History bore

Chinese movie-goers are tiring of costume dramas

History bore

Jackie Chan: has now starred in 99 movies

Last year, John Woo’s Red Cliff 2 grossed Rmb260 million ($38 million) in the box office over Lunar New Year. This year kung fu star Jackie Chan is hoping to set new records with a blockbuster of his own, Little Big Soldier.

Little Big Soldier tells the story of two soldiers during the Warring States Period (475-221BC). Chan plays a foot soldier from the state of Liang, who kidnaps a high-ranking general – played by actor-singer Wang Lee Hom – from a rival state. His goal: to bring the general back to Liang in hope of a reward. The two set out on a journey together and build a long-lasting friendship.

The action-comedy, which premieres this week, is competing with another historical action film, True Legend, the saga of a martial arts legend named Su Can, or Beggar Su.

Yet another Chinese historical drama? Apparently so. It seems that Chinese filmmakers have been reluctant to spend their directorial energies on anything but period films recently.

By WiC’s calculation, seven out of the top 10 grossing films made in China last year were costume dramas (by our definition, a movie set before 1949 qualifies as a historical film).

That may not be to the taste of the bulk of Chinese moviegoers. Last week the local media reported that receipts for James Cameron’s 3D sci-fi epic Avatar have overwhelmed those of mainland historical film Confucius. According to newspaper Wen Wei Po, the Chinese movie grossed only Rmb97 million, while Avatar took over Rmb1 billion in ticket sales in the same period.

Industry observers were perplexed. After all, Confucius was one of the most widely-screened productions when it opened in cinemas nationwide on January 22. The government authorities even tried to repress sales of Avatar tickets in order to give Confucius a boost (see WiC46). The movie was also backed by China Film Group, the nation’s top movie distributor.

“Had our film not played at the same time as Avatar, it would have done much better at the box office,” concedes Wu Xinxin, Beijing-based international business manager at Dadi Entertainment, which shot the film. “But it’s a different genre and not as commercial as Avatar.”

Some were pleased to see Confucius struggle at the box office. China’s top blogger and pop icon Han Han wrote: “I went to the movie theatre today… I was happy to discover that Confucius was already off the screens. This implies that, from a commercial standpoint, the film has completely failed.”

And in a separate blog posting, Han criticised mainland filmmakers’ obsession with the historical film genre: “To tell the truth, I never felt there was much need to make movies on historical topics. From the perspective of film, it seems as though from their very birth, historical movies have been doing something that is the very opposite to [the idea of] filmmaking: killing imagination.” Han thinks that the biggest problem about Chinese film is that it is “[always] returning to ancient times”.

One of the reasons that so many Chinese films are made as historical epics (or focus on historical figures) is that filmmakers and investors feel that they are more likely to draw larger audiences with their big-screen battle scenes. The regularinclusion of kung fu action may help too.

Additionally, there’s the question of censorship. Set a movie in contemporary China and it is more likely to run into trouble with the censors: especially if the script is interpreted as having a political tone. As a result, if directors do want to deal with themes like corruption, political infighting or public unrest, the safer outlet is historical drama. Censors seem happier to let such subjects slide, as long as they occurred two thousand years ago.

Nobody knows this better than Zhang Yimou. For years Zhang made more provocative movies, earning international acclaim. The price? Many Chinese never saw his films. In 1984, for example, To Live was banned for its unflattering portrayal of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

So Zhang switched to big-budget martial arts epics like Hero and House of the Flying Daggers that were lighter on the politics but a lot more weighty in terms of box-office numbers. Even his recent remake of the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple – rechristened A Simple Noodle Story – was set in ancient times (see WiC43).

But perhaps the failure of Confucius to attract wider audiences suggests that the Chinese public has had enough of historical epics for the time being. After all, the top grossing films in China last year were the Hollywood disaster film 2012, followed by import, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen.

Time for China’s filmmakers (and censors) to get the message?

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.