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Warlords, Pirates, and Lust

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Chinese films are now faring better than Hollywood blockbusters at least in Asia

The hero mumbles a threat. It is muted, but no matter. You know it’s a threat by the oblique closeup of his fiery stare. Moments later, his dubbed voice blasts into an ear-splitting scream. As his lips move out of sync, the familiar bittersweet moan of a soloist fades in.

Without warning, he sprints to engage the enemy, but suddenly leaps, then tip-toes through an imaginary staircase in the sky, his garb flapping in the wind. He fights his final battle in the middle of a forest with swords swinging and daggers flying in a wonderfully choreographed dance. He kills his foe—but dies anyway after mouthing a speech to himself, as the damsel he earlier rescued arrives too late to return the favor.

Jackie ChanThe scene is all too familiar to Filipinos a generation back whose Saturday breakfasts were served with a dose of Chinese movies, courtesy of the state-run television channel. And there were more Chinese flicks, mostly from production houses in Hong Kong and Taiwan, available in Philippine theater houses. For Filipinos back then, all Chinese were born with the ability to fly and split planks with their bare hands.

If you missed the movie, the nearest Betamax rental shop had Kung Fu flicks in stock, from the popular to the obscure. (Betamax was a rectangular video recording cassette tape introduced by Sony in the mid 1970s. To some film buffs, its significance has been likened to the invention of the wheel.)

Young and old alike, Filipinos were fascinated as the dragon Bruce Lee peppered Chuck Norris with double roundhouses. They were awed by Jackie Chan walking up walls. [An obscure Hong Kong stuntman, Chen Yuen Long, began his film career as a stunt man in the Bruce Lee films Fists of Fury (1972) and Enter the Dragon (1973). Chen went on to become Jackie Chan, martial artist, actor, comedian, director, screenwriter, producer, and singer!]

Over the years, Chinese films have evolved from being mere Kung Fu novelties; so have their audiences and their image abroad. Chinese movies, a number co-produced by foreign companies, have not only been global box office hits, they have also gained the respect of film critics around the world for their excellent cinematography, direction, writing, and acting.

Shimmering Silver
Box office revenues from Chinese films in 2007 are estimated to total a staggering three billion yuan (US$422.46 million). And those are just conservative estimates. Reports show the increase was mainly due to two factors: the addition of more theater houses in the mainland (Some 100 new cinemas with over 700 screens opened last year in China’s urban centers.) and the production of homegrown flicks that competed with foreign blockbusters.

Chinese movie houses raked in 1.2 billion yuan (US$168.98 million) by the first half of 2007. Earnings for the second half are expected to be higher once figures from pictures released during the Christmas season are in.

Among the early domestic entries, which earned close to 400 million yuan (US$56.33 million), were Curse of the Golden Flower by Zhang Yimou and two other local productions, Confession of Pain and Protégé.

Hollywood blockbusters that fared well at the Chinese box office in 2007, each earning over 100 million yuan (US$14.08 million), were Transformers, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Spiderman 3, and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

In 2006, local box office revenues reached 2.6 billion yuan (US$366.13 million). Profits for 2005, meanwhile, reached two billion yuan (US$281.64 million).

Zooming Past GDP
The Chinese film industry’s annual revenue has increased 25% annually in the past five years. This growth far exceeds what was posted by the country’s GDP, which averaged only 10% over the same period.

“The growth is exciting and proves the success of China’s movie development strategy,” Han Sanping, China Film Group Corporation (CFGC) president said in February.

Revenue made during the three-month New Year blockbuster run alone, which began in December, exceeded 800 million yuan (US$112.66 million), accord ing to the China State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television.

Box office sales of China’s top four New Year motion pictures totaled 785 million yuan (US$110.54 million). December offering The Warlords by Peter Chan reaped 220 million yuan (US$30.98 million), while Feng Xiaogang’s The Assembly made 260 million yuan (US$36.61 million) at the tills.

CJ7, shown in February, posted 185 million yuan (US$26.05 million), while Kongfu Dunk earned 120 million yuan (US$16.9 million) by the end of February. Low-budget films have also turned a tidy profit, as they have in recent years.

Foreign movies, on the other hand, made only 50 million yuan (US$7.04 million) during the New Year blitz. But Han admits Chinese films still have “a long way to go” before they can take on competition from the West on foreign shores. He added that Chinese production outfits have yet to match Hollywood’s well-structured distribution, production, and sales network.

