‘The Ex-File 3’ is China’s low-budget romantic comedy walloping Star Wars at the box office

The Last Jedi may have been the highest-grossing movie in North America in 2017, earning $220 million on opening weekend, but in China, the world’s second-largest movie market, it is struggling to live up to expectations.

Industry insiders were astounded on Friday when The Last Jedi failed to gain the top spot at China’s box office (in Chinese), earning only $28.7 million. More incredibly, it lost to The Ex-File 3: The Return of the Exes (前任3: 再见前任 Qiánrèn 3: Zàijiàn Qiánrèn), a low-budget domestic romantic comedy that has garnered mixed reviews (in Chinese) from moviegoers and been excoriated (in Chinese) by critics, but raked in $45 million on opening weekend.

The Last Jedi’s Chinese opening pales in comparison with the China debuts of its franchise predecessors, The Force Awakens and Rogue One, which made $53 million and $33 million, respectively. If The Last Jedi’s box office continues to lag, projections (in Chinese) say the movie will end up grossing only $61 million in China, half of what The Force Awakens made ($124 million) two years ago.

The Last Jedi’s lackluster debut is another indication that the Star Wars franchise has more work to do if it wants to win over Chinese audiences. Historically speaking, other Hollywood franchises like the Transformers and Fast and Furious series have fared far better in China than George Lucas’ space opera. And as The Hollywood Reporter pointed out, while The Force Awakens and Rogue One were both the highest-grossing movies in North America in the year they were released, the two movies were, by contrast, only ranked 13th and 35th in China.

Analysts have attributed (in Chinese) China’s lukewarm reception to the fact that audiences were never exposed to the original three Star Wars movies, eliminating the nostalgia factor. The franchise is especially unfamiliar to China’s post-90s generation (in Chinese), who are the largest moviegoing demographic in the country and who grew up with the Transformers and Harry Potter series.

The Ex-File 3

The Ex-File 3 breaks romance box office records in China

The Ex-File 3’s victory against The Last Jedi is a triumph of David versus Goliath proportions. Facing off against the full force of Disney’s marketing blitz, The Ex-File 3, a homegrown comedy about two couples grappling with their post-breakup lives, was at a woeful disadvantage. And as media outlet Yiyuguancha pointed out (in Chinese), the first two Ex-File movies didn’t make so much as a dent at the box office years ago.

But now, with a current gross of $237 million (in Chinese), The Ex-File 3 has broken box office records and become the highest-grossing romance (in Chinese) in China’s theatrical history. Although the film’s reception been mixed — the movie currently has a 5.9 rating (in Chinese) on Douban, one of China’s most popular review websites — its supporters praise the movie’s depiction of romance with a rawness and emotional honesty rarely seen in domestic movies (in Chinese). The movie’s ending is also a veritable tearjerker, with many theater managers reporting (in Chinese) that sobbing customers are a common sight in their screenings.

The movie’s incisive portrayal of a modern, urban Chinese romance has resonated especially well with China’s youngsters. According to data from Taopiaopiao, moviegoers 24 years old and younger make up a whopping 70 percent of Ex-File’s audiences. And while young adults in first- and- second-tier cities conventionally form the bulk of China’s moviegoers, with The Ex-File 3, the attendance number skews toward youngsters in China’s smaller towns (in Chinese), much like it did with last year’s blockbuster hit — and China’s all-time highest-grossing movie — Wolf Warriors 2 (战狼二 zhàn láng èr). While it’s hard to imagine The Ex-File 3 will replicate the success of Wolf Warriors 2, there’s no denying that any movie that strikes a chord with China’s small-town youths these days is bound to strike box office gold.