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Jian Bing Man: he’s the superhero with the power of pancakes. Well, “jianbing.” Which are a Chinese street food delicacy ‐ crepes folded up around egg, scallions and some kind of sauce (I asked my sister, who took a trip to China this year, it’s a hoisin sauce/soybean paste blend with choice of spicy or mild).
Jian Bing Man is also demolishing the Chinese box office, with a $69.02M haul over the July 18th weekend. That sounds reasonably impressive on its own, but factor in the ticket sales, which according to THR were 13.21M. Here in the US (using Box Office Mojo’s handy inflation-adjusting metric), that’s a $107M opening weekend.
(Terrifyingly, Jian Bing Man opened at #2 that weekend. The #1 film, Monster Hunt, earned 17.93M tickets, or $145M. Their powers combined, that Friday is now the highest-grossing day in Chinese box office history).
Chinese movie-spending potential is blooming (fun fact: for the first two months of the year, China outspent us on movie tickets without a single Hollywood import in the top five earners). We’re already tweaking our own blockbusters ‐ Iron Man 3, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Pixels — to cater to Chinese audiences. Sino-American synergy is the future, people.
So I decided I’d make myself the guinea pig. Jian Bing Man’s hoisin-glazed success earned it an overseas release, so I went to see it, with precisely zero knowledge of the movie beyond “it’s a superhero spoof about a pancake guy.” Would I, and by extension an average US audience, be able to follow along? If (or when, really) Chinese movies muscle into our theaters, will their comedies find a foothold here?
The Jian Bing Journey Begins
Jian Bing Man? Totally not a superhero movie.
At least not in the true sense. It’s about a guy making a superhero movie, something that’s not conveyed in any of the trailers or any of the reporting about the film. I’m guessing that’s because American knowledge of Jian Bing Man stems from that one trailer on Youtube, which excises most the meta elements and has almost no English subtitles.
Here’s the real story. Da Peng (Da Peng) ‐ slim, hipsterishly good-looking with those thick black indie glasses ‐ is an actor on the series Diors Man, which has taken off and catapulted him to stardom. Stardom rules. Stardom means fame, fortune, fans, and also gangsters loaning you six suitcases full of cash so you can buy your girlfriend a doorknob-sized diamond. Which is totally cool… until Da Peng disgraces himself in the tabloids, misplaces the diamond and finds himself in several suitcase’s worth of gangster debt.
To recoup the cash, Da Peng figures he’ll whip up a quick superhero movie on the cheap, using the last dregs of his wealth and star power. That movie: Jian Bing Man.
In the early goings, I’m totally getting the hang of Jian Bing Man. It’s a very easy watch. The story’s embedded in Chinese celebrity culture but it doesn’t dwell on specifics. Movie stars are pompous, fans arrive in writhing, unwashed swarms, the Chinese equivalent of TMZ jam their bodies halfway into your limo without hesitation. Instantly translatable.
Same deal with the gags. A few bits of wordplay zing over my head (calling someone “brother [name]” is an affectionate term, which gets punned a couple times), but most of the laughs are lowbrow slow pitches, right down the center. Nothing a non-Chinese audience couldn’t handle.
When we first see Da Peng’s girlfriend, she’s painting at an easel, studying the figure of the ultra-buff male model in front of her. Total class. The camera pans over until we finally see what she’s painting: a stick figure with a smiley face and huge cartoon biceps. I’ve seen this gag done a thousand times where it’s a guy painting a girl with huge cartoon boobs (ten seconds in Google and here’s the shitty meme version). Nothing new, but hey, it is cross-cultural.
Another example: early on Da Peng’s assistant wants to take him clubbing. Da Peng turns to give the camera an earnest look, taking the moral high ground. He’s got a girlfriend! No way you’d catch him in one of those places.
Cut to: Da Peng, still facing the camera, in a club, covered in lipstick. He barfs.
This is right on my level.
It helps that Jian Bing Man is sprinkled with comic book movie visuals. Lots of comic panel-looking shots (reminiscent of Ang Lee’s Hulk, but not quite as stylized), and a barrage of superhero logos in nearly every frame. Da Peng rarely wears a shirt without a superhero on it. His iPhone case is Superman’s costumed torso, complete with 3D-molded pecs. Visually, the movie emphasizes his TV star success with an apartment that’s wall-to-wall Marvel props ‐ Captain America’s shield, hunks of Iron Man armor, a near-life-sized model of the Iron Monger from the original Iron Man.
