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'Misérables' box office

By  Xu Ming (Global Times)

13:21, March 18, 2013

Chinese moviegoers couldn't be more divided when it comes to the movie musical Les Misérables (2012) that has been internationally celebrated since last December. While some audiences are deeply touched by the movie and ended up bursting into tears, some get fed up with the hours-long singing and exit before it ends.

The division echoes the wide gap between the movie's recent Oscar glory and its low box office in China since opening here February 28. Many media have compared its box office of 40 million yuan ($6.44 million) by March 8 with Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013), saying the Les Misérables total is about the same as one day for Journey. It may be an unfair comparison, but it is hard to ignore that Les Misérables appears less appealing to the Chinese audience.

Box office disparity

The historical novel Les Misérables, by French writer Victor Hugo, covers the history of France after Napoleonic Wars (1803-1805) and more than 10 years after. It centers on the protagonist Jean Valjean's experience of being sent to prison for stealing bread and attempting to get expiated. The story delves into the history, politics, religion and lower-class society of France in that period.

The literary classic was made into a stage musical in 1980 but had never appeared on the big screen until last year. Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway, the movie won three Oscars last month and received generally favorable feedback across the globe.

As reported, the movie has made $400 million in global ticket sales. Its debut last Christmas in North America earned $18 million per day, surpassing The Hobbit, which screened on the same day. It harvested over $58 million within two days and broke $100 million in its first week. In Japan, it reaped a total of $53 million. Even its debut in Hong Kong on December 25 gained over $167,000 setting a city record for movies of its type.

But it encountered an obvious decline in China's mainland. As statistics from Entgroup show, by March 10, the total box office for Les Misérables reached 48.22 million yuan ($7.75 million) - 20 times less than Journey to the West and five times less than The Hobbit.

Many Chinese media used the word "dismal" to describe the Oscar winner's fate in China, particularly in comparison with Journey to the West. But some moviegoers regard it as not surprising at all since it is a musical. Some on Weibo said, "I would be surprised if it was a hit in China."

Cultural obstacle

Since its screening, Les Misérables has been reviewed favorably by both celebrities and ordinary audiences. Many people recommended it because it "touched" them and it is rated with a high score by many movie websites for its top-quality production value.

But its form as a musical is destined to erect barriers for the majority of the Chinese audience who has few chances to see musicals.

Some netizens complained that the movie is too dull. It is common to see people leave before the movie finishes, and some people even laugh inappropriately at parts of the movie.

"Chinese audience are not accustomed to watching musicals," Li Zhong, a movie critic told the Global Times, "Besides, Les Misérables is a tragedy based on a literary classic, which is not suitable for the majority of Chinese audiences."

While musical movies have been an important genre in Hollywood, it remains uncommon for most Chinese audiences. Chen Kexin's Perhaps Love (2005) is probably the only Chinese movie in recent years regarded as a musical.

As one netizen said, "Before watching, I need to jump to reach it [Les Misérables]." Some experts said that only those with a certain educational background can appreciate the movie.

Besides, redemption, an important concept in Christianity runs through the movie. But the majority of Chinese audience members know little about how the faith works in love, confession and mercy. "It may prove hard for some audiences to accept," Li noted.

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