The force awakens in China as new ‘Star Wars’ finally opens

The force has finally awoken. Almost a month after the majority of the world got to be transported back to a galaxy far, far away, China finally has its turn.

And Disney, now owners of Lucasfilm, has big plans for the beloved space opera franchise in the world’s most populous country.

At one UME cinema in Beijing, “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” — the seventh cinematic installment in the canon — was showing every half an hour, while small children stopped to admire a display featuring characters from the new movie.

At midday on opening day, however, in contrast to scenes in the U.S, UK and most other countries where the movie opened in mid-December, there were no crowds or lines.

The force, it seems, isn’t as strong with Chinese moviegoers.

Alien culture

Stormtroopers and droids may be familiar to most movie fans worldwide, but they are relative newcomers in China. When the first “Star Wars” movies were released in America in the 1970s and 80s, China was still reeling from the cultural revolution.

Western entertainment was banned. As a result, adults here don¹t share the nostalgia for the films with their foreign counterparts, and don¹t have the childhood fondness for characters like Chewbacca and Han Solo.

“I know ‘Star Wars’ is not really popular in China but every American knows (it),” says Jia Li, 36, who has become a fan, collecting toys and one of those in this city who has been eagerly awaiting the film’s release.

“‘Star Wars’ is like the childhood of America. I don’t think Chinese people can understand this movie as Americans do. For most of Chinese people ‘Star Wars’ is just a movie.”

Future generations of fans

Walt Disney Co. is hoping to set that straight, if not for the thirty-somethings who missed growing up with the films, then perhaps for a new generation.

“I want to watch this movie,” says five-year-old Tongtong. “Because I am really interested in robots and I have watched a lot of robot movies in my life.”

Disney is pulling out all the stops to bring Chinese fans into the Star Wars franchise. Hundreds of storm trooper figurines dotted the Great Wall in October in a huge marketing push, and popular video site Tencent is streaming all six of the previous films so Chinese fans can catch up online.

Disney, which bought Lucasfilm for a reported $4 billion, even released a music video featuring popular singer LuHan alongside clips of the new movie.

Standing in the way of this carefuly-orchestrated PR strategy, cultural authorities in Beijing decide what foreign films will be shown in China. For each film they choose, they also select the release date in Chinese theaters.

Meaning that for those fans here who have bought into the mythology of the “Star Wars” galaxy, there’s been plenty of time for spoilers.

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