With a box office of $367M, Hello Mr Billionaire would be the most successful soccer movie yet. If it were really a soccer movie. But regardless, this comedy demonstrates the power of Chinese films in the Chinese market. In 2018, TheNumbers listed it at #27 worldwide, but if listed in the 2019 international BoxOfficeMojo ranking, Hello Mr Billionaire would be #25, right after Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
The plot – sort of
In the story, a goalkeeper with no money and no skill plays for a recreational soccer team but gets booted off. Then he finds out he is the only heir of a long-lost relative. To receive all of the 30 billion yuan inheritance, he must spend ¥1B in one month under a lot of restrictions, such as no charities, no destruction of stuff, and no one can know his purpose. The rules mean that he has to get very clever to spend so much money.
Of course, one of the first things GK Wong (Teng Shen) does is get himself back on the team by upgrading their facilities to FIFA quality. Then he arranges a FIFA quality team for them to play against at the end of the film.
Inbetween the beginning and ending football scenes, the movie pushes inordinate consumption to the max with fabulous meals in a fabulous hotel and fancy cars. With unlimited money, blunderers get opportunity. He gives his feckless sidekick business management responsibility. In a TV show similar to America’s Shark Tank, the GK funds every contestant’s screwball business opportunity. He romances the female accountant who is tracking his spending and writing the checks, by hiring her favorite singer for a concert and putting on a city-wide fireworks show.
GK Wong matures and develops some endearing traits along the way, and though he can be both comical and smug, 2 hours of Michael Jackson-esque materialism is tiresome. It’s also annoying to know that growing income disparity allows a select few people and kleptocrats around the world to actually live this way. Based on the story of Brewster’s Millions, it’s a situation that is increasingly less funny these days. But that didn’t stop it from being a huge hit in China.
On the other hand, the rom-com Crazy Rich Asians also came out in 2018 and made $267M worldwide. So ultra-rich characters make better escapism than I appreciate.
I said this wasn’t really a soccer movie, and maybe that’s unfair when it has as much as 20 minutes of football in it. But football is only used to set the context of a man who is inept at everything, even the game about which he is so passionate.
Originally the story was going to be about a baseball player. And supposedly the directors only kept the soccer footage in the film because they had spent so much effort on it. Maybe if they had kept it out, the film would have made even more money?
The ending soccer segment is 16 minutes long as the GK’s Daxiang team plays against Hengtai in a stadium full of Hengtai fans. After giving up 8 goals in the first half, the team tries to prevent Hengtai from achieving its target of scoring in double digits. As the Daxiang players form a Great Wall in front of the goal and sacrifice their bodies to defend their team’s honor, even the crowd is swayed. In the final minutes, all the fans and even the announcer chant “Daxiang, hold on”. (The Daxiang fan section is in yellow in the screenshot.)
Behind the film
In researching the film, I was surprised to learn that production company Mahua Fun Age, possibly also known as Happy Twist, started off as a traveling theater troupe in China. Once they moved into the film business and became so successful, they pulled in private investors and are quite the complicated organization. Like most entities in China, it is almost impossible to find much information, but this posting on baidu has a lot of details about the film. In China it was known as The Richest Man in Xihong City.
One of the angles on the production is that they were sued for plagiarism. Another team of writers claimed they had shopped their story around, and Mahua Fun Age had not compensated them for using their ideas. The claimants lost their case in court, and I wonder if that was partially due to the inclusion of so much soccer in the film, which was not part of the claimant’s original idea.
The film’s success has made it a case study. I found a 2019 academic paper using the dialog to explain the goals of sub-title translation. For example, in Chinese, “抱负” refers to one who is ambitious, but it is pronounced the same as “暴富”, meaning one who becomes rich overnight. It makes a play on words that is lost to the non-Chinese speaking audience, but would get a lot of laughs in a Chinese theater.
The imperfection of translation is why I entitled this review “2 digits of excess”. Throughout the soccer game, the star opponent keeps holding up 2 fingers in a V sign and urging his team to go for “2 digits”. I was flummoxed until I realized the translator meant going for a double digit win, or at least 10 goals. Or maybe “2 digits!” is a common chant in China?
I also spent some time trying to locate the lavish French Louis XIV hotel in the movie. I assumed it was another example of China’s copycat architecture and a tourist spot. But after a fruitless search, I decided the exterior is a photoshopped building. If anyone knows differently, please send me a link!
5 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 5