(Below are thoughts on the film that I wrote down just hours after seeing the film for the first time with only Chinese subtitles and without considering the complex philosophies behind the film. For a more detailed and thoughtful take on the film, I would recommend Kozo’s upcoming review on LoveHKFilm.com and Maggie Lee’s review on Variety)
For a while, Wong Kar-wai’s THE GRANDMASTER had an “s” at the end of the title, and it’s easy to see why from the final product. Originally envisioned as the biography of Ip Man - the Wing Chun master best known as Bruce Lee’s master - THE GRANDMASTER is and isn’t the story of Ip Man. Ip is simply one of the major players in Wong’s epic about “Wu Lin”, or what one may call the martial arts world. The story covers part of Ip’s life from 1936 to 1960 (his death is also expressed in intertitles), but its scope is far wider than just one man’s life. This is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a contemporary wuxia film, and it is indeed every bit as arty AND as exhilarating as anyone can expect from a (real) wuxia film by Wong Kar Wai.
In ASHES OF TIME, Wong used the world of Jin Rong’s wuxianovels to examine themes like longings, regrets and unrequited love, going to the lengths of even taking out action scenes when he revisited it for the REDUX version. While THE GRANDMASTER visits such themes once again, they are not the focus in what is first and foremost a film about the “Wu Lin” world. Specifically, it’s about the different philosophies and traditions held by the schools that occupy it. In one breathtaking sequence, the masters of several northern style martial arts each spar with Ip Man (Tony Leung) to show him how to take on Gong Bao Shen, the retiring chairman of the Chinese Martial Artists Union in Foshan. With this sequence, not only does Tony Leung show how well he has acquaint himself with the style of Wing Chun, Wong Kar Wai also shows off his (and his collaborators - including martial arts scholar Xu Haofeng) dedication in faithfully depicting the various forms of martial arts in his film.
THE GRANDMASTER is indeed about Ip Man’s road to become the last one standing, but Wong never indulges in the glamorous myth-making that Tsui Hark did with Wong Fei Hung in ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA or Wilson Yip did with his IP MAN films. Ip Man here is not unlike the Chow Mo Wen character in IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE and 2046 - introverted, contemplative, cool in the face of any situation, and a man who finds himself caught in circumstances beyond his control. As a result, Ip Man isn’t a particularly interesting character if not for his skills in Wing Chun.
Instead, THE GRANDMASTER will be remembered for Zhang Ziyi, who plays Ip’s rival Gong Er, also Gong Bao Shen’s daughter and the heir to her family’s 64 Stance move. A strong-willed female martial artist out to reclaim her family honor despite her father’s rejection, Gong Er is such a strong character (thanks to Zhang Ziyi’s performance) that her story alone could’ve easily been made into a separate film. Wong has always been great at creating strong female characters, and Gong Er is definitely one of the best he has ever written.
At the same time, that shift in focus is ultimately THE GRANDMASTER’s major weakness. From the parallel narratives and Chang Chen’s brief, but memorable appearances, one can tell that Wong was trying to make a film that shows the contrast in the philosophies of the three masters/martial art styles: Leung’s Ip Man (Wing Chun), Zhang’s Gong Er (Baqua Quan), and Chang Chen’s Yi Tian Xian (Baji Quan). Each of the narrative would’ve been strong enough to become an individual film, but the film feels loose and not cohesive enough when put together in its current truncated form. There are parts of the film that are simply gorgeous and/or breathtaking, but those parts are ultimately greater on their own than the film as a whole.
An even bigger weakness? Chang Chen only shows up in three scenes that have no bearing on the two main stories. Yet, he is so good here (especially in his bloody fight scene in the rain towards the end of the second act) that you may wish the film is half an hour longer just so WKW could fit him in.
As a result, THE GRANDMASTER isn’t a film that will send anyone out of the cinema fired up. There’s no Bruce Lee or teeth-grinding foreign villains here to excite anyone. It’s a film about lamenting a bygone era, the price of pride and honor, and - being a Wong Kar Wai film - it also becomes a film about longings, regrets, and unrequited feelings. It is a beautiful art film a la Wong Kar Wai, but it is also a great martial arts film as well, though not in the traditional shallow way. Each of Yuen Wo-Ping’s moves is as intricately calculated and breathtaking as Wong Kar Wai and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd’s shots, but the choreography is simply part of what Wong and his co-writers are trying to express. THE GRANDMASTER is a martial arts film on both a physical and a spiritual level; a true examination of “Wu Lin” and how martial styles apply to life instead of just simple action escapism that most martial arts film fans would usually look for. In other words, as long as Wilson Yip sticks to his usual formula for IP MAN 3, he has nothing to worry about.
Despite what seems to be a muted praise, THE GRANDMASTER is still an excellent film – the technical aspects are top-notch, the actors are excellent (especially in their fight scenes), the dialogue are as quotable as ever, and its philosophical approach to martial arts will be appreciated by many wuxia fans. It also suffers from usual WKW weaknesses – the storytelling can be muddled at times, and most of the characters simply embody ideas rather than becoming real characters (Think Chang Chen or Song Hye Kyo, who has only one line and 5 minutes of screen time as Ip’s wife). It’s not a ground-breaking film in the genre, but it’s refreshing as a film that recognizes martial arts as a way of life rather than a nationalism tool. THE GRANDMASTER will certainly remain as one of the top Chinese films of 2013, and it was definitely worth the wait.
Me getting to the subway station after watching THE GRANDMASTER
This is it! Today is November 24th, 2012, and it’s the day of the 2012 Golden Horse Awards. In the household of the Golden Rock (population: 1), we celebrate the best and brightest of films from the Greater China Region (that were submitted) with snark and live-blogging!
So without further ado, read below all that happened at this year’s Golden Horse Awards:
10:58pm: And 4 hours later, we’re done with our Golden Horse Awards coverage. Thanks to everyone on Twitter, Facebook, and those who read the last 4 hours. Our next live blog will be in April with the Hong Kong Film Awards, and we’ll of course be back to cover the 50th Golden Horse Awards next year, too. See ya!
10:56pm: So the final count: BEIJING BLUES and LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE tied at 3. Mainland China cinema is the ultimate winner of the night with most wins.
10:55pm: Wow, that was a major, major surprise. BEIJING BLUES take home Best Picture without winning Best Screenplay, Best Director, or any of the acting awards.
10:54pm: Finally, here we go. Oh, god, the clip for BULLET VANISHES is a major spoiler
The winner of Best Feature Film is……BEIJING BLUES!!!!!!!! WHAT??!?!?!?!?!?!
10:49pm: Waste of time banter happening. Please stand by.
10:47pm: Seen on Weibo: Leon Dai writes brief Weibo post called “Ten Years”. No names on it, of course.
10:46pm: Now, Andy Lau on stage to present the Best Picture award. I predicted GF*BF to take the top prize, but it’s all up in the air now.
Andy Lau is the Chairman of this year’s Golden Horse Award jury.
10:44pm: Huang Bo: “I always look up to Uncle Andy when I was growing up…….then people told me that Andy Lau would be perfect as my younger brother.”
10:43pm: Bowie Tsang explaining why she was so emotional about Lau Ching-Wan winning the Golden Horse Awards: He’s never won a Golden Horse before, and she was also present the only time he won a Hong Kong Film Award.
10:40pm: Next up is the final award, Best Film.
Current count: LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE at 3 awards, MYSTERY at 2, and BEIJING BLUES at 2
10:36pm: “I don’t make movies for awards….I’m just kidding, of course I want awards.”—Lau Ching-Wan
10:34pm: And the winner for Best Actor is…………….Lau Ching-Wan for LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE!!!! This is his first Golden Horse Best Actor win.
10:32pm: I don’t understand what Deanie Ip is saying. Seriously.
10:30pm: Deanie Ip now on stage to present the Best Actor Award. I’m rooting for Lau Ching Wan, but feel a bit sorry for Taiwan now, so a Joseph Chang win would be a nice moment.
10:29pm: Huang Bo mentions that Joseph Chang must be feeling a lot of pressure. His win would give Taiwan a great morale boost.
10:27pm: The two hosts now discuss the Best Actors nominees. Nick Cheung shared his Best Actor Award with Huang Bo when he won.
10:20pm: Sadly, Gooey does NOT thank Leon Dai in her acceptance speech.
10:17pm: And the winner for Best Actress is………………….Guei Lun-Mei for GF*BF!!!!! Taiwan finally nabs a big award!
10:14pm: Li Bingbing and some guy named Jackie Chan on stage to present the Best Actress award. Jackie Chan attempts to speak Taiwanese and fails miserably…and I don’t even speak Taiwanese!