At one point, someone confuses The Iron Monger with a terra cotta soldier, and it almost seems like a movie full of barf-’n-fart gags is making a point about American superheroes erasing Chinese cultural history.
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The Sudden, Massive Culture Shock
There’s a chapter in “Dave Barry Does Japan” where Barry and his family visit a rakugo club- the Japanese equivalent of standup comedy. Even with the help of a translator, he’s completely mystified by Japanese humor.
Then a younger performer comes out. He tells a joke that gets the biggest response of the evening so far. Here it is, in its entirety: ‘It has been very hot. Two days ago I ate too much sushi.’ Pause. ‘Now I’m not feeling well.’
That was me, once Jian Bing Man reached its second act.
Da Peng, now with zero cash and clout, has assembled his cast and crew: a third-rate actress for the love interest, a paparazzo for a cameraman, the guy who chased down his car shouting please let me be in your movie! and a bunch of bored senior citizens. They settle into an easy filmmaking routine.
1. Track down celebrity (using the paparazzo’s expertise).
2. Hide in the bushes, filming.
3. Several actors, dressed as villains, leap out and begin to “mug” the celeb (who has no idea it’s fake), unsubtly hinting that his/her only escape is the mysterious Jian Bing Man. Is he even nearby? Who knows?
4. Celebrity takes the hint and calls out for help from Jian Bing Man- and in swoops Da Peng, on wires and in full costume. He “defeats” the bad guys and rescues the unwitting celebrity cameo. And obviously it never goes as planned, which is where the gags come in.
The celebrities: Sandra Ng, Eric Tsang, Deng Chao, Yue Yunpeng and a foursome of male… actors? I’m pretty sure they were actors. I had no idea who any of these people are, and only after a Wikipedia check can I confirm they’re Chinese and Hong Kong actors who make Chinese and Hong Kong movies, that play to Chinese and Hong Kong audiences and don’t get much in the way of a US release.
Jian Bing Man is not a complicated movie and it doesn’t suddenly become impenetrable when the China-specific humor hits, but there was a very tangible barrier between me and a lot of the jokes. There’s a gag where Eric Tsang follows around Sandra Ng after she gets “mugged,” hoping he’ll be mugged and saved by Jian Bing Man (Jian Bing Man wants no part in this, and sprays Tsang defensively with sauce). From the context, it’s pretty obvious that Tsang is some kind of fame-grubber, like he’ll take any role he can get or is starved to be in the limelight. But without previous knowledge of Tsang (he was in Infernal Affairs, this much I know), it’s hard to find it funny.
And some of Jian Bing Man is lost forever in translation. When Da Peng’s crew mugs the foursome of… actors, or something (I really have no idea), they force the celebrities to state their “superhero names” on camera for added authenticity. The first one up stumbles. He does a lot of comedies, so his superhero name will be… “Comedy Man?”
HUGE laugh. The entire theater (my girlfriend and I excluded) lost it; a woman sitting behind me sustained a quiet, continuous giggle through the entire scene, solely on the sheer comedic power of “Comedy Man.” Some gags are universal, but that one’s exclusively in Mandarin (although the trailer subtitles peg his superhero name as “dumb ass.”)
But anything simple or visual (which Jian Bing Man is stuffed with) works wonders. When the gang tries their unwitting cameo stunt on Yue Yunpeng (context clues and Wikipedia tell me he’s a comedian), they follow him into a public garage. Hu, the paparazzo cameraman, strips down to his undies and paints his body purple with a giant white “3” on his chest/face. Perfect camouflage for that “You Are On Level Three” sign.
Turns out Yunpeng knows how to fight and promptly kicks the group’s collective ass. In the background, not in focus, we can see Hu slowly turn a 180 to face the wall in fear. His back’s not painted and his tighty-whitied butt is exposed. It’s a cheap butt joke, but it’s visually creative and surprisingly well-executed. I can admit it: I laughed. A lot.
The group rallies when the realize Yunpeng is too old-fashioned to hit a woman, so their sole actress (Mabel Yuan) slaps him. And then knees him in the balls. At least twelve times, by my count. Some humor doesn’t translate, but a dozen shots to the nuts is comedy in any language.
