Holiday viewing

The busiest time for Chinese cinema starts next week

LiXiaolu w

Li Xiaolu: stars in Feng Xiaogang’s Personal Tailor

“The statistics are terrifying,” the actor Michael Simkins told the Guardian. “Something like 92% of those in the acting profession are out of work at any one time.” Simkin, who wrote a memoir on thespian life titled What’s My Motivation, adds: “What the figure doesn’t reveal is that the same 8% tend to work continuously. The trick therefore is to be in the top 8%.”

Regular readers of WiC will have figured out by now who features in the top 8% of China’s acting world. And although they are busy all year round, the next couple of months tend to be particularly frenetic for the leading stars. That’s because the holiday season (between December and the Lunar New Year) is the golden period for the Chinese box office. With audience numbers peaking, studios will be jam-packing as many releases as they can into the next nine weeks.

But for Yao Chen, it’s going to be especially hectic. An actress and microblogging queen (she has the largest following on China’s Twitter-like service Sina Weibo, with 58.2 million fans), Yao gave birth seven months ago. But now she’s hard at work again, this week promoting her new film Control with Daniel Wu, while next month she has another movie showing, Firestorm, this time with Andy Lau co-starring.

Yao is not the only one doing overtime. Hong Kong actor Louis Koo also has two films showing back-to-back. Similarly, Chow Yun-fat will also have two films – From Vegas to Macau as well as Journey to the West: The Monkey King – released within a week of each other.

The scheduling may not be ideal but studios have little choice. In the last three years the holiday period has accounted for 34% of annual takings. Last year, sales reached Rmb6 billion ($984.6 million) with over 200 million tickets sold and this year’s season will be bigger than ever. Between now and the end of January at least 25 films will screen, says Xinmin Net. That works out at about three new releases every week.

The sudden abundance is delivering everything from big-action spectacles – like Jackie Chan’s Police Story 2013 – to small budget films like indie director Ning Hao’s Western Sunshine.

One of the most anticipated of this year’s crop comes courtesy of Feng Xiaogang, who gets credit in industry circles for creating the ‘holiday film’ genre (hesuipian in Chinese). Feng is hoping to recapture the holiday magic after his historical epic Back to 1942 got a lacklustre reception last year. Returning to more light-hearted fare, Personal Tailor reunites him with his long-time comedy collaborator Ge You, with whom he worked in the highly successful If You Are The One franchise (see WiC91). Starlet Li Xiaolu also has a leading role in the film.

Akin to Hollywood practice, a lot of the films in the holiday line-up are sequels. Take Jackie Chan’s Police Story 2013, which is the sixth instalment in a franchise which started in 1985. The costume drama The Four 2 is also a reprise of the 2012 original. Even animation is taking the repeat route – the sixth Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf film is about to hit screens too.

Some say Chan’s new film may be one movie too many. “Even though the Police Story franchise is likely to be among the high points of Jackie Chan’s career, to watch Chan putting on a police uniform once again it’s impossible not to feel fatigued,” one critic says.

Then there are the remakes. Moviegoers will also find plenty of familiar characters in Journey to the West: The Monkey King. Not to be confused with Stephen Chow’s blockbuster hit last year (see WiC182), this one features Aaron Kwok and Donnie Yen alongside Chow Yun-fat in yet another reboot of the Chinese literary classic. The White Haired Witch will get a makeover too. A reworking of the Hong Kong film The Bride With White Hair, it is scheduled for debut in January too, says distributor Bona Film. Changjiang Daily says critics are sceptical that the latest take on the 1993 classic is going to do well, despite the star power on display (which includes Fan Bingbing and Huang Xiaoming).

“Just look at The Last Tycoon [another remake of a Hong Kong film]. It also showed during the same time period last year but flopped miserably at the box office. The topic felt ancient and the way it was shot was unoriginal. So it’s hard to imagine The White Haired Witch will enjoy much success,” one industry insider warned.

And the only thing missing from Chinese screens in the weeks ahead? Foreign blockbusters. After animation movie Epic and the sequel to The Hunger Games finish in early December, local films will not have any further competition from Hollywood releases. This isn’t unusual. It happens during most hesuipian periods, a scheduling outcome that results because Hollywood has used up the annual quota for foreign films.

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