Mozart’s last requiem?

A directors’ ‘hot’ track record can no longer guarantee box office success


Chen Sicheng: his new movie Mozart from Space has flopped

Hollywood filmmaker Michael Bay has long been known for action blockbusters like The Rock, Armageddon and most famously the Transformers franchise. His reputation for blowing things up and for overwhelming action sequences even resulted in the term “Bayhem,” which sums up the chaotic and visually-loaded filmmaking style he has become known for.

Even though most of Bay’s films were big box office winners, film critics were less impressed. The late Roger Ebert called the 2009 release of Transformers sequel Revenge of the Fallen “a horrible experience of unbearable length, briefly punctuated by three or four amusing moments”.

In China, actor-director Chen Sicheng has also developed a reputation for churning out blockbuster hits that were commercially successful but critically dismissed. The 44 year-old got his start as an actor, appearing in popular TV dramas like Soldiers Sortie (released in 2006) and Love is a Blessed Bullet, which came out a year later.

He later forayed behind the camera, directing the TV series Beijing Love Story, which starred his now-ex-wife actress Tong Liya (the two divorced last year). In 2015, he released Detective Chinatown, a suspense comedy that was set in Thailand. The film became a surprise box office hit, collecting Rmb800 million ($118 million), a huge sum at the time.

Three years later, Chen came out with the sequel, which followed a similar storyline, but with a larger budget and which took place in New York. It was another commercial success, picking up Rmb3.4 billion at the domestic box office. Detective Chinatown 3 came out last Chinese New Year and despite overwhelmingly negative word-of-mouth, the comedy raked in even more: Rmb4.5 billion.

In between, Chen also dabbled in other genres. He was the producer of a 2019 suspense drama Sheep Without a Shepherd, which won over not just film critics but retained mass box office appeal, taking Rmb1.3 billion. The sequel Fireflies In the Sun that came out two years later was also a winner making Rmb1.1 billion in ticket sales.

“Whether it’s Detective Chinatown or the Sheep Without a Shepherd franchise, it is clear that Chen Sicheng has learned from Hollywood, having perfected the art of churning out commercial blockbuster franchises one after another. However, the foundation of all that successes has a lot riding on the first film. In other words, as long as the first film is successful, then there will be two, three, four and even five in the franchise,” Blue Whale Media mused.

Chen was at the helm again last week with a new film Mozart from Space. This time round, the filmmaker is attempting a new genre: a family comedy with a fantasy twist.

To give the film star power, he chose household name Huang Bo as the lead along with young actor Rong Zishan.

The story follows Ren Dawang (Huang) who wishes for his son Ren Xiaotian (Rong) to become “an elegant musician” like famous pianist Lang Lang. But Ren junior is more interested in astronomy and their differences become a source of contention. One day, a mysterious alien called ‘Mozart’ appears before them and helps the two reconcile.

Given the A-list cast and Chen’s strong box office appeal, many tipped Mozart from Space as the biggest box office winner during the summer holiday, with observers forecasting that it could collect as much as Rmb4 billion in the box office.

But so far, the film has been a big disappointment, both in terms of word-of-mouth and ticket sales.

On Douban, the TV series and film review site, the blockbuster film’s rating also went from 5.1 out of 10 when it first opened to just 4.7 this week, rendering it the most poorly rated film in Chen’s directing career (even Detective Chinatown 3 has a rating of 5.6). As of this week, the film has collected just Rmb175 million since its debut last Thursday.

The low takings have many saying that the film will struggle to surpass Rmb400 million in total box office figures by the end of its run, which would be significant for its backers since the film reportedly cost Rmb250 million to make thanks to all the special effects.

On Douban, audiences complain that the story is “dumb” and “outrageous”.

“The story is at the same time too naive for elementary school students, but also totally mentally retarded for adults. Watching the film makes me physically and psychologically uncomfortable,” one of the most ‘liked’ comments on Douban says.

“Since the birth of E.T. [the Spielberg alien from the eponymous 1982 film] I have never met an alien I want dead so quickly,” another mocked.

Critics reckon that without a suspense element, Chen’s new feature has alienated his most loyal fans. “The anticipation for Mozart from Space before its release has a lot to do with fans’ expectation based on his last two franchises. But this time, the Chen Sicheng that they thought they knew suddenly feels very foreign,” ThePaper.cn admits.

Even Chen admits that he was taking a risk with his new family drama, saying that the reason he was able to convince investors to back the project had a lot to do with his previously spotless form putting ‘bums-on-seats’.

“When I was making this movie, the economic situation was better than it is now,” Chen said in an interview. “I was fortunate to have a strong track record in the business so I was able to take the opportunity to take some risks here.”

But it should have been a warning sign when even the director didn’t seem particularly confident about the new film. In media interviews, Chen has assured his investors that if Mozart ends up falling short, he promised to recoup the losses with his next directorial features.

That, of course, is assuming his investors will continue to shower him with their largesse.

As China’s economy slows, a lot of film studios are struggling to stay afloat. Among the eight studios that released their financial results in the first half of this year, only two – namely, Enlight Media and Huanrui Century – were profitable. The rest of the industry racked up hundreds of millions in losses during the same period.

Chen’s fortune is tied to Wanda Film, which bankrolled his last few projects. The studio, which also operates the largest cinema chain, has been on life support as theatres are often the first to shut down whenever there’s a Covid outbreak.

In the first half of the year, Wanda Film achieved a box office haul of Rmb2.4 billion, a decrease of 31% over the same period the prior year. The number of moviegoers, too, dropped 38% to 57 million. Wanda Film estimated that its own loss from January to June will be between Rmb520 million to Rmb600 million, a year-on-year decrease of 181.41% to 193.93%, it reported. “The box office in April and May hit multi-year lows,” Wanda lamented.

Will another sci-fi comedy save the summer holiday?

Moon Man, which opens this Thursday, has already generated a lot of buzz ahead of its release. The film is another Mahua Funage production, a famous comedy troupe in China. Cinema operators are clearly bullish on its prospects, allocating almost 90% of the nation’s screens to the film on the first day of its release.

Moon Man features the protagonist Dugu Yue (which also means ‘lonely moon’ in Chinese, played by comedian Shen Teng) who accidentally lands on the moon, thereby beginning his adventure on the satellite.

Meanwhile, Warriors of Future, another sci-fi action film featuring Hong Kong actors Leo Ku and Sean Lau, is also scheduled to hit the big screen in early August.

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