Review: Why Was China’s “Crazy Alien” So Successful?

In Ning Hao's "Crazy Alien", the Chinese everyman gets a laugh at America's expense.

By , 16 Feb 19 07:04 GMT

Chinese New Year is one of the most competitive weeks for movies in China, as the entire country takes a week-long vacation. In 2019, it was not the much-anticipated sci-fi movie The Wandering Earth or Stephen Chow’s The New King of Comedy that took the number one spot — instead, Ning Hao’s Crazy Alien beat out even China’s beloved Peppa Pig to top box offices on opening day with a whopping 400 million RMB take (The Wandering Earth did eventually top box offices for the entire week, though).

In Crazy Alien, American astronaut Zach Andrews makes first contact with an alien — but ruins Earth’s initial attempt at diplomacy by triggering a camera flash while trying to take a selfie with the alien’s ship. The disoriented alien crash-lands in a Chinese “world park” (a theme park with miniature replicas of famous monuments) — where monkey trainer Geng Hao picks up the alien, thinking that it’s another type of monkey he can train to perform tricks ranging from riding a bicycle to saluting visitors. Americans led by agent John Stockton try to recapture the alien only to be thwarted by the Chinese monkey trainer, while the alien develops a fondness for baijiu.

(Courtesy of Douban)

American (Un)exceptionalism

In case it wasn’t obvious, Crazy Alien is a comedy — and a fairly slapstick one at that. As it turns out, the majority of the film’s humor derives from simple scenes that poke fun at stereotypes about Americans, ranging from their belief in American superiority (an oft-repeated phrase by the American agents in the film declares that “America is the most advanced country on the planet”) to the American government’s clandestine violations of other nations’ sovereignty (America violates the sovereignty of four countries throughout the film).

Chinese films often depict America, but usually with a neutral or even positive perspective. A number of tragic romance movies showed Chinese graduates and immigrants pursuing economic opportunity in America, though struggling to fit into American society and losing out on love interests back home. Movies such as Air Strike even give credit to America for supporting China in the Second World War.

However, Crazy Alien makes Americans – specifically the American government – the central object of ridicule and conflict. Even in flag-waving patriotic Chinese movies, the jabs at America are more subtle – the American villain in Wolf Warrior was merely a mercenary as opposed to an agent of the US government, and while Sky Hunter alluded to the US Navy’s antics in the South China Sea, its central villain was an Eastern European rebel group.

This negative portrayal of America comes at a time when Chinese-American relations are running at an all-time low, between a trade war and tensions in the South China Sea.

(Courtesy of Douban)

A Chinese Everyman’s Comedy

But Chinese-American relations aren’t the central reason why Crazy Alien succeeded in theaters. While Chinese moviegoers are certainly patriotic, they also deride poorly-made movies whose only value is as propaganda — China Peacekeeping Forces, a movie about Chinese UN Peacekeepers, received 1.5 / 5 stars on the movie portal Douban. One commentator remarked, “China peacekeeping forces are awesome, Chinese Peacekeeping Forces [the movie] is awful” (“中国蓝盔很棒,《中国蓝盔》很烂”).

Some Chinese moviegoers criticized Crazy Alien’s lack of depth and “insulting” jokes at the expense of extraterrestrials and Americans. But, to put that more positively, the film is accessible to the vast majority of Chinese audiences — the plotline is simple to follow, and the jokes are easy to understand. One commentator who rated the movie 4 / 5 stars called Crazy Alien “native Chinese grassroots comedy” (“本土草根喜剧”).

And there’s nothing wrong with that — the majority of movies are made to entertain, rather than as artistic pursuits — especially comedies. Indeed, many American hit comedies such as American Pie or Animal House rely on crude (and at times sexist) humor.

Movies that hope to achieve a following beyond film festivals and high-brow critics must be accessible to wider audiences — another apt analogy is the annual CCTV New Year’s Gala, put on by China’s state broadcaster each Lunar New Year. While the short skits in the annual gala are often criticized online for their poor quality, and are at times controversial, the show continues to draw over a billion viewers around the world.

Regardless of artistic merits, Crazy Alien was indeed an entertaining movie — perhaps even Americans who think that they live in the greatest country in the world will enjoy watching their government officials stumble about trying to capture a hungover alien. Ultimately, this broad appeal is what made Crazy Alien successful at box offices in China — and potentially will make the film a hit in the rest of the world as well.

Crazy Alien (Chinese: 疯狂的外星人)—China. Directed by Ning Hao. Running time 1hr 56min. First released February 2019. Starring Huang Bo, Shen Teng, Tom Pelphrey, Matthew Morrison.

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