Jackie Chan says he was asked to drag out his time on stage. Threatened to start singing.
I predicted Sandrine Pinna for the win, but this is a really tough one.
10:13pm: “Maybe you should win the Best Actress Award” — Hao Lei to Huang Bo.
10:10pm: I prefer Bai Baihe in LOVE IS NOT BLIND to Bai Baihe in real life.
10:08pm: Huang Bo and Bowie Tsang go into the audience to interview the Best Actress nominees.
10:03pm: Still no clear frontrunner tonight, as BEIJING BLUES, LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE, and MYSTERY each has two awards.
10:02pm: To winning Best Director paving the path for LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE to pick up Best Film, but remember all paths were leading to A SIMPLE LIFE last year when SEEDIQ BALE won.
10:01pm: And now, it’s the one commercial break per major award phase of the night.
9:59pm: And the winner for Best Director is………………..Johnnie To for LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE!
Lau Ching-Wan goes up to the stage and says: “I am not Johnnie To”.
9:57pm: Of course. Huang Bo and Lin Chiling take the chance to promote SAY YES, their upcoming Valentine’s Day movie.
9:56pm: Give Lin Chiling the award for Best Script Reader tonight.
9:54pm: Lin Chiling now on stage to present the Best Director Award. As I typed earlier, was expecting a Taiwanese director to get it, but now leaning towards Johnnie To or Gao Qunshu.
Lin Chiling is so thin that she looks like she’s tied up in bondage.
9:52pm: Time for some witty banter before the Best Director Award. OK, guys, let’s get to it, we’re getting into the 4th hour……….
9;50pm: Also forgot to mention that Taiwan has yet to figure out how to send out HD signal abroad: Star Movies Chinese HD channel’s broadcast is in 4:3 aspect ratio.
9:48pm: Had expected Gilles Yang or Doze Niu to have pretty good chance at Best Director tonight, but now leaning towards Gao Qunshu or Johnnie To. What happened, Taiwan??!!!!!
9:47pm: Camera captures Doze Niu taking photo of LOVE theme song being performed onstage with his iPhone. Oh, he’s one of THOSE people…..
9:45pm: OK, I get it. A classic theme song from a film by each of the Best Director nominee. Try explaining that idea at the pitching meeting.
9:44pm: Someone please tell Sammi on Weibo that they’re singing another one of her songs. Since, you know, she’s clearly not paying attention.
9:43pm: Um, didn’t we already get a movie theme song medley already? Not that I’m not liking this one better…….
9:42pm: But before the major awards, we get another musical performance by Outstanding Taiwanese Filmmaker award winner Huang Yu-Siang and singer Lala Xu.
Did I say that Huang Yu-Siang is a really good pianist?
9:40pm: This commercial break is feeling extra long…..
9:34pm: Good, humble speech by Mr. Shih. Up next to present is Lin Chiling, after the commercial break.
Looks like we’re coming into home stretch, as the four major awards are the only ones left.
9:27pm: Shih Chun was discovered by King Hu. In addition to being one of the best-known wuxia stars (including in King Hu films), he will also be in Hou Hsiao Hsien’s upcoming wuxia film THE ASSASSIN
Shih now works in preservation and promotion of King Hu’s works.
9:26pm: Hou Hsiao-Hsien now on stage to present the Lifetime Achievement Award to Shih Chun.
9:24pm: Just seen on Weibo: Sammi Cheng found out her ROMANCING IN THIN AIR song’s Golden Horse win on Weibo.
9:20pm: I didn’t make a prediction for this award. Guessing Taiwan doesn’t have to worry about this award, either.
The winner for Outstanding Taiwanese Filmmaker of the Year is…………Huang Yu-Siang! The blind star and composer of TOUCH OF THE LIGHT!
9:19pm: Wang Wei-Liu, last year’s Outstanding Taiwanese Filmmaker of the Year, now on stage to present this year’s Outstanding Taiwanese Filmmaker award.
Wang clearly nervous as he makes his way through his speech.
9:16pm: Already known: GF*BF wins the Golden Horse Audience Award.
9:14pm: This year’s jury Chairman is Andy Lau, which is why he’s sitting front and center at the ceremony.
9:12pm. Whew, getting a few minutes’ break, finally.
9:10pm: Wang Wei-Liu up after the commercial break. I’m guessing it’s time for the Lifetime Achievement Award
9:08pm: Szeto Kam-Yuen and Lo Wei-Kuen both got mentions, so I guess it’s not just Taiwanese………
9:05pm: Now, the In Memoriam sequence, remembering Taiwanese film figures who left us this past year.
9:03pm: And now, a montage about the success of Taiwanese films…….on the night when Taiwanese films are losing to Mainland Chinese films. Whoops.
9:02pm: TOUCH OF THE LIGHT is produced by Wong Kar-Wai’s Jet Tone Films, which is why Chang thanks Wong Kar Wai.
9:00pm: And the winner of Best Director is……….Chang Jung-Chi for TOUCH OF THE LIGHT!
8:58pm: Now it’s time for Best New Director, presented by Wei Te-Sheng…..and sorry, I don’t know who the other one is….total fail.
Also, Taiwan doesn’t have to worry about this category: All 5 nominees are Taiwanese.
I predicted Chang Jung-Chi or Fung Kai to win for TOUCH OF THE LIGHT or DIN TAO
8:55pm: Angelababy was wondering which of her two nominated films would win Best Action Choreography. Neither did.
Bowie Tsang: “I think this is the time to say…’TAIWAN FILMS JIA YOU!’” Someone’s getting nervous….
8:54pm: Chin Ka Lok having a really good week: Marriage, baby on the way, and now, a Golden Horse Award!
8:53pm: Time for Best Action Choreography. I predicted JUDGE ARCHER or TAI CHI
The winner for Best Action Choreography is………….MOTORWAY!!!!!!!
8:51pm: Also forgotten: One of the three winners for DRAGON GATE is Korean, so I can’t translated his speech. The American guy: “This place is wonderful. The food, wow!” I think that was a euphemism.
This is like a bad joke: A Korean, a Hong Konger, and an American step onto an award stage……….
8:50pm: And the winner for Best Visual Effects is………FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE. Oh, I forgot the 3D thing.
8:49pm; Stephen Fung and Angelababy now on stage to present Visual Effects and Best Action Design.
I predicted Best Visual effects would go to PAINTED SKIN.
8:46pm: Four Hong Kong winners so far tonight. Is LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE heading to major winning night after Best Screenplay win?
8:43pm: Next up after commercial: Stephen Fung and Angelababy present.
8:42pm: And the winner of Best Original Song is…………DoReMi from ROMANCING IN THIN AIR. Lo Dayu’s first Golden Horse Award.
8:41pm: Now, Ronald and Richie present Best Original Song. I guess the other two nominated songs will not be performed, then. I predicted Sammi Cheng’s DOREMI for ROMANCING IN THIN AIR.
8:39pm: They are first presenting Best Original Film Score. I predicted LOVE, but I’m not really rooting for any film in particular.
And the winner of Best Original Score is…………..MYSTERY
8;37pm: Now that’s over, Ronald Cheng and Richie Ren come on stage to present.
Ronald: “Why are you always playing cops and heroes, while I play a man in drag, a man in drag, and a man in drag?”
8:36pm: Oh no, Sally Yeh is going to try and pretend to be dancing. I need some more yakitori.
8:34pm: Camera gets half a second of Jackie Chan singing along, then quickly cuts back to Andy Lau. Hmmmmmmmmm…………
8:33pm: Quick check of Weibo says Taiwan cinema is in a bit of danger this year, as Mainland films take up the awards.
8:30pm: Camera gets a shot of Andy Lau singing along. Hmmmmmm……
8:27pm: Time for another musical performance. A medley of classic film theme songs performed by Sally Yeh. This means only one thing: Yakitori break!
8:25pm: No win for GF*BF so far, which does not bode well for its Best Picture chances. But remember, SEEDIQ BALE went through similar process last year.
8:21pm. Time for Best Original Screenplay. I predicted GF*BF or CHA CHA FOR TWINS.
The winner of Best Original Screenplay is…………….LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE! Third Hong Kong win of the night!
Denise Ho accepts the award on behalf of the winners.
8:20pm: LOVE IS NOT BLIND writer wrote her book after an argument with her boyfriend.
8:19pm: The writer of LOVE IS NOT BLIND is absolutely effing ADORABLE
8:17pm: And the winner for Best Adapted Screenplay is…….LOVE IS NOT BLIND! I got another one right!
8:15pm: Bad mic disaster just as Alec Su begins to speak. Awkward moment no. 4 of the night. The two then recite their favorite dialogue of the year……but no one seems to be recognizing them.
