The latest remake of the Ben Hur epic proved such a disaster that interest was limited even in China, where big-budget Hollywood fare generally brings in significant audiences. The film, which cost Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer about $100 million to make, earned just Rmb15.4 million ($2.4 million) during the busy October holiday period. Analysts estimate the film won’t make much more than that by the end of its run, hardly the stellar take that US studios hope for.
The biggest box office surprise during the national holiday period turns out to be Operation Mekong. The film, which stars Wu Xudong, Eddie Peng and actress Feng Wenjuan, topped the earnings tables for two weeks in a row after its premiere earlier this month.
Its backers hope Operation Mekong could reach Rmb1 billion in ticket sales by the end of this week, making it the sixth domestic film of the year to do so.
The movie is based on real-life events when 13 Chinese sailors were murdered on the Mekong River in October 2011 during an attack by drug gangs on two Chinese cargo ships. It follows a covert team of Chinese police as the drug squad tries to avenge the deaths and bring in the mastermind behind the massacre.
Audiences have responded enthusiastically. “This is hands-down the country’s best police thriller ever,” one netizen gushed.
People’s Daily was also impressed. “While other films released during the national holiday tend to be comedies or just star some of the biggest movie stars, Operation Mekong manages to outperform because it is a production that is made with tremendous sincerity.”
The state-run newspaper’s endorsement, however, is probably a bit biased. That’s because the film is a collaboration between Bona Film Group (an affiliate of the Poly Group) and China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS). Operation Mekong first came about when a media firm directly controlled by the MPS started looking for a studio that could turn the case into a film. All the major studios made their pitches to the police authority, but Bona Film – which promised to invest as much as Rmb200 million – won the ‘mandate’.
The MPS stayed closely involved in the process, with the studio submitting over 20 drafts of the screenplay to security officials before it was finally given the green light, says Huxiu, an online news portal.
The studio was also given access to the key personnel that took part in the secretive mission, and the Ministry allowed the crew to film at its headquarters in Beijing, says Sohu Entertainment.
The fact that the film secured a coveted slot during the national holiday schedule suggests that there was key government backing for what was a supportive portrayal of China’s security forces.
Indeed, the film has inspired a patriotic response from a number of cinema-goers.
“I’m so touched after watching Operation Mekong knowing that there are such selfless people that are protecting the country and keeping us safe,” one fan wrote on weibo.
Another applauded: “All these nameless heroes have sacrificed their lives for our safety. We must salute them.”
Critics of the movie say it veers a little from reality. While Operation Mekong depicts the Chinese singlehandedly capturing the drug lords, the arrest of Naw Kham – the man behind the murders – was the result of a multinational operation orchestrated by China and Thailand. The Burmese drugs boss was actually captured by the Laotian police, and then extradited. But, to be fair, even Hollywood plays fast and loose with the truth to bolster ‘dramatic effect’ and the success of Operation Mekong definitely has fans clamouring for more.
“The strong performance of the film suggests that propaganda films could be promising. This film is the first trial by MPS so the script is not very good. Nevertheless, the action is absolutely breathtaking. It also provides a glimpse of what our police and military forces deal with outside of the border to fight in exchange for justice. I hope in the future MPS will develop more films like this,” one fan begged.
Ironic, it seems, that in the same month that the NSA and the US security establishment is being pilloried in Oliver Stone’s Snowden, China’s own security apparatus is basking in box office glory…
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