The notion of he sui pian, or a Chinese New Year Film, first came about in 1997 when filmmaker Feng Xiaogang’s Party A, Party B set a box office record over the holiday period. The movie made Rmb36 million ($4 million) in ticket sales, a relatively large sum at the time. Over the next decade Feng regularly released hits during the same period, including Be There or Be Square (1998), Sorry Babe (1999), A Sigh (2000), Cell Phone (2003), and A World Without Thieves (2005).
Hong Kong comedian-director Stephen Chow later grabbed the Spring Festival baton when his Journey to the West: Conquering Demons took top billing in 2013’s holiday period. His next film, The Mermaid, also released ahead of the lucrative window in 2016, became China’s (then) highest grossing film, making Rmb3.4 billion.
So hopes were high that Chow’s latest release, New King of Comedy, would also sizzle over the Chinese New Year. It has a similar premise to the original offering in the franchise, which came out a decade ago, and follows a struggling movie extra who is trying to land a leading role but suffers repeated humiliations along the way.
Ahead of its opening the pre-sale bookings were strong and many tipped ticket sales to reach as much as Rmb5 billion. But the enthusiasm was somewhat premature and the film’s prospects were soon hampered by a slew of negative reviews. With a rating of just 5.8 out of 10 on Douban, the leading TV and film review site, New King of Comedy has taken just Rmb600 million in sales so far.
It probably didn’t help that Chow gave the leading role to newcomer E Jingwen rather than cast a bigger name. But a more common complaint is that the movie simply isn’t funny enough. “It’s not original and it feels like it is chao leng fan [literally ‘cooking cold rice,’ that is, telling a story that’s been told before] and selling nostalgia. The more expectations you have, the more disappointed you will be,” one reviewer wrote on Douban.
“If you can endure 30 minutes of this movie that’s already giving Stephen Chow face. He basically lifts the same storyline from his old film and repackages it into a new one. It definitely makes me question Chow’s character to release such lazy work,” another complained.
In 2017 Chow was chastised for ceding his creativity for a quick buck. Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back, a film he produced, made about Rmb1.6 billion but was panned by critics and netizens alike (see WiC354).
Some of the critics say that Chow’s brand of humour has become outdated and can’t keep the attention of younger moviegoers. “While Stephen Chow has brought us countless classic works and his delivery and humour have made a lasting impression on generations of audiences, we have to admit that the talented young comedian is now an old man. And when you are old, you need extra power to keep up with the younger people’s footsteps and stay in the game. Right now, it feels like there is a big gap between the filmmaker and his young audiences,” reckoned More Light and Shadow, a film blog.
Maybe it’s not just Chow that has lost his magic touch. Fellow Hong Kong star Jackie Chan has also seen his latest offering sink without trace at the box office. The Knight of Shadows: Between Yin and Yang sees a demon hunter (played by Chan) defend humanity from a demon invasion. Yet it scored just 4.1 out of 10 on Douban, and earned a dismal Rmb150 million in ticket sales, not nearly enough to offset production costs of Rmb400 million.
The lacklustre results have prompted many to argue that the aging star is getting too old as well.
“As he continues to age, Jackie Chan has cut down on the action scenes in his films,” Yiyu Guancha, an entertainment news blog, says. “However, without these scenes or an actor with enough star power to replace him, even a major production with Chan in the main role is not going to be enough to attract audiences.”
So is this another instance of the waning influence of Hong Kong’s film stars compared to yesteryear – as giants of the scene like Chow and Chan head for their dotage?
It’s a theme we’ve talked about before, with concerns that younger talent isn’t coming through the ranks (see WiC406). However, there have been other signals that Hong Kong-style action movies can still pull in audiences when produced to a high standard, as Project Gutenberg proved last year (see WiC428).
But unquestionably it is a newer player from mainland China now wearing the crown of box office emperor. That is Wu Jing, the star of Wandering Earth, China’s first sci-fi blockbuster film, which has been a massive hit over this Chinese New Year holiday period (see WiC440 for more about the film).
The movie has raked in over Rmb4.1 billion in ticket sales since February 5 and it could even topple Wolf Warrior 2, which also starred Wu, as China’s top grossing movie (it made Rmb5.6 billion of ticket sales in 2017).
Stephen Chow has reason to envy the colossal box office haul. As we pointed out in WiC354, he badly needs commercial successes after guaranteeing the buyer of PDAL, his studio, Rmb1 billion of profits between 2016 and the end of this year.
Local media has estimated that his films in that period would need to generate about Rmb10 billion in takings to come close to this level of profit, but the three movies released to date haven’t kept pace, earning something like Rmb5.6 billion.
Now the strategy seems to be to release a series of sequels to his past successes, with Apple Daily reporting that Chow is going to rush out Kung Fu Hustle 2 before the end of the year.
Perhaps he will meet his financial milestones after all.
However, the muted performance of the New King of Comedy may well be a signal that audiences are no longer so excited about seeing his films, especially when they have been repackaged from earlier hits.
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