Sonia Sui and Alec Su are presenting Best Adapted Screenplay. I predicted LOVE IS NOT BLIND
8:14pm: A few of the ones I wanted to win have been winning, but my “should win”’s have been way off tonight. Expected advantage for Taiwan not happening this year.
8:13pm: Next up as presenters: Sonia Sui and Alec Su.
8:11pm: Liang Jing thanks DESIGN OF DEATH co-star Huang Bo for the fake set of teeth she wears in the film.
That’s two wins for DESIGN OF DEATH and two wins for BEIJING BLUES.
8:09pm: And the winner for Best Supporting Actress is………….Liang Jing for DESIGN FOR DEATH!
Liang Jing is director Guan Hu’s wife. Kitty Zhang is Wang Quan’an’s wife. Xu Fan is Feng Xiaogang’s wife. Hey, see a pattern?
8:08pm: Chou and Gooey remain to present Best Supporting Actress. Gooey: “Jay…you’re not nominated this year for it”. Jay follows with a shout-out to Nicholas Tse, who IS nominated for Best Actor.
I predicted one of the LOVE actresses.
8:06pm: Um, pretty clear that the director of CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT doesn’t really speak Mandarin. Congrats anyway, dude.
8:05pm: CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT marks another win for documentary distributor CNEX.
8:04pm: And the winner of Best Documentary is……CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT!
8:03pm: Jay Chou and Gooey address each other by their character names. Gooey says “My favorite role of yours is….GREEN HORNET”
The two are presenting Best Documentary. I didn’t predict this category.
8:00pm: From Twitter again: “Tony Yang’s girlfriend=Amber Kuo, yo”. Thanks, Shelley! Also from her: “NIGHTFALL should never win for anything”
7:59pm: From Twitter “Tony Yang’s gf is Amber Kuo”. Thanks, @yupkigirl!
7:58pm: Jay Chou and Guey Lun-Mei (aka Gooey) up next as presenters.
7:57pm: And the winner of Best Editing is……………..BEIJING BLUES! Second award of the night
7:56pm: Sorry, Chen and Yang’s second award is Best Editing. I didn’t predict anything, but would like to see MYSTERY win. BEIJING BLUES also a possible winner.
7:55pm: And the winner is……………NIGHTFALL????!!!!!!!!!
Nick Cheung accepts the award on behalf of the winners.
7:54pm: The first award they’re presenting is Best Sound Effects. I predicted BLACK AND WHITE, but want BULLET VANISHES or SILENT WAR
7:52pm: Ivy Chen and Tony Yang now presenting Best Sound Effects and Best Special Effects. Chen is nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and apparently Yang’s girlfriend is also nominated. Tell me on Twitter who they’re talking about.
7:50pm; Alan Kuo performing DIN TAO, nominated for Best Original Song tonight.
7:47pm: Lead cast of DIN TAO and drumming troupe perform. First performance of the night.
Friendly reminder: Tweet your thoughts about tonight’s awards in Twitter with the hashtag #2012GHA!
7:45pm: Huang Bo and Bowie talk about the success of local films, from PAINTED SKIN to VULGARIA to DIN TAO
7:42pm: No clear front runner yet. GF*BF already lost out at least two categories, one of which had a pretty good chance of winning.
7:41pm: Next up: Ivy Chen and Tony Yang present….something. We’ll find out after the commercial break
7:40pm: Chapman To lost, but looks very happy that Ronald won for VULGARIA….co-produced by To
7:38pm: And the winner for Best Supporting Actor is………Ronald Cheng!
7:37pm: And now, Niu and Peng remain for Best Supporting Actor. I predicted Ronald Cheng to win for VULGARIA.
7:36pm: Winner Wu Di says it was the first time he’s ever shot on digital.
7:35pm: And the winner for Best Cinematography is…………..BEIJING BLUES! Good night for Mainland Chinese cinema tonight.
7:34pm: Niu and Peng say they don’t know why they’re presenting Best Cinematography. Skips to nominee clip. Ouch.
I predicted Jake Pollock to win for GF*BF, but wanted WHITE DEER PLAIN to win.
7:32pm: Doze Niu and Eddie Peng up next as presenters after this commercial break.
7:31pm: And the winner of Best Art Direction is………..DESIGN OF DEATH! A pleasant surprise!
7:29pm: Winner just says thanks and takes off. Pinna and Chang caught off-guard
Time for Best Art Direction now. I predicted FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE
7:28pm: And the winner is………THE BULLET VANISHES! Whoo-hoo, I got one right.
7:27pm: An awkward “whose turn is it to talk now” moment there with Chang and Pinna. The latter keeps missing her cue.
They’re presenting Best Make-up and Costume Design. I predicted TAI CHI or BULLET VANISHES
7:26pm: And time for our first commercial break. Next presenters: Joseph Chang and Sandrine Pinna
7:25pm: That was a bit of a surprise. Does that signal the beginning of a good night for Lou Ye’s MYSTERY?
7:24pm: And the winner of Best New Performer is……….Qi Xi for MYSTERY!
7:22pm: I predicted that Peijia Huang would win this category with CHA CHA FOR TWINS.
7:20pm: Ko and Kuo remain on the stage to present Best New Actor. Ko Chen-Tung won this awards last year.
7:19pm: And the winner of Best Short Film is……..THE HOME GLEANERS
7:18pm: Amber Kuo and Ko Chen-Tung are the first presenters. Presenting Best Short Film.
7:17pm: Of course, they throw in an anti-piracy message at the end of the dance sequence
7:15pm: This is the first year that the nominee list expanded to five?
7:14pm: “All of this year’s Best Actor nominees have beautiful wifes, too!” Lau Ching Wan shakes his head.
Huang Bo: “What about Nicholas Tse?”
Bowie Tsang: “Let’s not go there”
7:12pm: Huang Bo: “Look, I was beaten up this year, too! Why wasn’t I nominated? Chapman To didn’t get beaten up, either.” This was followed by a clip of VULGARIA. Yes, that clip.
7:11pm: “All of this year’s Best Actor nominees had to withstand a good beating!”
7:10pm: I am not kidding that when I type that Huang Bo is a surprisingly good singer.
7:08pm: Tonight’s hosts are Bowie Tsang and HUANG BO! The two start with speech about dreams and being happy to be there. Leads to a song & dance!
7:07pm: As always, just keep reloading this page to see the latest entries.
7:06pm: Awards officially starting now. Starting with montage of nominated films.
7:03pm: Holy crap, Lin Chiling is really tall. I also call the kettle black.
7:02pm: The feed starts with red carpet footage, Lin Chiling walking the red carpet now.
7:00pm: And we’re off. Star Movies Chinese feed starting now.
14:30: Four and a half hours away from the show. Tonight’s live blog is brought to you by the iPad, my generic keyboard, my desktop computer, and Splashtop 2. We’re hella hip with technology like that. Since this seems to be working, I’ll be back at 7:00pm Hong Kong time!
Don’t forget to join and post comments on twitter with hashtag #2012GHA!
Note: Edited on April 25th with additional information and new English titles.
The Beijing International Film Festival kicks off this week, which may be why the big Chinese film studios are rushing to announce their slate this week. Just a day after Huayi Brother announced their 2012-2013 lineup, Enlight Pictures (MURAL, LEGEND OF THE FIST, AN INACCURATE MEMOIR) announced their own 2012-2013 slate - and they’re looking to impress.
Note: Entry edited on April 23 to add additional information, as well as clear up information about Doze Niu’s film.
In March 2011, major Chinese independent studio Huayi Brothers (DETECTIVE DEE, SHAOLIN, ASSEMBLY) announced a large slate of films dubbed “Plan H”. Surprisingly, Huayi managed to complete most of the projects on that slate, having released Doze Niu’s LOVE, Tom Lin’s STARRY STARRY NIGHT, and Tony Chan/Wing Shya’s HOT SUMMER DAYS. Wuershan’s PAINTED SKIN II, Stephen Fung’s TAI CHI 0, Ronny Yu’s SAVING GENERAL YANG, Feng Xiaogang’s 1942, and Jackie Chan’s CHINESE ZODIACS have all finished shooting and getting prepped for release.
Which means it’s time for round 2. On April 22, Huayi Brothers announced their latest Plan H line-up, as well as the release dates for their 2012 slate:
According to Entgroup figures, TITANIC 3D made RMB 467 million in its first six days in Mainland Chinese cinemas (another chart puts it at 468, but let’s not nitpick, alright?). If the other box office chart I’ve read is accurate, that means it’ll overtake MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL’s RMB 678.9 million take to become the highest-grossing film of 2012. Considering that it also beat the 438 million record set by TRANSFORMERS 3 (which ended up making RMB 1.11 billion), we’d looking at it breaking AVATAR’s RMB 1.39 billion record if Fox didn’t already announce that they’re pulling the film by May 20th.
