In Sleepless in Seattle, the female protagonist and her best friend watch An Affair to Remember. As they weep together over the 1957 classic, Meg Ryan’s character is told “Men never get this movie”.
So does Fan Bingbing mind that men don’t seem to be interested in her latest film One Night Surprise? Apparently not. The romantic comedy has made more than Rmb100 million ($16.3 million) at the Chinese box office thanks to its female audience. The film revolves around ad agency employee Michelle (played by Fan), who gets pregnant after a wild birthday party. But she isn’t sure if the father is her boss, her young assistant or someone else that she can’t remember.
It must have been quite a night, by the sound of it.
Although on the wane in the United States, the chick-flick genre is growing in popularity in China. One reason is that female spending power has increased significantly. Cinema tickets purchased by young women also far outnumber men and marketers covet the female demographic, says Ynet.com (it’s a perfect fit for all that product placement, too).
Those tapping the trend this year have included Xue Xiaolu, whose movie Beijing Meets Seattle took Rmb500 million in the domestic box office (see WiC183) outperforming testosterone-fuelled Hollywood blockbusters like A Good Day to Die Hard and Resident Evil: Resurrection. Similarly, Guo Jingming’s Tiny Times, dubbed China’s Sex And The City, also grossed Rmb488 million, again primarily from a younger, female audience.
Long before the current wave of female-focused drama, Yang Lan, sometimes known as China’s Oprah Winfrey, made a successful attempt at courting the female audience on the small screen. In 2006, Yang launched Her Village, a daytime talk show designed for urban women. In 2010, she also debuted New Girl in the Office, essentially a Chinese remake of The Apprentice but for female contestants only. On the show Yang coaches the young women on how to prosper in the workplace.
Now Fan Bingbing’s latest film seems to be appealing to a similar audience. But in hoping to become China’s rom-com queen, she is going to face some serious competition from rival Zhang Ziyi, whose My Lucky Star, sequel to Sophie’s Revenge (2009), is scheduled for release in two weeks. Zhang resumes the role of Sophie, a woman who loves to daydream, although scriptwriters have her caught up in an international diamond heist to spice things up. It helps that she is drawn towards a spy (played by Taiwanese heartthrob Wang Leehom) who is investigating the case.
In publicity terms, it also helps that the Chinese media is pitting the two divas against one another. During a press conference Zhang was asked several times what she thought about Fan’s film and whether she felt “pressured” by the success of One Night Surprise.
“Why do you always have to compare us? I really think there’s nothing too special to compare,” Zhang countered, looking irritated.
And even when in the US promoting The Grandmaster, Zhang still couldn’t avoid the topic of how she matches up with Fan. This time she spoke more freely about her disdain for Fan’s foray into Hollywood (where she is appearing in the X-Men franchise). “I think that if you’re a serious actor, you don’t want to be in these movies because it doesn’t require anything. I get asked for these kinds of roles too, and I always say no… You have to know who you are and what you want to do, and not just go, ‘Oh, there’s this big, commercial Hollywood film, I’m going to do it,’” the actress told Variety in an interview.
The rivalry is hardly new. Four years ago Fan was Zhang’s co-star in Sophie’s Revenge, playing a supporting role. There were soon rumours that the two actresses did not get along. It didn’t help that Fan tapped Eva Jin, that film’s director, to do One Night Surprise. Zhang ended up hiring American Dennie Gordon to direct the sequel. Gordon is said to be the first American woman to direct a feature film for the Chinese market.
Meanwhile the divas look set to keep sparring for top billing as China’s leading star. Zhang once looked to have the title in the bag, having been cast by director Lee Ang in the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. However, a series of flops, relationship break-ups and a scandal over a charity donation saw her popularity wane and her career lose momentum. While it’s not entirely fair to term My Lucky Star as a comeback effort, much is riding on the film in proving that Zhang is still ‘box office gold’.
Fan, on the other hand, has seen her star on the rise. In international fashion circles the 31 year-old actress has rapidly become a recognisable face for China, proving adept at stealing the show in red carpet moments. She seems to have managed her image cleverly, making smart decisions like her cameo appearance in the low budget Made in Thailand, which broke Chinese records last December (grossing more than any other locally-made production).
What may finally confirm Fan’s uber-diva status is the announcement this week that she has been cast in the lead role in a movie on the life of Yang Yuhuan. The film – which will be co-directed by Zhang Yimou (the same director who ‘discovered’ Zhang Ziyi) and Tian Zhuangzhuang – will see Fan portray one of the much-vaunted ‘four beauties of ancient China’. As with Helen of Troy, Yang’s beauty led to war and her story is one of China’s favourites. Casting Fan in such a role seems to confirm that she’s viewed as the iconic Chinese beauty of the moment.
Not that this is the spin that Fan is putting on the news. Her publicist told the China Daily that the actress is delighted to be working with two of the most established directors in China and looks forward to producing “solid work”.
Keeping track: in issue 207 we talked about Zhang Ziyi’s latest romantic comedy My Lucky Star. The question was how it would stack up financially against starlet Fan Bingbing’s competing rom-com One Night Surprise, which was released in August and took Rmb110 million ($17.97 million) at the box office in its first week. Now the results are in: during last week’s Mid-Autumn Festival holiday, My Lucky Star made Rmb94 million in ticket sales. That suggests the movies are almost level-pegging, albeit with Fan having the slight edge.
Zhang may have had more on her mind than financial performance when she signed up for My Lucky Star, mind you.
In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, the film’s director Dennie Gordon said the actress wanted to star in something made to American standards: “I developed it for Zhang Ziyi, and she wanted me to create a movie for her that Anne Hathaway might star in or Jennifer Lawrence might star in. She really wanted to do something along those lines.” (Sep 27, 2013)
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