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[Editor’s Pick] From Mr. Loser to Mr. Billionaire

Since opening last month, Yan Fei and Peng Damo’s comedy Hello Mr. Billionaire starring Shen Teng has grossed around 2.5 billion yuan to storm into China’s top ten grossing films of all time. This is the third time in as many years that a Shen Teng film has broken into the top ten of China’s rapidly refreshing box-office records, following 2017’s Never Say Die and 2015’s Goodbye Mr. Loser. In a mere three years, Shen Teng has gone from a mainly stage and skit actor into a household name and box-office force. The film that started it all is the sleeper hit Goodbye Mr. Loser.

In 2015, directors Yan Fei and Peng Damo, star Shen Teng and other members of the Beijing theater troupe Mahua Fun Age adapted their stage drama for the silver screen. The comedy about a middle-aged loser going back in time to redo his life had a modest budget and no marquee names or buzzworthy IP source material. Carried by strong word-of-mouth, Goodbye Mr. Loser came out of nowhere to eventually gross a whopping 1.4 billion yuan. Though the one billion yuan benchmark has become less rare since 2015, Goodbye Mr. Loser currently still ranks in the top 30 of Chinese box office.

Goodbye Mr. Loser establishes the comedic formula and persona that has made Shen Teng and the Mahua crew such a big hit with Chinese audiences. Protagonist Xia Luo is a bitter failed musician who lives off his homely, hardworking wife and begrudges others for their success. After ruining his high school crush’s wedding with a drunken tirade, he suddenly time slips back to his high school days and gets the chance for a do-over. This time, he aggressively woos the popular girl, avoids his original wife like the plague, and launches a blockbuster music career by passing off the as-yet-unreleased hits of famous singer-songwriters as his own. In the end, none of this makes him happy.

In both Goodbye Mr. Loser and this year’s Hello Mr. Billionaire, Shen Teng plays an arrogant, smart-talking underdog who changes his fortunes, goes wild with his excess wealth, and then learns valuable life lessons. This kind of annoying yet amusing grassroots protagonist follows a prototype reminiscent of early Stephen Chow and, more recently, the Xu Zheng, Huang Bo and Wang Baoqiang trifecta. Though not at the level of Xu Zheng and Huang Bo, Shen Teng strikes his own comfortable balance of funny, annoying and sympathetic as a comedic hero. He avoids the gratingly over-the-top territory that Wang Baoqiang ventures into, and successfully translates his theater and skit-honed comedic delivery to film.

Besides Shen Teng, Goodbye Mr. Loser provided breakout platforms for Ma Li as Xia Luo’s unrefined, pure-hearted wife, and Yin Zheng as the originally cocky romantic rival who falls on hard times after the timeline reset. Ma Li’s wonderfully lively and sympathetic portrayal of the awkwardly impertinent Ma Dongmei, in particular, really serves as the heart and compass of the film.

Perhaps Goodbye Mr. Loser‘s most crowd-pleasing appeal is its pop nostalgia. The film is filled with nineties and oughties pop culture references, in particular music. Xia Luo’s high school days are backdropped by Cantopop hits, and he shamelessly builds his campus popularity and songwriting career by stealing Faye Wong and Na Ying’s “Meet in 1998” and the songs of Pu Shu, Xu Wei and Jay Chou. Xia Luo basically usurps the music career of Jay Chou, right up to being a judge on Sing! China and then losing it when a Jay Chou-lookalike appears on the show. All of this may go over the heads of those unfamiliar with Chinese pop culture, but for those who understand the context, it’s a hoot to catch all the parodies, references and changed song lyrics.

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