And Hollywood’s not done yet. BATTLESHIP and the second GHOST RIDER movie are opening this weekend, and THE AVENGERS will replace those screens on May 5th. With the May Golden Week holiday, it’s guaranteed that these three films (plus TITANIC) will be rolling in the dough.
Considering that last year’s Golden Week brought THE LOST BLADESMAN and CHINESE GHOST STORY - both of which made over RMB 100 million - The Chinese film industry must have something powerful to counter the Hollywood invasion, right?
This entry covers two major messes going on in the Chinese film industry, and a Golden Broom to sweep it all up.
Photo from Sina Entertainment Weibo account
- The attention for action film SPECIAL IDENTITY meant to go to Donnie Yen, who is starring and producing under the direction of Clarence Fok. However, the attention has now shifted elsewhere before shooting has even wrapped.
This started when Apple Daily reported on February 24th that co-star Vincent Zhao essentially left the set due to complaints about the new script by Hong Kong writer James Yuen, which undermines his role and favors Donnie’s. The new script had been changed without Zhao’s approval, though Zhao’s contract said that he had the right to do so. There were also complaints about Zhao’s prima donna attitude on set (which includes an entourage of seven).
On February 27th, the SECRET IDENTITY production opened its own official Weibo account (verified as the real deal by Sina), followed by an official statement from the production on the night of February 29th announcing that Vincent Zhao has officially left the production, and that it was an amicable split. James Yuen (he’ll show up again later, by the way) also wrote his Weibo that he did not write one word of the film.
Two hours later, Vincent Zhao posted a e-mail from the IDENTITY production on his own Weibo:
“As of noon on March 1, 2012, the SECRET IDENTITY production will no longer provide accommodation for Mr. Vincent Zhao. I hope you can understand; the production is seriously over-budget!”
At 6 am, Zhao also posted a statement on his Weibo discrediting the points in the Apple Daily report one by one, and that the statement from the production was released without his knowledge, which means Zhao has essentially been fired.
Zhao’s wife also joined in on the fun, defending her husband and accusing the production of using him as a scapegoat for the mismanagement of the film’s finances. Zhao calls himself the victim and left Shenzhen (where the film was being shot) for Beijing on the same day. Meanwhile, public support from Zhao’s past co-stars like Laung Ka Yan, Timmy Hung, Xu Jiao, and Wudang director Patrick Leung came Weibo-ing in.
Thing were quiet until today, March 4th, when Zhao held a press conference in Beijing essentially repeating his Weibo statement. He accused the production of changing the script that he’d signed up for without his approval, and that he was unilaterally dismissed by the production.
Several hours later, the production put out its own statements to counter Zhao’s points. They are as follows:
1) Zhao caused the start of production to be delayed by a day because he not only demanded to be upgraded to an executive suite, he also demanded that the production pay for the expenses for his wife, his two kids, the nanny, an English teacher, his agent, and his assistant, as well as a driver and bodyguards (a martial arts actor needing a bodyguard. Imagine that).
2) The script changes were done for the benefit of the film. As producer and action director, Donnie had approached Zhao to discuss the changes, only to be turned away. In fact, the production only agreed to take on Zhao based on Donnie’s recommendation.
3) Andy On is to replace Zhao on the production.
Zhao says he retains his right to take legal action, but with On joining the production and Zhao simply crying shenanigans, it looks like this will remain only a battle of words. Zhao has little more to say (unless he wishes to counter the production’s counter-argument), but it’s likely that SPECIAL IDENTITY will be remembered more for this scandal than anything else for the time being.
- Another person calling foul is writer James Yuen. The respected Hong Kong scriptwriter of films like LOST IN TIME, several Peter Chan films, and oh, HERE COMES FORTUNE, is crying foul because he claims that his script for SHADOWS OF LOVE, the latest Cecilia Cheung film, was stolen by the film’s investor.
This all began on February 19th when Oriental Daily reported Yuen’s claims that he has written the original script for SHADOWS OF LOVE, and that its investor Allen Tan (a former talent agent) took it without giving proper credit or proper compensation. After a strong denial Tan himself, who says director Calvin Poon and his writer essentially rewrote the script, which means there’s not much traces of Yuen’s work. Tan also accused Yuen of demanding too much money. Angered, Yuen took it further by writing a complete account of his side on Weibo.
Here are the basic explanation of Yuen’s claims:
Yuen was asked by Tan in March 2010 if he had any scripts that Tan could produce. Yuen then turned in a 6000-word outline that he wrote with two assistants back in 2009. However, he never heard from Tan again.
In June 2011, Yuen heard that a film with the same story and characters starring Cecilia Cheung had just wrapped shooting. The film’s producer: Allan Tan
Yuen then called producer Stanley Kwan, who said that he knew they were Yuen’s material and even asked Tan to settle any copyright and payment issues. That was never done
The following month, Yuen and Tan had a meeting, and Tan asks Yuen to sell off the rights to him and his company. Yuen agreed and even signed a contract.
However, Yuen claims he never got his payment, and when he inquired Tan about it, Tan said that financiers China Film Group and DMG were unwillingly to pay.
On February 22nd, Yuen writes that this mess has entered legal proceedings, which means there won’t be any more public comments from either side. However, this may also block the film’s release until the case is settled and turn this into another case of bad luck/bad career choice for Cecilia Cheung.
- On Saturday, March 3rd, the 3rd Annual Golden Broom Awards was held in China. Much like the Razzies in America, the award (dis)honors the worst in Chinese cinema. After nominations from the public, the awards are decided by a jury of 27, which includes scholars, film critics, authors, editors, and members of the media. The award ceremony also included a respectable guest list that included director Wang Shaoshuai, Li Yu (BUDDHA MOUNTAIN), Manfred Wong, Lou Ye (SUMMER PALACE), Gu Changwei (LOVE FOR LIFE), Zhang Meng (PIANO IN A FACTORY), Yu Dong (head of Bona Group), and actress Qin Hailin. By the way, none of them won any of the dishonors.
Here is a list of (lose-)winners:
Most Disappointing Films: WARRING STATES, LEGENDARY AMAZONS, THE LOST BLADESMAN
Most Disappointing Mid-Low-Budget Films: NO. 32, B DISTRICT and LOVE NEVER DIES
Special Jury Prize for Most Disappointing Film: FLOWERS OF WAR (for using the Nanjing Massacre to sell sex)
Representing everyone here at The Golden Rock (i.e. me), we wish everyone a happy new year and an excellent 2012. 2011 has been an eventful year in the film industries of China and Hong Kong, and it’s about time to look back at everything that’s happened over the last 365 days.
My Hongmen Banquet can kick your Hongmen Banquet’s ass
This year started off with a literal clash of idea, as two films about the same topic went into production. After Lu Chuan was removed from his own planned Hongmen project, his original investors then brought on Daniel Lee (DRAGON SQUAD! 14 BLADES!), as well as a cast that includes Leon Lai, Jordan Chan, Zhang Hanyu, and Anthony Wong for what became WHITE VENGEANCE.
However, Lu Chuan went on to find the funding he needed to make his own Hongmen Banquet movie starring Daniel Wu, Liu Ye, and Chang Chen. While WHITE VENGEANCE was released in late November and became Lee’s highest-grossing film at 152 million yuan (more later on whether this is a success or not), Lu’s film reportedly ran over budget and over schedule. We’ll likely see it this year.
Box office surprises - TV owns Lunar New Year box office
Lunar New Year is undoubtedly one of the biggest times for movies here in Asia. While no one’s surprised that Benny Chan’s mega-budget SHAOLIN won the Lunar New Year battle in China with 216 million yuan, not many expected that the other two 100 million yuan-grossers in China would be based on TV series.
In the spirit of Hong Kong’s own nonsensical comedic style, hit sitcom MY OWN SWORDSMAN left its single-stage setting and leapt to the big screen, packing cinemas across China to gross an astounding 196 million yuan. Director Shang Jing is already set to make another Lunar New Year comedy hit in 2012 with DINNER PARTY.
Not far behind the success of SWORDSMAN was another TV-based film. Coming at the end of the Lunar New Year holidays, Zhang Yibai’s ETERNAL MOMENT was mainly aimed at Valentine’s Day audiences in urban areas. The continuation of his 1998 television series CHERISH OUR LOVE FOREVER - dubbed China’s first idol drama - ETERNAL MOMENT gave CHERISH’s fans a chance to look back on their own youth and love with a choose-your-own-adventure-ish reunion of the show’s two lovers. While feedback on the film is mixed, it captured enough lovers to make 207 million yuan.
