke with Chen about the film’s success, his future projects and the Middle Kingdom-Hollywood relationship.
He is planning a third film in the franchise, moving the action to Tokyo, which will release during Chinese New Year in 2020. On the phone from Shanghai, he laughs that there’s “a lot of pressure to try to make a release date,” but with the Lunar New Year period such a lucrative time, it’s ultimately worth it.
When this year’s holiday kicked off on February 16, folks were gobsmacked by the massive performance of Monster Hunt 2 which scored the biggest single-day gross in the market’s history. But the Day 1 winner doesn’t always carry the holiday, and sure enough its fortunes dwindled (in China that means it still has grossed $339M) and DC2 surged ahead to win the Sunday, if not the frame, before continuing to play through the midweeks.
Part of the draw for DC2, Chen tells me, was the locations which included New York’s own Chinatown, Times Square, the Public Library, Grand Central Station, Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue and the Brooklyn Bridge. “For a lot of the Chinese audience, this was fresh for them. It’s like they took a road trip to New York during Chinese New Year and that’s what makes the movie special for them.”
This was the first film created and managed by Chinese companies to be shot in the U.S. in collaboration with the unions — Chen says he’s even a DGA member now. But, he’s humble about the success. “We were expecting it to do well, but it was released in a very competitive time and it did exceed our expectations. I’m very happy, but very zen about it. I subscribe to the Buddhism idea that you shouldn’t feel too sad or too thrilled about things, just feel peaceful about everything life throws at you.”
Another aspect that’s made it a success was a decision that the tone of the movie should be light. Chinese New Year “is a traditional time for families to get together and be cheerful.” So, at script stage, “we tried to avoid anything negative. Even though there’s a crime element, we wanted to avoid anything too graphic.” The story centers on detective duo Tang and Qin who team up when the case of New York Chinatown godfather Uncle Qi’s missing son turns into a murder investigation.
By accounts, families flocked to the film and went back for repeat viewings. The outsize Lunar New Year holiday box office — the month of February saw sales reach more than RMB 10B ($1.6B) — is boosted by the masses who run to cinemas with their families whilst visiting during the holiday period.
But there’s a comer in the mix in the form of Operation Red Sea. That Bona action title, which has a lot in common with Wolf Warrior 2 in that it’s about a rescue operation in a foreign land, crossed $411M today and is seen as having strong legs — potentially besting DC2. It was the No. 1 movie internationally last weekend.
Chen is a fan of the film, “It’s more violent and action-packed so it has been doing better as the holiday played out. But the two movies are incomparable due to the different themes.” Chen respects the film’s director Dante Lam who he says is much more experienced, while he’s a young director who just finished his third movie. “I have a lot to learn from” Lam, he says.
Marketing certainly played a part in DC2‘s success. There were different versions of the trailers and posters. “If a movie has great materials it clicks with the audience,” says Chen. DC2 also released in the U.S. day-and-date with China and has made over $1.6M on 115 screens. Warner Bros acquired the film for domestic in January and created a customized campaign to reach Chinese-speaking millennial moviegoers, with an integrated strategy that incorporated elements of grassroots marketing, influencer engagement and digital. With more than 329,000 Chinese studying in the U.S. being the core demo for the film, WB hyper-targeted colleges with high concentrations of students from China.
With an estimated 57% of annual box office sales in China coming from the Lunar New Year period, I asked Chen if he thinks there’s room for them to succeed outside the frame. “People keep making better movies with quality that resonates with audiences so I do see a trend that Chinese movies can compete with foreign movies throughout the year. But it depends on the content.”
And with those local titles doing such bang-up business, does he think China even needs Hollywood? “I think there’s still a need for foreign content and more international content here. On the other hand, there’s a need for American audiences to get new content like Chinese movies because now the feature film world in the U.S. is superhero sequels. There’s a fatigue.”
And he’d like to see a refresh in China as well. “The big movies we love here are things like Indiana Jones and Die Hard, and they don’t make movies like that anymore.”
Up next for Chen, before the Detective Chinatown threequel, he’s going in a different direction with the beginning of a new franchise. But he won’t be led as to what that project is. “It’s top secret,” he laughs. Chen says he’d be happy to shoot again in the U.S. “Everyone there is very professional,” he notes. Would he consider making a movie in English? “Not yet, but I’m open to that.”