Director Bi Gan’s dreamy pseudo-noir “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” defied the odds stacked against art house fare at China’s commercial-leaning box office to take in a whopping $37.9 million on its opening day December 31. That beat even superhero blockbuster “Venom” in both pre-sales and first day mainland box office tallies.
The haul — achieved via cleverly marketed special screenings scheduled to end at the stroke of midnight — marks the strongest ever China opening for a local arthouse film. The first day score includes over $15 million of pre-sales.
But the film is unlikely to be able to keep up such momentum as backlash mounts from mainstream viewers who feel they were tricked by misleading promotion into watching a high-brow flick they could not understand.
Earnings on its second day (Jan. 1, 2019) were just $1.5 million according to data and ticketing platform Maoyan. And by early afternoon Wednesday, “Journey” had sunk to sixth place at the box office.
User reviews from across the country wrote of movie-goers falling asleep within the first 20 minutes or walking out en masse. Some 75% of all Maoyan users who left comments angrily blasted the film with 1 or 2 out of 10 ratings, for an dismal aggregate of 2.8. “The worst movie in history! Tricksters, thieves! I’m indignant – it’s a total bomb, the worst trash of all trash!” wrote one in a common refrain, as the hashtag “Can’t Understand ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night” trended on social media.
Nevertheless, with $40.2 million in the bag after fewer than three days in theatres, “Journey” has already far outstripped recent Chinese arthouse films. Jia Zhangke’s “Ash is Purest White” brought in just $10 million in September, and even 2014’s popular thriller “Black Coal, Thin Ice” earned only $15.2 million.
“Journey” debuted at Cannes in May and is the rising young auteur’s second feature. It tells the story of a man who returns home after over a decade away and searches to reconnect with an old love. The film also switches from 2D into 3D midway through before concluding in an ambitious 59-minute dream sequence shot in a single take.
Bi’s first film “Kaili Blues” won him accolades and critical attention abroad but made much less noise at home, where it screened for mere days in mainland theatres and earned only $942,000 (RMB6.48 million).
The latter’s success has been thanks to a viral marketing campaign that billed the slow, dense film as a couples-friendly romance. Playing off the Chinese title, “The Last Night On Earth,” opening night screenings were scheduled to begin at 9:50PM so that the last minute of the film, in which stars Tang Wei and Huang Jue lock lips, would fall at the first stroke of 2019. The event was sold as the ideal date to ring in the new year, with couples encouraged to attend in order to share their own “cross-year kiss.”
“Do you know what kind of sweet talk you’ll use to invite someone to the last film of 2018, The Last Night On Earth?”, asked promotional messaging.
The campaign spread for weeks on Weibo, Wechat, and other apps, with even the official state broadcaster CGTN asking: “How will you spend your last night of 2018? Watching ‘Last Night On Earth’ or eating a big meal?” It did especially well on popular short video app Douyin (Tik Tok in the U.S.), which in China tends to be favored by a slice of the public generally more fond of “Transformers”-type shoot-em-ups than abstract, Tarkovskian meditations.
Midnight screenings for opening night sold out across China in pre-sales, even with tickets in some cities going for RMB300 ($44) a pair. Thanks to Douyin’s reach, nearly half of those who indicated they wanted to see the film on Maoyan hailed from third and fourth tier cities, with only 17% from first-tier metropolises — the opposite of the usual breakdown in China for arthouse films, according to Wechat account Yuledujiaoshou, or “Entertainment Unicorn.” “From the ‘literary youth’ to the ordinary teens, all were duped by the magic of the ‘cross-year kiss’,” it said, using a popular term for artistically inclined hipsters.
Meanwhile, there has been an unusual class element in the backlash from the Douyin crowd, with “Average Joe” viewers railing against the film’s more sophisticated target audience.
“It’s so hard to be a common person: you spend your own hard-earned money to go to the movie, and when it puts you to sleep the ‘literary youth’ still turn around and scold you, saying ‘this kind of dream was never meant for you Douyin users,’” wrote one Weibo commentator. Another put it bluntly: “Those who say that the film had artistic meanings that we’re just unable to understand them, please go eat sh*t.”
At an event for the film last month, Bi responded to criticism that his promotional team had hoodwinked such viewers by saying they had merely given a new group of people the opportunity to choose to see something different.
“My colleagues promoting it didn’t steal or rob — they just used their own abilities and knowledge to do their task. I don’t think they’ve done anything wrong,” he said. “I myself am from a fourth, fifth tier city. Are you saying that people there should only watch those kinds of [blockbuster] films? I’ve never believed that, although I don’t necessarily think that they’ll like my movie.”
A low-key man who has typically shied away from the spotlight, he added of the firestorm: “It’s an interesting moment — one I haven’t encountered before, and perhaps never will again in the future.”