While these two films grossed a little less than SHAOLIN, remember that these two films each cost only a third of SHAOLIN’s budget.
In Hong Kong, the situation was similar, as local broadcaster TVB’s second Lunar New Year film I LOVE HONG KONG even beat the likes of Donnie Yen, Louis Koo, and Andy Lau to become the local winner of the Lunar New Year box office. The Raymond Wong-TVB competition is back again this year, but with TVB unable to get a solid pop star cast due to its contractual conflict with Hong Kong’s major record companies, Wong may have a chance to finally beat the television monopoly.
I gouges your money, American robots! I gouges it!
It’s expected that the government would be ordering treating its employees to watch Communist Party celebratory film BEGINNING OF THE GREAT REVIVAL, which limped to a 412 million yuan gross this summer (below FOUNDING OF A REPUBLIC’s 420 million yuan total). However, what we didn’t expect is what the film industry’s way to support other propaganda films.
To paraphrase my posts from earlier this year (This one and this one), at least one cinema chain passed around a memo looking for new ways to promote “excellent recommended films” that commemorated the 90th anniversary of the China Communist Party - YAN SHAN ZHOU, SPACE DREAM (or WENTIAN), and GUO MING YI. One of the tactics they used were double feature tickets. Taking advantage of Hollywood blockbusters TRANSFORMERS and HARRY POTTER (Chinese blockbuster WU XIA was also a rumored target), cinemas attached an additional ticket to one of the three “excellent recommended films” for anyone who bought a ticket to these big blockbusters. While ticket price remained the same for these big films, cinemas gave a share of the ticket price to the “excellent recommended films” since whatever price is printed on the ticket goes to the box office gross.
Such tactics led to wild box office patterns for these “excellent recommended films”, as you can see in my earlier post. Since there’s no such law in place yet for how cinemas sell tickets (each ticket for the major blockbusters was still above the mandated minimum ticket prices) and that these films were all “morally positive” works that glorified the Communist Party, there were no repercussions from anyone. Even the western media were so having so much fun from GREAT REVIVAL that they simply ignored this happened. In the end, it was a win-win situation, as TRANSFORMERS still became the highest-grossing film of the year in China with 1.1 billion yuan, and the three propaganda films made a good chunk of money, too.
However, this is all about to change, as the government is set to enforce new laws aimed to stop dishonest accounting by cinemas. The government is also aiming to further reduce the power of cinemas by mandating that they cannot take more than 50% of box office revenue. More on that later.
Box office surprises - The fall of the titans
In recent years, Donnie Yen and Jackie Chan are names that would typically do well in China (just Donnie for Hong Kong - no one cares about Jackie anymore here), but 2011 has been one disappointment after another for these action superstars.
Donnie started 2011 off with ALL’S WELL ENDS WELL 2011, which managed to gross 167 million yuan in China - not bad for a Hong Kong-style Lunar New Year comedy. However, his two big action films this year both came with plenty of hype and ended with middling grosses. LOST BLADESMAN not only featured a well-known Romance of the Three Kingdoms character as its hero, it also co-starred Jiang Wen, who wrapped up 2010 with LET THE BULLETS FLY. However, the Alan Mak/Felix Chong film suffered a major drop in box office after opening with 100 million yuan in the first six days due to poor word-of-mouth. In the end, the film did gross 162 million yuan, disappointing for a film that reportedly cost 150 million yuan to produce. The film suffered a similar fate in Hong Kong, grossing just HK$8 million after a strong opening weekend.
The disappointment continued with Peter Chan’s WU XIA. The Chan-produced BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS (which co-starred Donnie) made 296 million yuan back in 2009, and his last directorial effort WARLORDS also made 200 million yuan back in 2007 (a very, very high figure for 2007). Even with Chan directing, Takeshi Kaneshiro co-starring, and no direct competition for two weeks, the action film followed a similar pattern as LOST BLADESMAN, opening with 100 million yuan in its first week and wrapping its run with 176 million yuan. The film did even worse than LOST BLADESMAN in Hong Kong, also grossing just HK$8 million. With this and MR. AND MRS. INCREDIBLE (which he produced) grossing only 51 million yuan in the Lunar New Year period, Peter Chan, who has become his own boss now, must be feeling a little lost right now.
After LITTLE BIG SOLDIER grossed a surprising 160 million yuan in China, all eyes were on Jackie Chan with his historical epic 1911. Costing over 100 million yuan to make (some estimates even put it at US$30 million, roughly 200 million yuan), the film managed to limp to a 61 million yuan gross after hanging on the box office chart for 10 weeks (though no one knows how that happened). LEGENDARY AMAZONS, the period action film produced by Jackie’s production company, also suffered a terrible fate, grossing only 39 million yuan. Both films also did barely any business in Hong Kong.
Creation of a new box office poison - Cecilia Cheung
2011 started well for Cecilia Cheung, who made her first big-screen appearance since 2006 with ALL’S WELL ENDS WELL 2011. However, it went downhill for the actress as the tabloids picked up her airplane photo with former scandal maker Edison Chen, her well-publicized divorce with Nicholas Tse, and her well-documented MIAs on film sets.
Cecilia also continued to make dubious career choices, as she turned down a starring role in the next Derek Yee film for a higher salary from Wong Jing’s TREASURE HUNT. She also took part in the disastrous LEGENDARY AMAZONS, a “special appearance” in Jingle Ma’s critically lambasted SPEED ANGELS, and THE LION ROARS 2, which Louis Koo didn’t even bother doing. She also continues to command a very high salary, including a rumored 16 million yuan for the DANGEROUS LIAISONS remake co-starring Zhang Ziyi. Will Cecilia do better in 2012, and how long will she continue to command this kind of price from investors?
Did I mention that LEGENDARY AMAZONS cost 100 milion yuan to produce? Cecilia took 15 of that.
Box office surprises - It’s all about the young’uns
2011 also told us that young people spend a lot of money, and they’re willing to spend a lot of it at the movies. In July, horror film MYSTERIOUS ISLAND grossed an astonishing 91.8 million yuan at the box office, despite opening directly opposite Donnie Yen and his chest in WU XIA. A part of its success (perhaps a large part) can be attributed to the popularity of star Mini Yang, whose fans organized group screenings for the film. While it hasn’t happened yet, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND is suppose to lead to a new generation of popular genre films that will make plenty of money from impressionable young moviegoers. That has yet to happen as of the end of 2011.
While it didn’t make MYSTERIOUS ISLAND cash, Hong Kong youngsters dreaming of spending their nights drinking in clubs and having sex with strangers all flocked to Wilson Chin’s LAN KWAI FONG. The nightclub drama attracted plenty of young moviegoers with hot, sexy young stars, lots of near-nudity, and a teenager-friendly IIB rating. In the end, the film grossed just a tad under HK$8 million. Yes, promiscuous clubbers attract as much audiences in Hong Kong as Donnie Yen does. LAN KWAI FONG 2 is already in the works.
But of course, nothing represented Chinese 20-somethings more in 2011 than LOVE IS NOT BLIND, the dramedy about how a 20-something urbanite gets over her boyfriend being stolen away from her best friend. Evoking memories of the worst breakup everyone’s ever had, the film used a clever marketing strategy, locked down the perfect release date (Singles Day!), and it scored one of the biggest opening weeks of the year. The film - which cost 9 million yuan to make - ended up grossing 352 million yuan at the Chinese box office, causing the likes of Donnie Yen, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan to hang their head in shame.
Box Office Surprises - Is it the sex or the 3D?
The most hyped film in Hong Kong in 2011 was undoubtedly 3D SEX AND ZEN. More a rehash than a sequel, 3D SEX AND ZEN sold only two things on the surface: Sex and 3D. However, it also recalled a better time in Hong Kong cinema, when filmmakers could care less about Chinese censorship and for better or worse, went as far as their imagination (and their actresses) could take them. After a long promotional effort (including selling Vonnie Lui as the next Hong Kong sex bomb), the film scored a HK$13 million opening and managed to become the highest-grossing Hong Kong film of 2011 with HK$40 million.
