He has beaten Steven Spielberg twice as best director at the Oscars, first for the gay love story Brokeback Mountain in 2005 and then for the 2012 CGI fantasy Life of Pi. He has won two Golden Globes and two Baftas and many other prizes from film festivals around the world. Yet despite this impressive track record, Lee Ang’s latest feature Gemini Man has struggled to win over audiences.
Much of the reason is the way that Lee has filmed the movie, deploying the same technique that he used in 2016’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which was shot in a higher-frame-rate 3D format (120 frames per second, versus the customary 24).
The Taiwanese filmmaker went back to this approach in his latest offering, a frantic action thriller in which Will Smith plays an assassin hunted by his own younger clone.
Film critics weren’t impressed: “The effect is like watching a Jason Bourne dinner-theatre production in the grip of a migraine. The performances feel slow and deliberate, and the hyper-clarity of the images undermines realism rather than enhancing it,” AO Scott from the New York Times opined.
Even in China, where Lee has garnered a large fan base – so large, in fact, that it contributed 90% of Billy Lynn’s global box office takings – the film opened to a lukewarm reception. So far, it has made Rmb217 million ($32 million) at the Chinese box office, well behind Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and drama The Captain. “This time, even China can’t save Lee Ang,” Tencent Entertainment, a portal, mused.
Chinese reviews have been largely negative, with the same complaints about the filming technique. “Gemini Man is a standard action movie and there are a lot of scenes and shots that makes us feel like we are part of the action. However, it is precisely these sequences shot at 120-frame per second that are the problem. On the one hand, we feel that the higher frame rate makes the scenes so real. But on the other hand, the super-smooth picture that depicts a situation that is clearly unrealistic reminds us just how fake it is. This is why audiences can never bring themselves to feel immersed in the film,” China Daily claimed.
On Douban, the film and TV series review site, Gemini Man has a rating of 7.1 out of 10, significantly below the average score for Lee’s earlier work.“I must admit, even as his die-hard fan, uncle Lee has really missed the mark this time,” one fan wrote. “At least the story of Billy Lynn was very well-told. But in Gemini Man the plot is lame and the dialogue is a mess. I hope Lee Ang will come back to the Chinese market and start making Chinese-language films again.”
The poor showing has led to predictions from industry insiders that the film could lose as much as $75 million by the end of its run. That would mean two consecutive flops for the filmmaker and an unwelcome reputation as “box office poison”.
But no matter, Lee seems determined to convince the world that 120fps is the future. It certainly helps to have some strong backers in China that believe in his vision. One of them is Fosun Pictures, a studio run by the same conglomerate that owns Club Med, French fashion house Lanvin and English soccer team Wolverhampton Wanderers. In The company also backed Billy Lynn along with another Chinese studio Bona Film. Fosun has announced that it is an investor in Lee’s next film Thrilla in Manila too.
Guo Guangchang, chairman of Fosun, gushes about working with the director: “Even though Fosun hasn’t been making movies for a long time, through cooperation with Lee Ang we have reached the global pinnacle. And this is what Fosun [as a whole] is chasing… Now we may afford to do less, but whatever we do, it must be the world’s best.”
Some reckon that Fosun’s foray into filmmaking isn’t solely about making money, pointing out that the financial results so far have been average at best. “Fosun probably doesn’t expect Lee Ang to make money but what it really wants is to align itself with him; to use him to give its other businesses a boost. So even if his films are losing money at the moment, if he can help Fosun do a brand makeover, why not?” 36kr speculated.
“For Fosun, Lee Ang is unquestionably a brand it covets. For Lee, Fosun has enough assets to fulfill his filmmaking dream. So both get what they want.”
The filmmaker also sounded unconcerned by Gemini Man’s commercial performance. “To make a little more, to make a little less, I don’t think it makes a big difference. I think life should have meaning; learning should have meaning. If you are dabbling in something you are not interested in, there is no point,” he said.
Comments from Will Smith’s co-star Mary Elizabeth Winstead also highlighted Lee’s strong commitment to filming at 120fps. “He just cares so much about his work and particularly this technology. It’s not like ‘heh this is cool’; it really means something to him, like he is trying to do something new. The 3D feels so real, like you are really there,” she explained in an interview with The Wrap.
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