Ne Zha Tops China’s Animation Film Box Office of All Time
By Ai Yan
No doubt, China’s domestic animation film Ne Zha is to be inscribed in the history of the country’s film industry.
By bringing in ¥138.5m on its opening day, Ne Zha overtook the previous record-holder Despicable Me 3 to top the country’s first-day charts for animated films.
On August 2, only one week after debuting, the film’s box office surpassed Disney’s Zootopia to become the biggest ever animation film of the market. The latter stayed dominantly in the chart for more than three years, since 2016.
As of August 9, Ne Zha has already grossed over 3 billion yuan (470 million U.S. dollars). Along with the soaring number in box office earnings is people’s anticipation of the Chinese animation film industry.
Loosely based on the Ming Dynasty (1368—1644) novel Fengshen Yanyi (The Investiture of the Gods), the film is about a mythological figure who fights against unfair destiny.
The 110-minute film, by 1980s-born director Yang Yu, better known as Jiaozi (“Dumpling”), offers a retelling of the household tale that strikes a chord with1 a modern Chinese audience.
In the novel, Ne Zha is a rebellious2 teenager who kills whoever gets in his way. His relationship with his father, Li Jing, is tense. His father, a cowardly and selfish commander who governs the fictional port of Chen Tang Guan, forces Ne Zha to commit suicide over an error. Ne Zha is reborn as a three-headed, six-armed deity who rides on two magical “wind-and-fire” wheels to fight his enemies.
Ne Zha has traditionally been portrayed as an attractive young figure, but Yang has channeled an unconventional spirit into Ne Zha and depicted him as a mischievous boy with cute and ugly features.
Another noticeable renovation is that instead of being the chosen one, Ne Zha is a self-made god this time.
In the film, Ne Zha is born with a “cursed destiny” and unfairly treated by local villagers who believe that the naughty, yet good-hearted, child will grow up to be a public threat. In another deviation3 from the original, the father is depicted as a noble man who would sacrifice his own life to rescue his son.
“I’m the captain of my destiny, not heaven” is one of Ne Zha’s lines in the film that has become a motto for many and made the rounds on social media. Though supposedly-born evil, Ne Zha chooses to sacrifice himself to save the villagers from death. By doing so, he grows into a hero instead of fitting into his doomed destiny.
“This film is about an individual who fights against prejudice and social exclusion,” says Yang.
It is not quite a surprise that Yang Yu, while outlining a story for his first feature film, would choose Ne Zha. As a graduate of medical school, he determined to become a self-trained animator and director, and it took him nearly four years to complete his first short animation film See Through.
Released in 2009, the 16-minute pic earned rave reviews and numerous accolades, including the Berlin International Film Festival’s special jury prize for shorts.
Boosted by that success, Yang then founded his own animation company in the Chinese city of Chengdu but spent the next six years toiling on his debut feature and struggling to find financing for the project – what would ultimately become Ne Zha. He was then approached by Coloroom Pictures, Enlight’s startup animation subsidiary, with financing and technical support in 2015. Coloroom’s CEO, Yi Qiao, has said in interviews with the Chinese media that he was attracted to Yang because of his “poverty and his crazy, single-minded passion for animation storytelling.”
With the film’s success, a group of numbers has been repeatedly mentioned in reports: five years of hard work, 66 editions of scripts, more than 100 designs of Ne Zha’s image, 1,318 visual effect shots, 20 special effects companies and around 1,600 staff members.
“I’ve been challenging my limits all the time, until we ran out of money,” Yang said during an interview with Beijing Youth Daily. “I think it is a miracle we have finished it. I cannot remember which part is the most difficult because the whole process is like a journey in hell4.”
Fortunately, Ne Zha did not disappoint him. After breaking a number of records, the box office of the film is expected to exceed four billion yuan (626 million U.S. dollars).
The soaring box office again ignited people’s passion and expectations for domestic animation films, four years after the “Monkey King: Hero is Back”, a film that has given hope to the industry that had been lagging behind for decades.
Starting in 2015, “the rise of domestic animation films” has occasionally been mentioned whenever an animation film wins critical acclaim, such as “Big Fish & Begonia”, “Dahufa” and “White Snake”. But insiders say that the domestic industry is still lingering on the starting point.
Critics pointed out that the domestic animation film market is still occupied by a large amount of low-quality and small-budget films for the underage and only a few animation films are targeting adults. Meanwhile, original stories are still wanted. Most of the current productions are still adaptations of existing stories from the traditional culture.
Yi Qiao once mentioned that there isn’t a complete industrial chain in China’s animation industry and most of the animation companies have no capacity to work independently for a film.
Behind all of this is the lack of talent in the industry. The scale of the domestic films is expected to reach 210 billion yuan by 2020. However, at least one million professional talents are lacking in the industry. Yang Yu, while producing Ne Zha, had to do a lot of detailed work by himself.
While asked about whether Ne Zha represents the “rise of domestic animations,” director Yang Yu said that “when people stop talking about ‘rise of domestic animations’ and take good animation for granted, that’s when we can say that the industry has risen”5.
1. strike a chord with 与……产生共鸣。
2. rebellious 叛逆的。
3. deviation 背离。