While much of the film’s gross was fueled by Hong Kongers’ curiosity, the film quickly became a critical bomb, as audiences complained about the violence and the lack of Vonnie Lui nudity (she only showed her breast in one 2-second shot). Bashing the film became such a popular thing that a sound recording of Chapman To reading out a netizen’s profanity-filled rant about the film became one of the hottest videos on the net. However, thanks to the May Golden Week holiday, the film attracted many curious Mainland Chinese tourists, to the point that the distributor was able to secure long-term screenings in cinemas in areas popular with Mainland Chinese audiences. Cinemas also caught multiple cases of Mainland cinemagoers taking videos of the film on their cell phones because they were keen to show their friends back home what the fuss was all about. You know what they say: Piracy is the best form of flattery.
However, films that were eager to cash in on sex and/or 3D after SEX AND ZEN all failed. 33D INVADER brought back old-school 90s sex comedy and even opened during the National Day holiday to attract more curious Mainland eyes. However, it barely made a blip, though I saw it twice in the cinemas. Chinese 3D didn’t fare so well, either, as SLEEPWALKER 3D and even Tsui Hark’s FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE was largely ignored as everyone else flocked to Hollywood films for lackluster 3D instead.
The most acclaimed 2011 Hong Kong Film that no one saw - A SIMPLE LIFE
In September, a little Hong Kong film called A SIMPLE LIFE had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and its star Deanie Ip managed to win the Best Actress Award. That began three months of hype, as A SIMPLE LIFE was sent to represent Hong Kong at the Academy Awards (after a week of screenings at a small 30-seat auditorium mainly designated for Friends of the Distributor and the few lucky people quick enough to buy up remaining tickets) and it picked up most of the major awards at the Golden Horse Awards.
However, thanks to the distributor’s apparently unchangeable plan of cashing in on the guaranteed Hong Kong Film Awards nominations (playing it to qualify for the Oscars also meant it qualified for the Hong Kong Film Awards), A SIMPLE LIFE will not be opening theatrically for general audiences until March 2012.
Bring back the spirit of Hong Kong cinema - GALLANTS
On the night of April 17, many expected IP MAN 2 and DETECTIVE DEE to sweep the Hong Kong Film Awards. However, in addition to Pang Ho-Cheung finally winning an award, a little local film called GALLANTS took home four awards, including Best Picture. The Derek Kwok/Clement Cheng film didn’t make much money at the box office, but it has a lot of fans here and abroad due to its old-school sensibilities. In true underdog fashion, GALLANTS managed to become the star of the night, embarrassing IP MAN 2 (which took home two technical awards) and blocking DETECTIVE DEE from achieving FLAWLESS VICTORY after Tsui Hark picked up the Best Director Award that night. What’s the Cantonese equivalent for “boo-ya” again?
Box Office Surprises - America’s not the only foreign invaders at the Hong Kong box office
Coming-of-age comedy YOU ARE THE APPLE OF MY EYE by novelist-director Giddens packed theaters in both its native Taiwan and Hong Kong. While it made a ton of money in Taiwan (in fact, the highest-grossing Taiwanese film of the year if the two SEEDIQ BALE installments are counted as two different films), it shattered box office records in Hong Kong. By New Year’s Eve 2011, it became the highest-grossing Chinese-language film in Hong Kong history. Its theme song was also voted My Favorite Song of the Year at Hong Kong Commercial Radio Music Awards (the most respected Hong Kong music award), and it reawakened the secondary school students in all Hong Kongers as Hong Kong saw a record number of calls made to married ex-girlfriends. OK, that last part was probably made up.
However, 2011’s The Little Film That Could in Hong Kong was Bollywood comedy 3 IDIOTS. Despite scoring huge with audiences at the 2009 Hong Kong International Film Festival, the film didn’t reach general audiences until September 2010, which is understandable since no Bollywood film has ever been given a general release in commercial Hong Kong cinemas. Fortunately, the film was distributed by Edko, who owns Hong Kong’s biggest cinema chain. With a lot of faith on their part and very enthusiastic word-of-mouth, the film continued to play in Edko’s cinema chain for three months. As of the final weekend of 2011, 3 IDIOTS have grossed HK$23 million, outgrossing even ALL’S WELL ENDS WELL 2011 and OVERHEARD 2.
You will pay for my outrageous spending!
Just before the opening of Zhang Yimou’s FLOWERS OF WAR, producer Zhang Weiping decided that not only does he deserve to take a bigger chunk of box office revenue than usual, he also felt that audiences were responsible for paying for his own financial decisions by raising the minimum ticket price for his film by five yuan to 40 yuan (See earlier post here). Cinema chains in China were outraged (more at losing their box office share than raising ticket prices, I’m sure), and the eight major cinema chains in China went as far as threatening to boycott the film.
Despite calling cinemas just “places with empty seats” and justifying the ticket price hike with excuses like “an enhanced product naturally means a higher ticket price”, Zhang managed to call the cinema chains in for last-minute negotiations. In the end, cinemas and Zhang reached a compromise, as the revenue sharing ratio was allowed further negotiations chain-by-chain and the minimum ticket price remained the same. Despite some filmgoers having to pay up to 100 yuan for a ticket (For context: an IMAX 3D ticket cost 120 yuan at peak times, and minimum monthly wage in Shenzhen just got raised to 1500 yuan), people flocked to the Nanjing Massacre drama anyway, and it has now become the highest-grossing Chinese language film of 2011 in China. However, its final gross will still be far below the 1 billion yuan Zhang projected (the film cost 600 million yuan to produce).
As a result of this little fight, the Chinese government is looking to enforce a law that will not allow cinemas to take more than 50% of the box office revenue. This may end up tipping the balance of power back to producers and distributors, as they will surely be taking a larger share of box office revenue once the law passes.
Why download illegally when you can download it legally?
This year saw audiences in China finally catching on to the idea of legal streaming, as traditional pirate video sites Tudou and Youku saw their legal video streaming services take off (region restrictions and all!). However, the biggest one of them all so far must be LeTV, who boasts the largest legally-obtained video library out of all the streaming sites. Offering television series, variety shows, and of course, films, most of LeTV’s content is legal and free (see earlier post here). For the price of letting a little ad pop up on the bottom right of your screen and lackluster audio (their paid service offers HD versions), you can catch the latest Chinese blockbusters on your computer/tablet screens within two months after their theatrical release, and some of them even have English subtitles!
This is terrible news for the Chinese video industry - who is already selling DVDs for as cheap as 15 yuan and has no rental industry due to rampant piracy - but at least it’s a very positive step in getting Chinese people to believe in watching entertainment content in a way that benefits both the consumers (i.e. FREE) and the content providers (i.e. CASH). The next step is getting this technology to people here in Hong Kong, but without the infrastructure and resources that would secure enough profit for content providers, I’m not holding my breath.
With great weibo comes great responsibilities
Twitt-what? The micro-blog that Hong Kong and Chinese people are crazy about this year was Sina Weibo. With the most popular microbloggers getting literally millions on followers (Yao Chen is the Queen of Sina Weibo with 15 million followers), all the cool Chinese celebrities are talking on media platform Sina’s own version of Twitter. Despite constant threats of censorship, Sina Weibo even became one of biggest source of criticisms against the Chinese government after the high speed rail accident in July.
As for the film world, not only has Sina Weibo become the place for filmmakers and stars to interact with their friends and fans (i.e. get their asses kissed), it’s also allowed them to circumvent the typical press conference-driven promotional plans and release information on their own accord. For example, Pang Ho Cheung and Chapman To actually first announced their WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT HONG KONG MOVIE project on their respective Weibos, before the film’s official Weibo launched and way before the press began to cover the film.
Also, Sina Weibo allowing anonymity means that several “industry insiders” have popped up with secret insider news. While some proved to be false, many have proven to be right. However, attracting the scorn of many industry people, the insiders’ real identities have been as hot a topic as the gossip they provide. When one of these insiders angered SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE producer Yang Zi (mainly involving him and the film’s star Eva Huang), the former actor exposed his/her real identity - a marketing executive at a competing film company - causing the insider to immediately wipe his/her account clean.
While Tencent (as in the company that created popular messaging program QQ) also launched their own Weibo earlier this year with the promise of stars like Karen Mok, Sina remains at the top of the Chinese micro-blogging world, and it’s only about to get bigger. With more and more promotional effort for films being shifted to Sina Weibo (many major films have their own official Sina Weibo account now), it will likely become a place to watch for those who want to see what’s hot in Chinese cinema.
Of course, there were plenty of other stories, including the REST ON YOUR SHOULDER debacle and Johnnie To hitting the Mainland, that I can’t fit in here. I would recommend you to look on the right side of the blog for the archive to see what I covered throughout 2011, including a lot of detail on each of the topic covered in this entry.
As for this blog, I really did wish I updated at a more consistent basis in 2011, and I really wish I can guarantee that I can update on a more consistent basis in 2012. However, with a day job, social obligations, and other professional obligations in this crazy, fast-paced city, I can’t guarantee anything. I just 2012 will be another crazy year in Chinese cinema, though. Where else would I get material?