Lording It Over
The Warlords, an epic about three brothers torn by intrigue, made 100 million yuan (US$14 million) across Asia on its opening weekend alone. It fared better than it did in China on its weekend debut.

The 284.05-million-yuan (US$40-million) production starring Jet Li earned 7.81 million yuan (US$1.1 million) in Hong Kong during the same period; 4.86 million yuan (US$685,000) in Singapore, 2.13 million yuan (US$300,000) in Malaysia, and 1.37 million yuan (US$192,300) in Indonesia.

The success of The Warlords gave Li more than just critical accolades. It catapulted him to superstardom as Li bested other Chinese actors in earnings last year. His personal take reached 465 million yuan (close to US$65.5 million) according to sources. (The 44-year-old actor also made The Forbidden Kingdom and The Mummy 3 last year.)

Li made 100 million yuan (US$14.08 million) from The Warlords alone. This was a giant leap for Li, whose debut film, The Shaolin Temple, almost three decades ago earned him one yuan per day (US$0.14).

On Li’s heels in 2007 was Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan whose piggy bank is now 428 million yuan (US$60.27 million) heavier. Chan had previously topped surveys as the richest Chinese movie star.

Lust, Caution
Director Ang Lee did his native Taiwan proud as he was awarded his second Golden Lion for best picture at the Venice Film Festival. Ang’s entry, the controversial erotic spy thriller Se, Jie (Lust, Caution), was praised by critics and was a box office success when it premiered in Hong Kong. The plot revolves around a female spy’s elaborate deception to have a Japanese collaborator killed by a Chinese resistance group during World War II.

Lust, Caution, a co-production effort of studios from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Hollywood, was shot in Shanghai and Malaysia.

While the Chinese movie industry is enjoying sustained success and critical acclaim, Hollywood pictures are struggling to make a profit as filmmaking and advertising costs have risen. What’s worse, Hollywood movies have also lately suffered losses at the box office.

The American Motion Picture Association said that for every 10 Hollywood films, only one recovers its investment from releases in the United States. And even after showing in Europe and Asia, only four out of 10 recover their initial investment. Now, Hollywood is facing strong competition from Japanese, Korean, and Chinese films in Asia.

Desperate to reclaim their market share, major Hollywood studios now want to penetrate other fields like network television, cable TV, publications, and online video games. Their latest strategy to strengthen their foothold in Asia is to give their films an Asian flavor. There are now more Oriental actors and token Asian characters than ever before in most Hollywood films. This strategy is aimed at China’s 1.3 billion potential moviegoers.

For the west, the Chinese government stands in the way of Hollywood’s wider access to the mainland movie market. In the past, the Chinese government, which controlled the local film industry through its corporations and state-owned theaters, imposed quotas on the release of foreign motion pictures. The government permitted only 10 foreign movies under a revenue-sharing arrangement. It also barred foreign companies from owning or managing movie houses.

Cinezoic Film and Television Corp. managing director William Brent said among the most onerous of the longstanding restrictions on the Chinese film industry was the requirement that all foreign films destined for theatrical release be sold to China Film Group, a state-owned enterprise. “China Film bought all foreign films for very low flat fees, and the foreign studios did not share in the box office revenue,” he said.

After it joined the World Trade Organization, China gradually eased restrictions, and now allows up to 20 foreign movies to be shown in the mainland every year (about 14 to 16 of these are from Hollywood). Investors are now even allowed to go into joint ventures with Chinese production houses. But US studios, which churn out movies by the hundreds each year, want more of their movies shown in China’s theaters.

The success of directors like Ang Lee and John Woo have brought the mainland’s film industry and its business sector closer. Cambridge researcher Yomi Braester said Chinese filmmakers now use the prestige and popular appeal of motion pictures to forge a stronger connection between the movie industry and market forces. Some directors have even been known to collaborate with real estate developers and other entrepreneurs.

While a number of them help shape economic agenda, most filmmakers, Oriental or Western, are still in it for art’s sake, for the most part. But why should they go on weaving dreams for people, when the audiences they’re supposed to inspire stay at home, popcorn in hand, and watch their work on pirated DVDs?

print ed: 04/08


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