China’s moviegoers are choosing a sexist homegrown comedy over “The Last Jedi”

“There’s a lot more girls that are unused, clean,” says one of the male leads in “The Ex-File 3.”
“There’s a lot more girls that are unused, clean,” says one of the male leads in “The Ex-File 3.”
Image: Courtesy of Ex-files 3
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Not everyone can feel the force, but almost everyone has one or two exes she misses or hates, it turns out.

The Last Jedi, Disney’s latest from the Star Wars franchise, finally hit Chinese theaters over the weekend, and took in a disappointing $28.7 million. That was below opening weekend sales for its two predecessors in China (The Force Awakens, $52.3 million, and Rogue One, $30 million). It’s also far from the film’s big success in the US, where it generated over $220 million in its debut weekend.

Instead, the Chinese romantic comedy The Ex-File 3: The Return of the Exes was the top earner over the same weekend, raking in $87 million in ticket sales. That’s despite the film having been in theaters for almost two weeks.

The Last Jedi’s struggle in China is a fresh reminder that the world’s second-largest film market is a hard nut to crack for Hollywood studios. Indeed, China’s top 10 box office hits of all time are mostly domestically made films, including four that were released last year. The Star Wars franchise, for its part, has never become a big thing in China, where audiences largely prefer badass action movies like the Fast & Furious and Transformer series over the science-fiction fantasy genre.

But Ex-File 3 is an interesting challenger. The final installment of the small-budget series tells the story of two buddies enjoying their bachelorhood while dealing with complicated relationships with their ex-girlfriends. On Douban, China’s IMDb-esque film portal, the film currently holds a rating of 5.9/10 (link in Chinese)—more than 80% of romances and comedies rated by Douban users got a better score. By comparison, The Last Jedi has a 7.3 rating (link in Chinese), above average in its genre.

Many of the bad reviews focused on the sexism and problematic jokes in the Chinese comedy. Some of the highly cited sexist lines include “A woman only has few years for her golden age,” and “There’s a lot more girls that are unused, clean.”

“After breakups, the first thing women do is to get drunk and have a big cry… whereas the first thing men do is to liberate his lower body, picking up girls at nightclubs and karaokes,” is how one Douban user summarizes the plot.

The film is a “typical patriarchal brainwash” that can never be shown on big screens overseas, one user notes. Another says the moral of the story is that “as long as you are a woman, there will always be a good guy to accept you, and take care of you for the whole life.”

But Ex-File 3 did resonate with a large group of viewers, who wrote in reviews that they cried over scenes involving break-ups and lost love reunions. According to data from ticket-booking site Maoyan, women under age 24, who live in smaller cities, and have education levels lower than an undergraduate degree, form the majority (link in Chinese) of the film’s audience.

Behind this is the bigger picture that youngsters living in smaller cities have become the driving force for China’s box office growth. Already, this demographic group contributed nearly 20 billion yuan (about $3 billion) to China’s 56 billion yuan (about $8.6 billion) box-office total for 2017, up 22% from a year earlier, according to some estimates.

And another lesson is that what has proved a success in mainstream Western culture won’t necessarily work in China, and what has become taboo in Hollywood won’t be a problem for Chinese studios, either.