Once again, a happy new year to all who read this far, and I wish you all a good 2012!
On December 15th, the biggest box office battle of 2011 in China begins with Tsui Hark’s FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE and Zhang Yimou’s FLOWERS OF WAR opening in Chinese cinemas (Derek Yee’s THE GREAT MAGICIAN was slated to join the battle, but has since backed off to January 12th). It’s the climax of what will be another intensely competitive year-end period in Chinese cinema (last year saw year-end king Feng Xiaogang surprisingly beaten by Jiang Wen). This entry will look at each of the major contenders, and why they will and won’t be hits:
THE FLOWERS OF WAR
Release Date: December 15, 2011
Why it’ll be a hit: Zhang Yimou, one of the most acclaimed directors in the history of Chinese cinema, making the most expensive film in the history of Chinese cinema. Set in the Nanjing Massacre (or Incident, if you’re in Japan), the film, which is also based on a popular novel is promising plenty of large battle scenes. It’s also one of the first Chinese films to feature a major Hollywood star (Christian Bale) as the lead, and it’s representing China at this year Best Foreign Film race at the Oscars.
Why it’ll not be a hit: Its US$90 million price tag already pretty much guarantee that it will not be making its budget back in China (It’ll have to gross at least US$180 million in China alone to break even - government takes roughly 8% as tax, and cinemas take about 55% of the after-tax gross - and that’s not even counting advertising).
Zhang Yimou has also been battling a less-than-great reputation among Chinese film fans after CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER and A SIMPLE NOODLE STORY (among other various gossip), and the way the film has been sold - with emphasis on sex scenes, Christian Bale, and spectacle - being called insensitive by some won’t help his cause. Also, the very public fight between Zhang’s producer Zhang Weiping and cinema owners in China (and the high ticket price that will result from it) may turn some away as well.
Meanwhile, Christian Bale might have been a good name to sell to potential investors and overseas distributors, he isn’t exactly a household name in China, with neither of his BATMAN films having been shown theatrically in China (though I’d assume that many people have seen them anyway).
Lastly, the film isn’t in 3D, unlike….
FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE
Release Date: December 15, 2011
Why it’ll be a hit: Tsui Hark managed to make the highest-grossing film of his career with DETECTIVE DEE (correct me if I’m wrong here), and now he’s making one of the most expensive films of his career with his first 3D Wuxia epic (US$35 million price tag). It’s been well publicized that Tsui is so devoted to making the 3D technology work that he made a feature film as a test film. His producers also made a wise move by striking a deal with IMAX to make it the first ever Chinese IMAX 3D film. Polybona has also moved GREAT MAGICIAN out of the way to make sure it’s one of the only two games in town on its opening weekend (MAGICIAN will go against Huayi’s VIRAL FACTOR instead).
When judged against FLOWERS OF WAR, the action and 3D make it an easier sell overseas than a film about the Nanjing Massacre. Of course, it also has a bigger cast than FLOWERS OF WAR, with Jet Li, Aloys Chen, Zhou Xun, and pop star Li Yunchun.
Why it’ll not be a hit: Not everyone can afford to pay 3D ticket prices, especially when IMAX prices will be up to 120 yuan. Also, there has been a decrease in the popularity of period action films, as evident in the disappointing grosses for LOST BLADESMAN and WU XIA this year.
And now, the dark horses:
Release Date: December 23, 2011
Why it’ll be a hit: Actress-filmmaker Xu Jinglei made history when her GO LALA GO became the first Chinese urban romantic comedy to pass the 100 million yuan mark at the Chinese box office. Her and LALA co-star Stanley Huang are back in another romance (is there even any comedy in this) about the dog-eat-dog business world, which will likely bring in urbanite women and their boyfriends. In addition to shooting on location in Hong Kong and London, Xu has also gotten a bigger cast this time around, adding Hong Kong stars Gigi Leung, Aarif Lee, Christy Chung, and the legendary Michael Fitzgerald Wong.
Why it won’t be a hit: It opens a week after FLOWERS OF WAR and FLYING SWORDS, which means cinemas are not likely to give it much screenings if both films continue to pack houses. GO LALA GO was also not particularly well received by some, who criticized Xu for putting in too much product placements and straying too far from the source material (Xu, however, has guaranteed that DEAR ENEMY will have fewer product placements).
THE ALLURE OF TEARS
Release Date: December 22, 2011
Why it’ll be a hit: The ensemble cast skews towards a slightly younger audience than DEAR ENEMY. Tearjerkers actually do attract audiences in China (Look at AFTERSHOCK and IF YOU ARE THE ONE II), though the actors here are not exactly known for their impeccable acting skills. Christmas is considered more of a romantic holiday than in the west (like in Japan. Ah-ha, China!), which means this will also bring in lots of couples.
Why it won’t be a hit: Like DEAR ENEMY, it may have problem getting enough screenings in certain cities. No one in the cast can be considered a box office dra, and the same goes for the Barbara Wong/Lawrence Cheng team. Some people may get turned off by the “You will definitely cry” promotional campaign, as well as how closely the poster resembles the poster for the Korean film SAD MOVIE.
Release Date: December 28, 2011
Why it’ll be a hit: It features a very strong female cast (Rene Liu, Tang Wei, and Cecilia Cheung), and its topic of car racing can be considered fresh in the Chinese commercial film industry. Also, its December 28th release date sets enough distance from the big films that it may be the only big game left in town people haven’t seen.
Why it won’t be a hit: If all four films above turn out to be hits, it’ll be tough to secure enough screens for a big opening weekend, especially since a wave of Lunar New Year films will start in less than two weeks. Jingle Ma isn’t exactly a guarantee of quality for film fans anywhere, especially since everyone’s dressed in purple uniforms and the trailer is promising more melodrama than real racing. Plus, three words for Cecilia Cheung: Box office poison.
There are other smaller films released during the period, but these are essentially the big contenders for December. Of course, it would be great for the industry if all of these films do well, but you know the thing about free market is that people actually will watch what they want to watch and download what they don’t want to watch. Either way, I’ll be keeping a close eye on this box office battle and provide updates and analysis later on.
Zhang Yimou’s FLOWERS OF WAR is not just another World War II film. Budgeted at US$90 million (or roughly 600 million yuan), it is the most expensive film ever produced in China. From its casting of Hollywood star Christian Bale to the grueling 165-day shoot, THE FLOWERS OF WAR is an important film for the Chinese film industry as major commercial industry on the world stage.
Considering that the highest-grossing Chinese-language film in China grossed 700 million yuan, producer Zhang Weiping and New Pictures will have to figure a way to make as much money as possible to earn its investment back. As I have written before, since the cinemas take over half of a film’s theatrical gross, a typical Chinese film will have to take in over double its budget to make its money back. That means if FLOWERS OF WAR were to rely on domestic box office to make its entire production budget back (excluding marketing), it’ll have to make at least 1.2 billion yuan. So you can see what kind of pressure Zhang Weiping is under.
To ensure that Zhang makes his money back, he has requested two things of Chinese cinemas: Raise the minimum ticket price of the film to 40 yuan in first-tier cities (35 in second-tier, and 30 in third-tier), and change the distributor-cinema revenue share ratio from 43%-57% to 45%-55%. While the second condition is pretty easy to understand, the first one might need some explaining:
Distributors in China always set a minimum ticket price for their films to ensure that cinemas at least share a certain revenue with the distributor per ticket sold. The highest minimum ticket price ever mandated by a distributor before FLOWERS was Feng Xiaogang’s AFTERSHOCK, which had a minimum ticket price of 35 yuan.
When Zhang unilaterally decides to raise the minimum ticket price, it creates several problems for Chinese cinemas: 1) Cinemas have already started selling group screenings for the film, and they had set each ticket at 35 yuan, which is what they had expected the minimum ticket price to be. With Zhang raising the price by 5 yuan a month ahead of the film’s release, cinemas will have to go back and get those five yuan per ticket back. 2) Many cinemas offer premium discounts for members, and they’re often up to 60% off the normal ticket price. At 40 yuan minimum, theaters will have to set full-price tickets at a significantly higher price than usual, which will obviously drive away everyday movie-goers who simply cannot afford to watch the film. Also, smaller multiplexes who can’t fit in many screenings may be forced to drive the price even higher, with price figures like 100 yuan being thrown around the rumor mill. That figure is unheard of for a 2D film.
