Always be selling

Indie film director takes on Golden Week competition to promote movie

Zhao Tao-w

Film duo: actress Zhao Tao and her husband, the director Jia Zhangke

Television networks know that nostalgia can be a hit with audiences. The sitcom Will & Grace will make a comeback this year on NBC and the 1990s show Murphy Brown has returned to the small screen after a 20-year absence too. Other reboots like Full House, Gilmore Girls and Twin Peaks are taking viewers down memory lane as well.

China’s movie industry has also been dusting down its back catalogue. Back in August, the film iPartment grabbed headlines by claiming to revive a popular Chinese TV drama of the same name, although audiences were disappointed when it turned out to be a totally different story with entirely new characters (see WiC420).

The ruse seemed to work: the film made about Rmb600 million ($87.3 million) by the end of its run.

In another nod to nostalgia, Hong Kong director Chin Ka-lok has revived Young and Dangerous, one of the city’s most popular gangster movie franchises. Golden Job, its latest recreation, brings back the four actors from the original cast – 50 year-old Ekin Cheng, Jordan Chan (51), Michael Tse (51) and Jerry Lamb (47) – for a new adventure after the sixth and last flick from the franchise was filmed in 2000.

The original series was triad-themed but Golden Job softens the criminality by featuring the five stars as con artists who get caught up in a heist planned by an international drug lord.

Despite a rather predictable plotline, the film has proved popular, taking around Rmb300 million in China since its release.

In contrast, Ash is Purest White, another crime melodrama film by art-house director Jia Zhangke also opened strongly, but lost much of its momentum in the days that followed. Jia has been at the forefront of indie cinema in China for two decades and his latest feature is a love story between gangster Bin (played by actor Liao Fan) and a model named Qiao (Zhao Tao, also Jia’s wife in real life).

The movie has made about Rmb70 million so far, far less than many of the forecasts which expected it to be a lot more mainstream than Jia’s typical work. It also had a much bigger budget at Rmb80 million, easily the most expensive film that Jia has ever made.

In the past some of Jia’s diehard fans have derided him for selling out simply for promoting his movies.

In 2015, some of his fans were annoyed when the filmmaker went on a national tour to promote Mountains May Depart, with many saying he had given up on his indie spirit.

“You have changed! You have become the same as everyone, no longer pure. You have learned to tour everywhere,” one former admirer fumed. (To which Jia’s re-sponse was: “Don’t you want my film to be seen by more people?”)

Those same fans may be equally upset to find the publicity machine is again in overdrive. Not only did Jia embark on a similar promotional tour for Ash is Purest White, he also appeared on various variety shows like Zhejiang Satellite TV’s I Am An Actor to talk about the new release. On the day of the premiere, he even lobbied Yang Chaoyue, a teen idol from reality competition Produce 101, to generate some buzz.

The lacklustre box office takings suggest that Jia is still not mainstream enough for most audience tastes, however.

“Young people these days don’t care about classic rock ballads, state-owned enterprise reforms and the Three Gorges Dam [some of the themes Jia uses to illustrate the changing social landscape]. These elements are so foreign to young audiences. But they are the people that ultimately decide on the outcome of the box office today. In contrast, they are more excited to watch films like Golden Job and Cry Me a Sad River [a film based on young adult writer Guo Jingming’s book],” reckoned crowdfunder site Touheima.

“The positioning of the film, which is still an art-house movie at heart, means the audience market is very narrow,” Securities Daily agreed.

In a last-ditch effort to boost ticket sales, Jia engaged in a war of words with Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin last week.

The debate started when the opinionated Hu criticised Ash is Purest White for being too “depressing” and “full of negative energy”.

“Please don’t place stinky tofu under our noses and force us to get used to that particular smell. I am aware that some people love to watch horror movies and negative energy can attract audiences in the way that opium gets people hooked. But I still hope filmmakers in China can study movies created by Hollywood and Bollywood and produce movies with normal views about what’s good and what’s evil,” Hu wrote.

Jia retaliated in an open letter: “My understanding of energy is that it should be based on telling the truth. Facts are the biggest positive energy. Resistance to seeing the reality is negative energy. Being blind to what’s really going on will make you unable to tell the truth. And that will generate more negative energy. This is basically what the phrase ‘seeking truth from facts’ is about. Do you agree?”

Many onlookers on social media weren’t convinced, reckoning that Jia’s lengthy and mocking response was a publicity stunt. “He’s just creating hype to sell more tickets at the box office,” one netizen alleged.

Another talking point for the film was the strange disappearance of veteran director Feng Xiaogang, who featured in a cameo role when the movie was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

By the time it had arrived for its first showing in Beijing, Feng was nowhere to be seen, stirring speculation that his scenes had been cut because he was embroiled in the same tax evasion scandal as his friend, Fan Bingbing (see “Fan hit the Fines”).

Feng has previously refuted the charges on social media, posting on weibo that he has never signed the so-called yin-yang contracts that the authorities have been investigating.


© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.