Monkey King: Hero Is Back

July 15, 2015
Editor: Eileen Cheng
A still of the animated film Monkey King: Hero Is Back [Xinhua]

Recently, a few domestic animated films such as Cars copycat The Autobots, and poorly reviewed Journey to the West adaptation The Grow 2 have led to another round of moviegoers disappointed with Chinese animation. However, animated film Monkey King: Hero Is Back stands to change people's perception that domestic made animated films are low quality, childish or just outright plagiarized copies of other films. 

While figures like Superman, Spider-man and Batman are standard super hero idols for both kids and adults in the US, the Monkey King is no doubt an equivalent icon of admiration among most Chinese.

Popular and well-known as the Monkey King is, the frequent number of stories, films and cartoons based on him that have been made in recent years, coupled with poor audience feedback, have caused Chinese audiences to feel burnt out on this legendary figure.

So when information that another Monkey King film, especially an animated one, was on the way released last month, many saw it as nothing more than another attempt by movie studios to cheat parents out of their money.  

New Twist on Old story

Hitting theaters on July 10, Hero is Back's release date was not seen as a wise decision for it meant the film would be squeezing between two fan-favorite films featuring a number of well-known stars - Tiny Times 4.0 (July 9) and Forever Young (July 10). When the film released, it seems these worries proved true as the day Hero is Back premiered it only attained a 9.2 market share while the other two each held onto a 30 percent share that same day, according to statistics from box office website cbooo.cn.

However, while most films experience a drop in screening times after they premiere, Hero is Back made a counterattack over the following days - its screen occupancy surged to almost 20 percent after four days to become the champion of the daily box office on Monday with 38.47 million yuan (U.S. $6.2 million).

Good word of mouth about the story and the quality of the animation are seen as the two biggest factors behind the film's resurgence.

While the film makes use of the classic story Journey to the West's characters, it puts them in a completely brand new story. Having had his powers sealed, a depressed Monkey King meets the Monk from the original story during his previous life as a young boy. Having heard of the Monkey King's adventures, the young boy asks the weakened Monkey King to save some children who have been kidnapped by some monsters. The Monkey King departs on a journey to regain his courage with the aid of the little boy's strong belief in him.

While the film's animation may still lag behind similar productions from the US and Japan, the carefully made film has won big applause from audiences for its quality, such as the animators' usage of Chinese elements. For example, the very beginning scene in the film is animated in the style of a traditional Chinese ink wash painting. The film also makes heavy use of traditional Chinese instruments for the soundtrack.  

Fan Movement

During a time when marketing is extremely important for a film's success or failure in China, how patriotism helped publicize Hero is Back is also worth examining. 

In China people who are hired by PR companies to promote or give good reviews to products - regardless of actual quality - are referred to as "shui jun," literally "water army." Taking this term and running with it, fans of the film have started using the term "tap water," or "zi lai shui"(Lit: freely coming water), to represent themselves, as they see themselves carrying out the duties of a PR company's "water army" purely out of love for the film. 

This conscious push to support what fans see as a new level of quality in Chinese animation has played an important role in Hero is Back's success. After the film's trailer released on June 26, fans began posting all over WeChat, Sina Weibo, making their own promotional materials such as fan-made GIFs, videos and posters and even offering advice to theaters on how to arrange show times.

"Similar to Jurassic World and Monk Comes Down the Mountain, adults make up the majority of audiences for Hero is Back, with an equal proportion of males and females… This shows an obvious difference from most [domestic] animated films, where adult audiences are usually dominated by moms," netizen Wutong wrote in her analysis of audiences numbers for Hero is Back.

Wutong suggested that the studio behind Hero is Back should negotiate with cinema managers for more show times at night, because the adult audience for Hero is Back would have more time to see the film after work. Meanwhile youth films Tiny Times 4 and Forever Young should be shown during the daytime as the student-led audience for these films are currently on summer vacation.

There are those, however, that argue this cry of support comes, not because the film is great, but rather because Chinese fans of animation want to rebuild confidence in domestic animation. 

"When a film that does something unique appears during a time when lousy films dominate the market, it will without a doubt go beyond audiences' expectations to build a good impression," reporter Xia Qiankun wrote in an Oriental Guardian article. 
 

(Souce: Global Times)
 

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