If the line sounds like a product placement ad for China, that’s because it is. Without giving too much of the movie away, Looper is based on the premise that in 2044 and beyond, the U.S. is a dystopia of poverty and violence where the Renminbi is the black market currency of choice, and cold-blooded killers retire in a gleaming Shanghai.
The film secured the coveted release date of September 28 in China, the same opening day in the U.S. and immediately before a weeklong holiday in China, because its Hollywood studio partnered with DMG Entertainment, a China-based production company, and rewrote the script to set significant parts of the movie in China.
As of October 4, Looper has made over US$10 million in China, according to tweets from Box Office Bar (@中国电影票房吧) on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, not the US$20-25 million in some initial reports appeared in foreign media. The Guardian claims that the embarrassing error was caused by a mix-up of dollar and Renminbi figures. D’oh!
Indeed, reviews of Looper in China reflect this lukewarm reception. While the movie sits pretty with a whopping 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, it has not fared as well among netizen reviewers in China, earning only 6.9 points out of 10 on Douban.com, a popular review site, with over 22,000 ratings. (By way of comparison, the sci-fi blockbuster Inception has 9.2 points on Douban.)
Some netizen reviewers liked the movie’s vision of China as the world’s dominant power in about 30 years: “This is why we are going to have the 18th Party Congress now!” claimed one netizen cheekily, “We will overtake the U.S. and close all the loops.” @tintin76 wrote on Douban, “A complete turnaround for China’s image in Hollywood films, awesome!”
However, most reviewers did not seem to particularly care about the film’s “China elements.” Much digital ink was spilled on Douban comparing the film to 12 Monkeys and Inception, complaining about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s new eyebrows, or trying to untie the knots in its time-traveling plot line, but relatively few mentioned the film’s treatment of China. Indeed, many netizens gave thumbs down to the “China elements.” Some did not like the product placement in the film’s Shanghai skyline by advertisers such as 360Buy, a Chinese e-commerce site, or the performance of Summer Qing, the Chinese actress who plays the protagonist’s wife in the film.
According to the L.A. Times, certain scenes set in Shanghai were put into the “Sino-centric” version released in China. The article quoted a producer who said, ”The Chinese didn’t care about pacing, and they wanted the [China-set] scenes in, so we said OK.” On this point, the studio seems to have gotten it dead wrong. One of the top complaints on Douban and Sina Weibo was about the pacing of the movie. Netizens did not want to see more China-set scenes, they wanted to see the eight minutes of the movie that were cut from the version released in China, reportedly including scenes of drug use and nudity, that helped to develop the characters.
What’s the lesson for Hollywood producers trying to conquer the Chinese market? Focus on making a good movie, and don’t worry yourself about sprinkling in those “Chinese elements.”