Monkeying about (yet again)

Stephen Chow returns to familiar territory with new blockbuster

Monkeying about (yet again)

Cheeky guy: Stephen Chow gives leading lady Shu Qi a peck

Sun Wukong is one of China’s most enduring literary characters. Better known as the Monkey King, he has supernatural powers, including an ability to travel 108,000 li (about 54,000km) in a single somersault. And over the years, many of the actors playing this mischievous figure from Journey to the West have been catapulted into film fame too.

But few have proven as popular in the role as Stephen Chow. Back when his career was beginning, Hong Kong’s king of comedy starred in A Chinese Odyssey Part One and Two (both released in 1994), playing the Monkey King. Both films were hits, propelling Chow to become one of Chinese cinema’s biggest stars.

So one might have expected Chow to reappear as the Monkey King in his latest cinematic take on the tale – Journey To the West: Conquering the Demons.

Not so. This is a film that Chow wrote, produced and directed – but he doesn’t feature in it himself. Instead, actress Shu Qi and actor Wen Zhang lend their star power to the updated version of the Ming Dynasty epic.

“It was Chow himself who had asked not to act, because he only wanted to be the best director he could possibly be,” says Wang Zhonglei, president of Huayi Brothers, the film’s China distributor.

So far, reviews of the film have been mixed. “Even though the silly, slapstick parody is unquestionably Chow’s signature, character development and the plot never came together in Journey To The West. The scenes are so disjointed that you almost feel like every scene is a standalone story… It is very disappointing,” is the verdict of Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Daily.

No matter, the movie still took Rmb78 million ($12.5 million) on its first day in China on Sunday, beating Painted Skin II for the best opening for a Chinese film. Industry observers say it could easily reach Rmb600 million in the domestic box office.

Chow got his start as a host of children’s shows in Hong Kong. He then got his film break in All For the Winner (1990) and has appeared in more than 50 films since then, sometimes at a rate of six or seven a year. Several of these have become local classics, including Fight Back to School (1991), Royal Tramp (1992) and God of Cookery (1996). Nearly all of them did well at the box office.

“Chow is one of the funniest comedians in cinema,” says the lover of Hong Kong films Quentin Tarantino. “Add to that the fact that he’s also Hong Kong’s best actor.”

However, since Chow’s humour is largely verbal (a nonsense patter known as mo-lei-tau in Cantonese, says TIME magazine, relying heavily on Cantonese slang and puns), few were expecting that Chow could become a star in the Western hemisphere.

But in 2001, he wrote, directed and starred in Shaolin Soccer, the tale of a team of misfits and losers who start to win when they bring their kung-fu skills to bear on the pitch. The film broke out of the Asian market and proved a success in Europe. Chow then went on to direct (and star in) Kung Fu Hustle, which is set in Shanghai in the 1930s. The film, co-financed by Columbia Pictures and released in 2004, was Chow’s first attempt to win over US audiences. It did well locally but wasn’t a huge success in America.

After that he entered a creative lull. Chow produced a few films, but was largely absent from the big screen himself. One exception: he wrote, directed and starred in CJ7, which he released in 2008. After the critical and commercial success of Shaolin Soccer, this was also a relative let-down.

But given Chow’s talent and star power, it was only a matter of time before he returned with a hit movie. Indeed, his return to the Monkey King franchise looks to be a savvy move, having caused a stir among his fans.

In fact his latest film has attracted so much attention that even the Chinese brokerage firms are taking heed. Guotai Junan, a stock broker, raised its price target for Huayi Brothers, which is distributing the film and is listed on Shenzhen’s ChiNext. Huayi Brothers hit a 52-week high last Thursday of Rmb19.14.

Another broker, Hong Yuan Securities, was also bullish, predicting that the film could collect over Rmb1 billion in ticket sales, and Chow’s production company Bingo has also seen its share price soar in Hong Kong, by 80% since the release date was set.

One reason for all the excitement? As we reported in WiC177, the huge success of the comedy Lost in Thailand. In December it became the first local production to break Rmb1 billion at the box office. The studio that made the film, Enlight Media, subsequently experienced an almost doubling in its Shenzhen-listed shares. In part that was because Lost in Thailand cost just Rmb30 million to produce, leading to speculation there would be a huge profit for the studio.

Sceptics say investors should show caution about using back-of-the-envelope calculations to estimate studio profits using the box office takings of a single movie. For example, Enlight later disappointed investors when it released results that fell well short of the estimates. National Business Daily reported that some analysts reckoned the film would take its full-year profits above Rmb460 million, but it only reported Rmb281 million.

In the case of Journey To the West: Conquering the Demons forecasting the financials becomes even more complicated. For instance, China Securities Times says it is unclear how much Huayi Brothers has invested in the production or what its anticipated return will be as a distributor.

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