The Adam Sandler Connection
I was well into Jian Bing Man; I’d adjusted to the culture shock, and was enjoying its hokey but somehow still entertaining brand of comedy. Deng Chao (another actor in a cameo role) tried to run with a sack over his head and plowed into a half-closed garage door. Laughter filled the theater. I laughed right along.
And then it hit me: is Jian Bing Man the Chinese equivalent of an Adam Sandler comedy? I’m not equating Da Peng with Sandler, specifically. Da Peng’s young and energetic and lacks that fuck it, that take was good enough vibe in Sandler’s recent output. But it all seemed to connect. The cheap barf, balls and smack-yourself-in-the-head gags. The glut of celebrity cameos. More than a few jokes aimed at subjects that were commonplace maybe fifteen, twenty years ago, but come off outdated and a little offensive today.
Da Peng’s manager is gay, but like a cartoon stereotype. He wears lipstick (smacking his lips in the mirror on a regular basis), every single movement comes with some kind of flamboyant swish and other characters refer to him as a “lady.” When Da Peng gets in trouble with the tabloids, the manager publicly “swears by his sexuality” that Da Peng is innocent. Straight you can swear by. Gay? It’s a joke. We’re meant to laugh at the manager, not with him.
Also, the sequence when the actors first try to mug Sandra Ng. I don’t have the exact dialogue (apologies), so here’s the gist:
Actors: Give us your money!
Sandra Ng: I don’t have any money, I’m jogging.
Actors: That’s OK, we’ll just rape you.
Ng: No, you don’t want to rape me. I’m old! (context: Ng is 49).
Actors: Oh no, that’s fine. My associates (he points at the surrounding extras, all old men) are old too!
It’s unnerving to read (and to type), but strangely it didn’t faze me much in the theater. I think it’s because Jian Bing Man’s first few minutes set my expectations at butts-and-balls level, which provides some insulation for the really crass stuff.
I’m not actually sure if the Sandler-level humor would help or hinder Jian Bing Man in the US. There’s something about the guy with the sack on his head not seeing the garage door coming that feels distinctly American, but these days the superhero angle’s a much bigger draw than crude comedy. Pixels is sagging at the box office. Early projections for Vacation look similar. Although Get Hard made a decent buck this year. Maybe there’s hope for Jian Bing Man yet.
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Jian Bing Man In the USA
As a clueless American, I laughed. I sympathized with the ragtag amateur filmmakers. Even with the dumb gags and my total ignorance of Chinese pop culture, I enjoyed Jian Bing Man quite a bit.
Although all my lowbrow criticisms might be a tad unfounded. The film may exist on a second, more meta-level I never quite picked up on. Without knowing him in advance, it wasn’t until the ending credits that I realized Da Peng isn’t just a fictional character but Jian Bing Man’s star, writer and director. And that Diors Man is a real-life web series he stars in. Which clicks in with the finale, when another cadre of stars suggests that Jian Bing Man (the fictional, in-world movie) might suck, but they’d be happy to finance a movie about the making of Jian Bing Man (you know, the movie we just saw!). Without proper knowledge (and the amount of English-language knowledge out there about Jian Bing Man is slim to none), it’s hard to tell how deep that meta-movie joke goes.
This much I know: Jian Bing Man is not destined for US success. It only released in seven US cites, and speaking anecdotally, at least, production company Wanda Pictures is not looking to court non-Chinese Americans into the theater for this one. The only showing of Jian Bing Man near me was at an AMC theater at a mall in Monterey Park, a city in LA County with a population that’s 61% Asian and 41% Chinese. Even the subtitles were out of sync and full of spelling errors. I assume they were a quick courtesy to the rare non-Mandarin speaker (me) who wandered in out of nowhere.
But I do believe that Jian Bing Man, or maybe something like Jian Bing Man, with a similar tone, similar jokes but less of a Chinese cultural literacy requirement, could be a success here in the States. Perhaps in the future, when the Chinese moviemaking machine has swelled a little more and foreign films that aren’t universally-lauded, stunning works of art can get a decent wide release over here. At the very least, I’d like to see more of them.
And like I said: a good knee-to-the-nuts gag will get a laugh, no matter what country it’s from.