Same old journey

As latest flick underperforms, fans ask is Stephen Chow out of ideas?


Lin Yun: starred in Chow’s Mermaid and Demons Strike Back

For Hong Kong comedian Stephen Chow the 500 year-old Chinese novel Journey to the West is an inspiration that keeps on giving. As a movie actor Chow played the Monkey King twice in the mid-1990s. Two decades later the 54 year-old is still counting on his latest monk-and-monkey franchise to open the wallets of Chinese moviegoers.

As Chow himself has confessed, it has been increasingly challenging to come up with fresher concepts. “You can’t even imagine how difficult it is to create something original. To say I have run out of ideas is not an understatement,” he told reporters during the promotional tour for his fantasy-comedy film Journey to the West: Demons Strike Back (a sequel to his then record-setting offering Conquering the Demons in 2013, see WiC198).

Perhaps in an effort to convince his fans that there is something new, Chow has ceded the director’s chair to Tsui Hark, a Hong Kong filmmaker famous for making kung-fu movies (Chow himself is acting as an investor, producer and joint screenwriter). Chow has also decided to replace Conquering the Demons‘ older cast (Huang Bo and Shu Qi) with fresher faces (Canadian-Chinese pop star Kris Wu alongside Lin Yun – the actress who played the mermaid in Chow’s 2016 hit).

Demons Strike Back did not disappoint – at least, initially. The film – which reportedly cost Rmb400 million ($64 million) to make – took Rmb360 million the first day it opened, the biggest opening day ever for a Chinese film. Since then Demons Strike Back has gone on to collect Rmb1.6 billion at the box office.

However, a wave of criticism then slowed the film’s momentum. Why? The new production and the cast failed to retain the old chemistry. On Douban, an online film and TV review site, audiences gave Demons Strike Back a rating of just 5.8 out of 10. The negative word-of-mouth saw ticket sales slump on its third day – the box office dropped 48% from its opening bonanza.

“The problem with the film is that it is just not funny,” one viewer lamented. “If you don’t understand what the film is about, you are normal,” another mocked.

“Stephen Chow, after all these years, are you out of money or something?” one even asked, accusing the filmmaker of putting no effort into the film.

But some critics say the biggest problem of Demons Strike Back is that it reveals Chow has, indeed, nothing original to offer: “The same punch line is recycled over and over again. Even the tear-jerking elements are the same [as in Chow’s previous films]. How can we not feel bored?”

“If comedy is a skill and being funny is an ability, Stephen Chow shows that he’s still got ‘skills’. But unfortunately, his ability to make people laugh is something that hasn’t evolved with time, as seen from his greying hair,” says Chief Entertainment Officer, an entertainment blog.

Journey to the West (the novel), as Sina Entertainment has noted, has been adapted into at least six movies since 2013. “This free IP [intellectual property] is being bled dry,” the news portal opines.

That said, the seeming reliance on sequels and past franchises adds fuel to the view that Chow is running low on creativity. “Chow’s allure in the Chinese film industry seems to be waning. The fact that the box office result of Demons Strike Back is nowhere close to The Mermaid puts a big question mark on the valuation of Chow’s intellectual property. After all, he can’t keep cashing in on nostalgia alone,” reports National Business Daily.

Chow has reason to be anxious. At Rmb1.6 billion, Demons Strike Back is still a far cry from breaking the record held by his last film The Mermaid, which was released during Chinese New Year in 2016. Both films star actress Lin although the reviews for The Mermaid were far rosier and it ended up making Rmb3.39 billion during its mammoth 122-day run.

Even more worrying, there were rumours that the distributors have guaranteed a box office of Rmb3 billion for Demons Strike Back, a similar arrangement for The Mermaid last year. If the ticket haul doesn’t reach that figure, investors (including Chow) will be financially exposed for the shortfall.

For Chow, however, this is just one of several financial targets weighing on his mind. Last year, mainland-listed Shanghai New Culture Media Group purchased 51% of his production firm PDAL (Premium Data Associates Limited) at a valuation of Rmb2.6 billion. Chow promised that PDAL will deliver a total of Rmb1 billion in net profit in the years to 2019. If it falls short, Chow will have to cover the difference either through cash or a share repurchase, says Sohu Entertainment, a portal.

Hong Kong Economic Journal reckons that a studio generally makes about 10% from box office takings. That means Chow’s future films need to gross at least Rmb10 billion during the four-year period to keep his end of the bargain. With such an ambitious target to reach, the filmmaker has some serious catching up to do. In fact, it appears that he is already behind: in the first nine months of last year, PDAL posted only Rmb64.2 million in profit, which was short of its annual target.

But Chow’s wealth management advisors may not have to get too edgy just yet: it has been reported that the comedian has four new movies underway, including King of Comedy 2, Kung Fu Hustle 2, Tai Chi, and – what else – the final film in his Journey to the West trilogy.

His partner New Culture Media seems unfazed.

“This cooperation with Stephen Chow is built upon our confidence in his track record and ability to react in the film business. Since the 1990s, he hasn’t stopped innovating and bringing new surprises; something we truly value. We also hope that working with him will expand our intellectual property,” Xu Bin from the media firm told the National Business Daily.

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