Switched off

No one can understand the plot, but movie proves big hit regardless

Lin Chiling w

Skin in the game: Lin Chiling wore 24 outfits in the film

Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains, one of the few surviving works of Huang Gongwang (1269–1354), is considered one of the most important paintings in Chinese history. But this impressionistic work of rolling peaks and rural settlements almost perished in 1650 when its owner Wu Hongyu, on his deathbed, ordered that it be cremated with him.

Fortunately, his nephew disobeyed, snatching the scroll from the funeral pyre but not before the flames had split the scroll in two. The two pieces have had many owners since then, but today one piece is kept in the Zhejiang Provincial Museum in Hangzhou while the larger segment is on show at the National Palace Museum in Taipei. For more than 360 years, these two sections of scroll have never been displayed together. Then two years ago Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains was reunited when Beijing – in a sign of improving ties with Taiwan – agreed to lend the part normally kept in Hangzhou to Taipei for an unprecedented exhibition.

Now the painting is in the spotlight again in the film Switch. It tells the story of Xiao Jinhan, played by Andy Lau, as he tries to fend off gangsters who want to steal the two-part scroll from the exhibition in Taipei. Taiwanese starlet Lin Chiling plays a spy whose goal is to seduce Xiao – a role that seems to require her to wear 24 separate outfits. Director Sun Jianjun describes the film as a sci-fi thriller mixed in with kung-fu elements and a romantic angle. How’s that for a cinematic hodge podge, you may well ask?

Regardless, it seems to be succeeding at the box office. Switch opened in China last week and took Rmb47.9 million ($7.8 million) on its first day, according to figures from entertainment industry consultants Entgroup. That single-day gross propelled it into third place in the opening-day records (for a local film), trailing only Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons and Painted Skin: Resurrection.

Switch also left its competition in the dust. Hollywood blockbuster Star Trek Into Darkness took just Rmb8.9 million on the same day and Switch has gone on to take Rmb254 million in local cinemas since.

Despite the strong box performance the movie hasn’t won over the critics. “Viewers have a hard time piecing the story together,” says New Straits Times, finding it confusing that “some of the characters that are initially thought dead make a sudden appearance.”

Hong Kong’s Apple Daily concurs: “It’s almost as if the director wants to test your IQ because you try so hard to piece the story together – sometimes even using your own imagination – but there’s no way of telling what is going on.”

On weibo, netizens were also unforgiving. Switch “sets the bar for how low the standard of domestic productions can go,” said one. “The pinnacle of trashy entertainment,” said another.

Another said: “The film is a super film: that’s because it is an action movie, a horror film and a comedy all rolled into one. The problem is you never know when it is going to go from one to the other.”

Industry analysts say the reason that Switch has done well in ticket sales is because there was limited competition during the public holiday period. Star Trek Into Darkness had already shown for some time, and lacks the same cult following as in the United States (Chinese viewers never got to see the original TV series). That has given Switch a clear run with audiences, although it will now be challenged by Man of Steel, which opened this week.

Some say this Hollywood-free period is yet another move from the Chinese authorities to boost local blockbusters. It hasn’t gone unnoticed that Switch is also backed by Han Sanping, the head of China Film Group, which is in charge of scheduling the release of foreign films in China.

Certainly, the commercial imperative underpinning the film is clear enough. For instance, director Sun Jianjun has hit back at critics of the script by saying that the starting point of the film wasn’t a story but a business plan. “By the time the financing for the film was complete the script wasn’t even started,” the director admits.

Further, Sun says that production was driven by commercial interests. “We had to consider when the film will release and what kind of a cast will generate what kind of a box office result. After we had made all these considerations, we decided on what kind of a film we wanted to make,” he told Southern Weekend.

The producers also hired Chuck Comisky, behind the special effects for James Cameron’s Avatar, to oversee the post-production and they seem to have spared little expense on an extravagant production shot in multiple locations including Dubai, Taipei, Milan and Tokyo. The film cost Rmb160 million to make, more than many of its peers.

The commercial calculations aren’t just being made by the film studio, mind you. After Lost in Thailand proved a surprise success (see WiC177) hordes of Chinese tourists visited the country. That seems to have inspired others with an eye on the tourist dollar. For example, Dubai’s Burj Al Arab originally declined when the Switch crew asked permission to shoot a scene there. But Sun says that the seven-star hotel then reconsidered, calculating that film footage of its opulent surroundings might encourage more bookings from China’s mega-rich.

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