Box office king

Who is China’s most successful director?

Box office king

"Here's to my success": Feng Xiaogang (third from the right) raises a glass

The average Hollywood studio exec is very likely to know the work of John Woo, has probably heard of Zhang Yimou, and may even have an inkling of Chen Kaige’s latest offering. They are much less likely to be familiar with Feng Xiaogang. But that may be about to change.

Feng recently became the country’s highest grossing domestic film director. The New Century Weekly reports that his films’ revenues have now reached Rmb1.032 billion ($150 million). His latest movie, If You Are The One, made Rmb320 million alone, and was a big draw for Chinese cinemagoers over the busy Lunar New Year holiday.

The movie, whose Chinese name more literally translates as ‘Do not disturb unless you are sincere’, is a romantic comedy featuring veteran actor Ge You. His character is searching online for love, and dates a variety of odd women before he crosses paths with a beautiful air hostess played by Shu Qi. She is not exactly available – she is another man’s mistress – but they strike up a rapport – and something more.

If You Are The One seems to have struck a chord with audiences for its canny satire on contemporary society, and the chemistry between the witty (but far from handsome) Ge and the beautiful Shu. Feng says his goal was to make people laugh in these depressing times, and his script blends elements of Guo Degang’s popular cross-talk style with the comedy sketch approach of Zhao Benshan (see WiC6). He considers Shu one of Chinese cinema’s two great beauties (the other being Maggie Cheung), and this role was written specifically for her.

Success has come relatively late in life for Feng, who says as much himself. Born in 1958, he had a poor academic record and failed to get into the Beijing Film Institute – in fact, he didn’t attend university. He became a stage designer with a theatre company, and only later moved into writing screenplays. His first four scripts – written in collaboration with Wang Shuo – got rejected. It was only in 1997, with his film The Dream Factory that he hit the big time.

He has become known for his comedies – which typically get released around the busy Chinese New Year period – and describes himself as “not highbrow”. It is this characteristic, he suspects, that allows him to connect so well with audiences.

Feng is optimistic about the Chinese film industry. “The number of movies and the box office are rising by 30% per year,” he notes. “I feel that the industry has changed: from a sunset to a sunrise industry.” For example, he says that The Dream Factory topped the box office in 1997 with Rmb30 million, but nowadays a film grossing Rmb100 million wouldn’t even enter the top five.

His next project is anything but a comedy. It is, he admits, causing him “unprecedented difficulties”, since it chronicles the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake, and the differing fates of twins. Aftershock is not, however, his first break with more humorous fare. He made a period drama, The Banquet with Zhang Ziyi in 2006 and in 2007 he directed, Assembly, which is based on a true story and is set in 1948 during the Chinese civil war.

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