Show me the money

Han Han’s journey from rebel intellectual to movie mogul


Han Han: youngest filmmaker to make it into China’s “Billion Club”

Han Han’s blog was at its most popular eight years ago when it was getting over 100 million views. It has been largely dormant since then.

In fact, the last time the writer-filmmaker updated his blog – in which he commonly lashed out at corruption, censorship, pollution and the gap between the rich and the poor – was well over five years ago.

WiC has chronicled Han’s ever-changing public persona over the past decade. From best-selling novelist to racecar driver, he has made a habit of stimulating disagreement and debate. And his latest foray into filmmaking is proving to be controversial once more.

In mid-October, Han’s PMF Pictures announced that it had completed a fundraising round – receiving an investment of Rmb310 million ($46.91 million) that valued his company at Rmb2 billion. Bona Pictures, one of the most established studios in China, invested as much as Rmb250 million in Han’s production firm and it now owns 12.5% of the studio.

Bona had partnered with Han even before he founded PMF. In 2014, Bona invested in the filmmaker’s first feature The Continent, which took Rmb629 million at the domestic box office. The success motivated Han to set up PMF (which stands for Professional Making Film) in 2015.

Two years later, Han followed up with Duckweed, starring actor Deng Chao and actress Zhao Liying. A nostalgic comedy, which features a young man travelling back in time to gain a better understanding of his father, it went on to become a surprise success during this year’s Chinese New Year holiday. It pulled in Rmb1 billion at the box office despite intense competition from Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West 2 (which took Rmb1.6 billion) and Jackie Chan’s Kung Fu Yoga (Rmb1.7 billion).

“When it comes to commercial films, Duckweed is probably the most artistic. But when it comes to artistic films, Duckweed is probably the most commercial. This shows how smart Han Han is: ‘I am commercial; I want to make money; but [I get away with it because] I’m cool,’” was the verdict of one entertainment critic.

After the success of Duckweed Han became one of the youngest filmmakers to join China’s so-called “Billion Club” (denoting box office takings of Rmb1 billion or more).

For Bona, the film was a decent boost to the bottom line too: it invested just Rmb16.6 million but generated a return of Rmb135 million. (Han will be a beneficiary when Bona relists on the A-share market, having earned a small stake in the studio as part of their partnership).

Not everyone thinks Han has struck the right balance between commercial fare and the edgier content. “The environment has changed. Han Han has changed. When he becomes a commercial filmmaker, it means he is no longer that angry blogger, the trendsetter. He now only wants to make big money,” one disheartened fan complained.

“When did my favourite intellectual become such a commercial businessman?” another lamented.

Indeed, since he started making films in 2014, Han hasn’t published any new books. And while he is still active on Sina Weibo, he prefers to address more personal issues rather than pen the scathing social and political criticism that made his early reputation as a blogger.

In an interview with the New York Times, Han explains why he is writing less: “I’ve already written many of the pieces I needed to write and said many of the things I needed to say. I’m a person who does more than talk. Thanks to the internet, people tend to speak and comment more. There are fewer and fewer people who actually do things. I devote time to professional motor racing because you can’t achieve anything in this sport just by talking. It’s the same with making movies. I’m trying to realise my childhood dreams one by one.”

Next up is a sci-fi blockbuster, which can be loosely translated as Made in the Sky, set to come out next year. An adaptation of his debut novel Triple Door is also in the works.

“In the past few years, Han went from being a ‘young writer’ to a ‘young opinion leader’ and now to a ‘young filmmaker’. Writing is no longer his career; it is his past. His future is filmmaking,” says Entertainment Unicorn. “Perhaps a lot of people think that he is now past his prime. But others will argue that the best has just begun.”

People’s Daily sounds a more cautionary note on Han’s prospects: “Made in the Sky has been delayed from October of this year to next summer. Triple Door is still in the development process. Apart from The Continent and Duckweed, which have already been released, PMF’s track record is hardly a prediction of its future success.”

But what makes Han so appealing to his fans is that he doesn’t seem to care about what other people say. “I’m not going to live my life to meet other people’s expectations. When some people say I’m not meeting their expectations and ask me why not, I’m not even interested in answering,” he told the New York Times.



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