What would you do if you had $100 billion at your disposal?
Jeff Bezos looks like the person who might have to answer that question first. The Amazon founder and chief executive was named by Forbes as the world’s richest man last month. With a 50% increase in Amazon’s share price so far this year, Bloomberg put Bezos’ net worth at $96.1 billion last week.
Like a lot of rich guys – think Howard Hughes – Bezos has been drawn to the world of entertainment. In 2004 he appeared as a security guard in Amazon Theatre’s short film Tooth Fairy and last year he had a small speaking role in Star Trek Beyond as an alien.
A massive ‘Trekkie’, Bezos was happy to fulfill his childhood ambition, even if it meant exploiting his clout as a tycoon.
“For years I have been begging Paramount, which is owned by Viacom [and is a major partner in distributing Amazon Prime Video content], to let me be in a Star Trek movie. I was very persistent,” he explained. “My role is very tiny but it was super fun for me… It was a bucket list item so I was very glad to do it.”
(Amazon Studios this week acaquirerd the global rights for $329 million to produce a TV series of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and there is gossip that Bezos could play a hobbit in what is being billed as the biggest budget TV show ever.)
Over in China, internet giant Alibaba is not only competing with Amazon to become the world’s biggest e-commerce firm (the former is valued at $477 billion as of this week versus Amazon $542 billion), its boss Jack Ma also seems determined not to be outshone by Bezos on the silver screen.
Chinese shoppers spent over $25 billion during Singles’ Day on November 11 (see Page 1) in a sales extravaganza that featured international celebrities such as Nicole Kidman and Pharrell Williams at the event’s signature gala. Yet the most discussed topic for this year’s shopping festival was Gongshoudao, a short kung fu movie starring Jack Ma, which was broadcast as the finale of Alibaba’s 24-hour gala held in Shanghai.
A passionate kung fu fan, Ma is known to have used his knowledge of Tai Chi as a conduit to expanding his personal and business circles (see WiC236).
Even his bodyguard is believed to be a Tai Chi master (see WiC269). But thanks to Gongshoudao the flamboyant tycoon has taken things to an entirely different level.
Chinese media reckons the 20-minute movie boasts “the most expensive cast ever” because, besides the screen debut of one of China’s richest men, it also features nearly every Chinese action superstar, including Jet Li, Donnie Yen and Wu Jing, as well as Thai martial artist Tony Jaa and Zou Shiming, former holder of the WBO flyweight title (Jackie Chan was notably absent). Playing a grandmaster in the movie, Ma defeats each of these formidable opponents one by one.
Gongshoudao wasn’t made to fill cinemas. Anyone can watch it free of charge on various social media sites. On its official distribution platform Youku, a video streaming affiliate of Alibaba, the film generated more than 70 million hits in its first 24 hours of release.
Many critics have given it negative reviews. The action comedy pokes fun but its fight scenes have underwhelmed (despite having Yuen Woo-ping – who worked on The Matrix and Kill Bill – as the choreographer). In a repetitive formula, Ma floors each superstar before the camera swivels and we see him perform an effortless Tai Chi pose, complete with a funny line or two.
Some have been put off by the billionaire giving himself a lead role in a movie which he also produced. The fact that none of the superstars are being paid for their contribution has reinforced the impression that Ma – like Bezos – has exploited his commercial clout in pursuit of a personal dream.
“It is neither a comedy nor an action film. It is motivational,” a columnist quips on Apple Daily. “You can embrace your dream if you are rich… And you can kick Ip Man’s ass [a kung fu legend who had mentored Bruce Lee].”
So is Jack Ma just “being capricious”, a verdict that circulated widely on Chinese social media?
His fellow cast members have defended him. “I was surprised by his passion for filmmaking and Tai Chi. He joked that he wants to be remembered as ‘a Tai Chi master’, who also happened to start a business,” Natasha Liu, the only female lead in Gongshoudao, told the South China Morning Post.
Jet Li, a co-producer of the film, says it wasn’t just an ego trip. “You think all these actors are doing this for money? I don’t think so,” Li wrote on Facebook.
The three Chinese characters in the movie’s title mean “kung fu”, “defence” and “principle”. Li points out that – through the short film – he and Ma are chasing a bigger dream: to spread China’s Tai Chi culture. The Hollywood star says Gongshoudao is just “the first step” in this ambition and that they also intend to introduce a new style of martial art with a similar name, to be called GSD.
In an interview with China News Service, Li says that GSD will be a three-round combat sport (akin to Taekwondo) based on Tai Chi skills. The first tournament was held this week and televised by state broadcasters. Ultimately, Li hopes that GSD could become an official Olympic event.
If all of this works out, GSD could be a money-spinner for Alibaba, although government approval will be essential. According to the Global Times, Chinese sports authorities have just announced they want to put a stop to practitioners creating derivative forms of older martial arts. Ma and Li may not have got that memo, but the ending of Gongshoudao does entail an odd run-in with the authorities. It turns out the whole thing is a daydream and when Ma wakes up he is fighting with a group of Chinese police. Ma promptly apologises for the violence but ends the movie under arrest.
As denouements go, it’s not a fate many of his brethren in the business world would have scripted for themselves…
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