In response to concerns about the price inflation, this is what Zhang Weiping told Sina:
“First of all, we only raised the minimum ticket price by five yuan, so where is the 100-yuan price coming from? Second, in terms of revenue sharing ratio, the distributor is taking 45% and the cinemas are taking 55% after taxes. They’re taking the majority, and the risk lies with me, so I don’t understand what the cinemas are so dissatisfied about. Also, the film’s maximum ticket price is determined by the cinemas based on their circumstance, so the distributor has nothing to do with whether the ticket price is 70 or 80 yuan. THE FLOWERS OF WAR is the most expensive film in Chinese history. It’s 145 minutes long, 40, 50 minutes longer than a typical local film. That means this is an enhanced product. An enhanced product naturally means a higher ticket price.”
It’s true that ticket prices are entirely decided by cinemas based on a distributor’s ticket price. For example, I had to pay 70 yuan for a ticket to LOVE IS NOT BLIND, but my ticket for KORA - also for a showing on a Sunday afternoon - was only 60 yuan. This means that Chinese audiences actually can pay a lower ticket price for a so-called “cheaper” product.
On the other hand, Zhang is a little arrogant in pretending to not know anything about cinema’s ticket pricing strategies and assuming that the consumers must bear the cost of his inflated budget. Film is not a public utilities project.
With FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE setting their minimum ticket price at 35 yuan (even with 3D) and opening on the same day, it’ll be interesting to see whether there’s any audience backlash and what cinemas will do to make sure they can earn back the 2% they lost.
Then came the big twist yesterday: A media professional in Beijing reported on Weibo that representatives of China’s top eight cinema chains were holding negotiations with Zhang and New Pictures, threatening that if Zhang does not lower the minimum ticket price (and I assume change the ratio back to 43-57), the eight cinema chains will boycott the film. While one report said New Pictures caved into the cinemas’ demands, there hasn’t been any additional reports indicating that Zhang and the cinemas have come to an agreement.
If Zhang indeed did cave, then it reinforces the power of cinemas in the commercial Chinese film industry. China Film Group, in an effort to boost box office revenue for BEGINNING OF THE GREAT REVIVAL, eventually had to convince cinemas to keep the film playing by allowing cinemas to keep 100% of box office revenue in its final month of release. The cinemas also had a large role during the Great Box Office Gouging of 2011, offering “group tickets” to boost box office revenue of certain propaganda films. Major cinema chains, with their polished multiplexes, also played a huge role in the emergence of Chinese commercial cinema because their state-of-the-art features helped attract audiences to the movies. As defiant Zhang seemed to be, he likely knows that he will have to please cinema owners because of the role they play in exhibiting his film.
On the other hand, if the cinemas can’t beat Zhang, I doubt they would really boycott what is likely to be one of the highest-grossing films in Chinese cinema history. However, they will likely change the way they work in the future to ensure that they will not face this situation again. I have no idea what that will be, but I will surely be keeping an eye on all the gossip happening.
Either way, it looks like the tug-of-war between distributors and cinemas in China will be continuing for a while. It’s just a little sad that no one seems to be caring about the rights of consumers at all. Such is capitalism.
UPDATE: After Cinema manager Zhao Jun confirmed that negotiations were indeed going on and that most cinema chains are behind the top eight chains, Sina news reported that an agreement has been reached. The terms are as follows:
1) The 43-57 ratio will be the subject of further negotiations, but between New Pictures and individual cinema chains. “Mild adjustments” can be made according to the circumstance of each chain. That part has apparently not been discussed in detail, nor has “circumstances” or “mild adjustments” been clearly defined yet.
2) The 40/35/30 minimum ticket price will remain the same. However, cinemas can apply for a lower minimum ticket price in certain circumstances (group sales, discount day, etc.).
This means we will still likely see 100 yuan tickets for FLOWERS OF WAR, which means now FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE - whose minimum ticket price remains at 35/30/25 - may have a slight advantage.
For your information, as I reported back in August, the minimum ticket price for TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON was 20 yuan. It ended up making 1.1 billion yuan (even after its grosses were gouged). However, its first-week average ticket price was 42 yuan due to the 3D.
I guess since I’ve done a couple of entries about movie going in China already, I might as well turn my movie-going journeys outside of Hong Kong and the United States into a series (my next stop is Japan, by the way).
You can see previous China movie-going exploits here:
Part 3 is still Shenzhen (It’s the most accessible Mainland Chinese city from Hong Kong), except this time, I paid a visit to Orange Sky Golden Harvest Shenzhen, in MixC mall:
Opened in 2005, the 7-screen multiplex took on a major expansion in 2009, adding five additional screens with digital projection (there’s also a premium auditorium for 230 yuan a ticket). I didn’t just pick this cinema because of its vicinity to KKMall (same subway station, different sides), but also because this 12-screen multiplex is consistently one of the top ten highest-grossing cinemas in China. And let me remind you, China is a BIG place.
I watched two films here today, both on screens at the expansion side: the real-life mountain biking adventure KORA and the mega-hit romantic comedy LOVE IS NOT BLIND.
While the cinema boasts state-of-the-art projection and top-level comfort (for 65 and 75 yuan tickets, they better be right), I actually found OSGH a bit of a disappointment. My biggest problem was the seating, which is not only less comfortable than those of most Hong Kong multiplexes, my bottom began to hurt about an hour into both films, which is inexcusable for auditoriums that were built in 2009. Also, while KORA’s digital print looked fine, the digital print for LOVE IS NOT BLIND - playing in the biggest house with the supposed Sony 4k projector - was a bit too dark for comfort. I can’t say anything about sound, since neither film is exactly an audio powerhouse.
However, OSGH Shenzhen does beat KKMall in terms of location. Not only is MixC connected directly to the Grand Theater Station via an underground tunnel, MixC has both a Starbucks AND a Pacific Coffee, especially important when tickets have to be picked up an hour ahead of time at the latest. MixC is also a lot bigger (it houses a small skating rink) with more food choices. Despite being an early Sunday afternoon, the Pacific Coffee one floor above the cinema (at the Northwest corner) is practically empty and has free wi-fi without any China Telecom hassle (more on why this is important in a bit).
Nevertheless, it’s the quality of the cinema that counts, and that may be why I won’t be returning to Golden Harvest unless I have to.
Meanwhile, some updates from part two about China movie-going that you should watch out for:
Groupon deals: Cinemas have been selling groupon deals, and bargain-hunting Chinese audiences have been eating it up in bulk. Since such deals cannot be redeemed via online ticketing, they’re causing large lines at cinema box offices. Golden Harvest has been wise enough to set separate box office counters for groupon deals, but UA KK Mall was not as wise. If you’re not planning to order your ticket ahead of time, get to the box office early.
Picking up your ticket: If you do book your seats online ahead of time like I do (look at part 2 for more details), know that the cinemas are serious about canceling your booking 60 minutes before the film starts. I arrived at UA KK Mall at 10 am to pick up my 10:30 TIN TIN tickets (the mall doesn’t open til 10 am), and after spending 15 minutes in line (thanks to the groupon people), my seat was canceled and sold already. Luckily, I was able to pick another seat because the showing wasn’t full.
Wi-fi: If you do have to arrive at the cinema to pick up your ticket, you’re going to have at least an hour to spare. I like to go get a cup of coffee (it’s a long trip up to Shenzhen), which means I usually go to Starbucks. Back in July, I was able to access the free wi-fi in the store and get to Twitter and Facebook via the VPN connection I had already set up on my phone. However, China Telecom now require users to register their cell phone numbers before using the wi-fi, so my Hong Kong number didn’t work.
However, Pacific Coffee’s free wi-fi simply requires you to put in a password that is displayed prominently on the store counter, which means I had no problem getting wi-fi at Pacific Coffee. So if the place you’re going to only has a Starbucks, bring a good book.
Audiences: Watching KORA in China felt like I was in someone’s living room watching TV. Everyone has something to say about the film, and there’s no way you can shut everyone up. Talking, texting, phone calling at the movies in China is a commonplace, and while it shouldn’t happen, you will have to accept it as part of the movie-going experience in China. Of course, I can’t do it since I went to the movies alone, but as the old saying goes: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
English subtitles: Last time I was in China, neither REST OF YOUR SHOULDER nor WU XIA had English subtitles. This time, both KORA and LOVE IS NOT BLIND had English subtitles (though LOVE’s English subtitles were so bad that it’s not worth the visa to go to China to catch it if you’re relying on it). There’s no set rules, so you’ll have to rely on luck on this issue.
There are plenty of big blockbusters opening in December and Lunar New Year in China, so I hope this guide will be of use to those planning to visit a Mainland Chinese cinema during the holidays. Next time, I hope to go to the cinema in the Shenzhen Music Hall, and that’ll likely happen in December.