Captive market

Why a kidnapping from 2004 has only now hit the big screen

Hong Kong actor Lau poses on the red carpet  at the 50th Golden Horse Film Awards in Taipei

Rave reviews: Andy Lau praised for role as kidnap victim Wu Ruofu

Until his forties Wu Ruofu was a bit-part actor, little known outside of his profession. But he became a little more prominent in 2004 after he was kidnapped outside a Beijing bar by several men dressed in police uniforms.

Even they didn’t know who he was (they grabbed him because they saw he drove a BMW). They demanded a ransom of Rmb2 million (then $250,000) but never got it as Wu was rescued by the real police after 23 hours held captive.

The three kidnappers were sentenced to death a year later.

News of the abduction made Wu far better known. Production houses even approached him to turn his story into a crime thriller and Shanghai Media Group offered to adapt his 23-hour experience into China’s answer to 24, the American drama in which 24 episodes track a day in the life of the anti-terrorist agent Jack Bauer, hour by hour.

None of the projects made it off the drawing board. At the time Chinese media regulators weren’t thrilled about thrillers based on real-life cases, and especially stories that involved criminals. The authorities were even concerned that the genre would stoke more crimes. (According to the Public Security Bureau, there were 3,863 kidnappings in the year that Wu was first grabbed by the gang.)

Now the 2004 kidnapping has finally been adapted for the big screen. Based on the actual events, Saving Mr Wu features Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau as the kidnap victim. Wu himself plays a senior police investigator who aids his rescue. He didn’t take on the lead role because, according to scriptwriter-director Ding Sheng, it was too much for the 53 year-old to “live through the whole experience all over again”.

Li Meng, who plays the girlfriend of the leading kidnapper, is one of the few actresses appearing in this very male drama.

Since its release last month Saving Mr Wu has grossed more than Rmb200 million ($31 million). That is a solid performance but not particularly outstanding (a movie isn’t considered a smash hit in China these days unless it surpasses Rmb1 billion at the box office).

Still, critics seem to agree that Saving Mr Wu has added resonance, because it is a true story. It also comes at a time of another real-life kidnapping, this time of Wong Kuan (also known as Wong Yuk-kwan), the chairman of Hong Kong-listed investment firm Pearl Oriental. He was rescued last week by Taiwanese police after a 38-day abduction.

Wong recently featured in this magazine, when we recalled that his record-breaking purchase of a house on Hong Kong’s Peak in 1997 marked the end of a property market bubble in the city (see WiC299).

Back in those days the mainland-born chef-turned-property-developer was considered one of the richest real estate investors in Hong Kong, although Pearl Oriental’s market value has declined to about HK$1 billion ($128 million).

Even before being abducted in Taiwan, Wong was already in trouble in Hong Kong: the 68 year-old is on bail on fraud allegations.

He was kidnapped on September 20, with video footage released by the Taiwanese police indicating that he was bundled into a car in the outskirts of Taipei.

The villains, according to Taiwan’s Apple Daily, were related to the notorious United Bamboo Union, a leading triad gang.

The gangsters threatened to chop one of Wong’s legs off if his family did not pay a HK$70 million ransom (they wanted their haul in untraceble Bitcoins). A video with Wong holding up a newspaper from that day – as proof of life – was attached to a series of emails sent to his family. But initially his relatives took them to be spam mail and ignored the messages. It wasn’t until the kidnappers’ third email – titled “This is no joke” – that they took notice.

The experience was no joke for Wong himself, of course. “I didn’t expect to make it out alive” were his first words when police raided the shack where he was being held captive last week. When they broke open the door to rescue him, he felt he had “picked his life back from hell’s gate,” Wong said. The former owner of the world’s most expensive home was pictured sitting on the floor of an empty room in his underwear, with his feet shackled and one of his eyes bruised.

Further inspiration for the next round of kidnap dramas, perhaps? Hong Kong’s Headline Daily suggests so, claiming that “Saving Mr Wong” could make for an excellent crime thriller too.

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