The ‘Ex’ Factor

How a low-budget comedy about sexist boyfriends became a box-office smash

It’s sometimes easy to forget how distortive mainstream situation comedy can be: Few 50s families ever did Leave it to Beaver, rare are the real-life Friends who could afford Manhattan brownstones in the 90s, and most bars in Boston don’t know your name. Yet the influence of such shows can be pervasive: A cosmopolitan Friends fan once bitterly complained that none of her girlfriends were Phoebe and it was “impossible to meet a Chinese Chandler.” The disparity between life and fiction seemed to be genuinely frustrating.

In China, it’s typical to hear that the post-90s generation is wiser, less materialistic, more hip to the squareness of elders yet indifferent to their conventional demands. The success of the final installment in the previously little-known The Ex-File series belies much of this thinking—even if its merit is simply material (a 237 million USD opening weekend) and its significance is probably as transient as most mainland zeitgeists. For now, though, the low-budget smash The Ex-File 3: The Return of the Exes (《前任3:再见前任》) is a cultural phenomenon, having trounced Disney’s heavily armed Hollywood rival The Last Jedi at the January box office, and nearly tripling the latter’s opening for a fraction of its marketing budget, despite a brutally average rating on Chinese film review site Douban.

Most of the Huayi Brothers’ production’s receipts come from the generally neglected, disdained, yet vast audience of the “middle class masses”—young strivers living in third-tier cities with little leisure opportunities and high social ambition, who view cultural centers like Shanghai and Beijing as the apogee of success and sophistication (McKinsey calculates that 55 percent of these households in this class earned an annual 60,000 to 100,000 RMB in 2012, and, by 2022, eight percent will have upgraded themselves to “upper middle class” status).

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The ‘Ex’ Factor is a story from our issue, “The Noughty Nineties.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


Han Rubo is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese.

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