By Luo Laiming
Illustration by: Zhang Nan
We are now less than a week away from China's Spring Festival. This year Chinese blockbuster films are vying for viewers in a time that was traditionally reserved for family reunions at home. Let's find out more about these films and perhaps a bit more about what may come to pass in China's movie industry in 2016.
In 2015, China's movie industry witnessed progress in almost every aspect of filmmaking. As infrastructure building continued to expand, new box office records were cropping up by the month. The changes in the moviegoing demographic impacted on the genres of films rolling off the production line. Stories that appeal to a wider range of audience in smaller cities saw significant increase in numbers.
In the year 2016, the same pattern will most likely continue. Among the movies that have already booked a release date, a large proportion of them fall into the comedy category. At least five will hit Chinese cinemas in the latter half of January alone, but none seems to possess the necessary firepower to trigger a box office explosion. The most promising candidate, according to information available so far, is likely to debut on April 1st in the form of "Chongqing Hot Pot," starring Chen Kun and Bai Baihe.
Chen and Bai have each appeared in a movie with more than a billion yuan income in the year 2015, this year they rally under Yang Qing, producer of a previous box office record-holder "Lost in Thailand," to form the formula for an explosion in the market.
A slight deviation from the established pattern is, the first day of the lunar new year now becomes a rather coveted spot. Traditionally people have thought of this time of year as an occasion for family reunions and friendly visits, but since 2014 the cinemas have made it into their itineraries. This probably has something to do with young migrant office workers patronizing newly built local cinemas in their hometowns. Their enthusiasm for entertainment in places of limited choices led to cordial reception for many mediocre films that could have remained obscure in a different time.
Anyway, today only the most competitive movies occupy the privileged time slots during the Spring Festival, and these include "Mermaid" by Stephen Chow, "The Monkey King 2" by Cheang Pou-Soi, "From Vegas to Macau" by Wang Jing and "Guonianhao" or "Happy New Year" by Gao Qunshu.
Stephen Chow is almost a god-fatherly figure among China's young movie fans, his unique humorous style and keen sense of observation provide an amusing perspective in the analysis of humanity, while his fame has guaranteed ample resources at his command in the process of filmmaking. "Mermaid" could be a compelling choice for viewers during the festival, but nonetheless they need to tune down their expectation a bit. Since Mr. Chow has refrained from appearing in his own films, he has not found a worthy substitute actor that can quite imitate his demeanor and style in front of the camera.
Two years ago, when director Cheang Pou-Soi promoted "The Monkey King: Havoc in the Heavenly Kingdom," he highlighted the ground-breaking special effects. But in fact the level of special effects did not come close to the level of his boasting. Now, two years have passed, the filmmakers are once again stressing the special effects in the sequel. I certainly hope they live up to their promise this time, but hoping is all I can do about this one.
Wang Jing's "From Vegas to Macau" is also a sequel, according to Mr. Wang's previous track record and the performance of two prequels, there may not be any surprises, pleasant or unpleasant. The size of this film's income will most likely be proportionate to the size of total box office income during the festival season.
Director Gao Qunshu has always been quite proficient at speculating what the viewers want, but his recent outings indicate he may not be as proficient at delivering it. This year he joins hands with popular skit actor Zhao Benshan in "Guonianhao". The latter has repeatedly appeared on China Central Television's New Year Gala, China's most watched show in the past couple of decades. So Zhao is a strong presence associated with the New Year and therefore may attract people who still bother to watch the gala. By tapping into people's strong feelings about family and tradition, "Guonianhao" could be a strong competitor against Stephen Chow's "Mermaid," and it is going to be an epic battle between modernity and tradition.
A lesser competitor, or rather, a more likely casualty in the spring festival season is Chinese science fiction film "Lost in the Pacific." It is a thriller story happening on an intercontinental airliner. The only notable member of the team is Zhang Yuqi, who starred in her ex-husband and director Wang Quan'an's drama film "White Deer Plain." And regarding special effects, which many consider the face of science fiction films, the word we are looking for is "crude," as suggested by the posters at the moment. So there is hardly any reason for the film to survive the fierce competition and the best option is to reschedule.
But speaking of science fiction, the year 2016 will see more titles being made under that genre. Come July, film adaptation of science fiction novel and Nebula Award winner "The Three-Body Problem" will be released in the cinemas. So far little is known about the adaptation, except for a trailer featuring concept pictures. But the producer of the film Kong Xiangzhao has made some unsettling remarks, saying "The Three-Body Problem" is the greatest science fiction novel by a Chinese writer in decades, centuries or even millennia, so it is only fair to have a Chinese studio handle the adaptation, that way no one will feel regrettable when the project fails.
The arrogance of Mr. Kong is fueled by the amount of investment he has secured, but when it comes to resources, no one can quite challenge the status of Zhang Yimou. For decades before hot money even began pouring into China's movie industry, Mr. Zhang has been generous in the graphics of his films. Now he works for one of China's largest private video portals. In 2015, his colleague at LeTV Lu Chuan released adventure film "Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe," a lousy story with stunning visual effects, imagine what Zhang Yimou as a much more influential figure in the industry can deliver in his upcoming science fiction story "The Great Wall."
Other phenomenal Chinese movies now scheduled to released in 2016 include "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon II: The Green Destiny," "Cold War II," "Find Mr. Right II" and "L.O.R.D." But as their titles suggest, a lot of them are going to be sequels following previous successful titles. The trend indicates a significant amount of risk involved in the industry, much like what's going on in Hollywood.