China Box Office: ‘Fast X’ Wins Second Weekend, While ‘The Little Mermaid’ Flop Sparks Debate on Racism, Casting and Political Correctness

“Fast X” predictably won a second weekend on top of the mainland China box office, driving its total past the $100 million mark. But the disappointing start for Disney’s live-action “The Little Mermaid” was the bigger talking point.

“Fast X” earned $17.6 million in China according to data from consultancy Artisan Gateway. That was a 66% drop compared with its opening weekend, but still gave the film a $110 million cumulative after 12 days and has caused estimates to be further revised upwards.

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Ticketing agency Maoyan is now forecasting that the film will finish with RMB880 million ($126 million), having previously predicted RMB728 million ($104 million), and then RMB840 million.

That would make the film the top-scoring Hollywood title of the year (excluding 2022 release “Avatar: The Way of Water”). But the numbers are way down on past outings by the franchise.

To date, “Fast X” only ranks as the 49th best-performing Hollywood film in Chinese local currency terms. If Maoyan’s forecast proves accurate “Fast X” could climb to 40th place. In contrast, “Fast 8” and “Fast 7” are second and third on the list of imported films in China, with totals of RMB2.67 billion and RMB2.43 billion respectively.

“The Little Mermaid,” Disney’s live-action revision of its classic animation tale was only the second best-performing new release of the weekend and placed fifth on the weekend chart with a poor $2.5 million. It was beaten by new release Japanese animation “Sword Art Online The Movie,” with $3.8 million in fourth place.

(Second place was held by China’s “Godspeed” with $6.8 million for a four-weekend cumulative of $148 million, while “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3” took $4.9 million for a three-weekend cumulative of $79.6 million.)

Discussion of “The Little Mermaid,” in which actor and singer Halle Bailey portrays the title role, again raised the question about how willing Chinese audiences are to watch films with prominent Black characters. This has previously been debated around “The Black Panther” titles and “Star Wars” promotional materials.

Midweek, The Global Times, a state-controlled tabloid paper, lashed out at Disney and accused it of lowering the film’s potential in China by casting a Black actor in the role.

“Many Chinese netizens said that like ‘Snow White’ the image of the mermaid princess in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales has long been rooted in their hearts and it takes a leap of imagination to accept the new cast.” The same editorial accused Disney of “political correctness” – an argument similar to the “woke” accusations made by political Right-Wing in the U.S. – and said that the film would likely not perform well in East Asian markets.

It doubled down by saying, “The controversy surrounding Disney’s forced inclusion of minorities in classic films is not about racism, but its lazy and irresponsible storytelling strategy.”

A day later, after online discussion of how Chinese posters for the film had seemingly turned the mermaid’s skin color to blue, a Global Times op-ed went further. It used discussion of the film to launch wide-ranging criticism of Hollywood and western colonialism. It also stretched the debate to promote China’s anti-COVID policies and even its building of power generation plants in Africa.

“A number of netizens from Western countries on Twitter have attacked Chinese audiences, alleging that poor box office numbers are due to ‘racial discrimination.’ This is to impose their politically correct standards on Chinese audiences, and use this to sow discord between China and African groups,” it said. “China has always maintained brotherly relations with Africa and has never needed an ‘atonement’ mentality prevalent in Hollywood.”

Disney has a particularly difficult line to tread in China. It operates theme parks in Shanghai and Hong Kong and has long been the Hollywood studio that is most invested in the Middle Kingdom. But, as the past controverses over “Mulan” and the Chloe Zhao-directed “The Eternals” also demonstrate, finding a happy medium between China and the U.S. is tricky for the multinational when national security concerns and political sensitivities take such a prominent position in many debates.

Cold War attitudes recently caused the Mouse House to close its Disney English language school operations in China and lose more than two years of Marvel film releases.

Strangely, while audience ratings on a scale of 1-10 are a common feature of popular film discussion in China, neither Maoyan nor rival ticketing firm Taopiaopiao, currently provide an audience rating figure for “The Little Mermaid.” Readers on the film review site Douban give the film a limp 5.3 score, based on over 18,000 assessments.

Artisan Gateway reported that the weekend box office aggregate in China slipped back to $42.2 million, the lowest figure in a month. It calculates that the year-to-date total is 45% better than the equivalent figure in 2022, but 18% behind 2019.

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