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Category Archives: 10 Chinese Hits

Stephen Chow knows how to make blockbusters for Chinese audiences. My guess is he is mystified as to why they keep racking up box office records in China, while being ignored by the rest of the world. The reason, I think, is because they are pretentious and poorly made. They pretend to be blockbusters of international quality, while actually being slightly embarrassing variations on what you have seen on the screens already. As the Chinese domestic audience seems not to care about the absolutely sub-par quality of cgi in films consisting mainly of cgi, he is getting away with it here, but not there.

This is what stuns me the most, really: you would expect that Chow and his producers could afford to bring in some serious cgi talent when making films about Chinese mysticism or mermaids. The revenues generated from his films would allow for the extra expenses. But you end up seeing crappy waterfalls, half-developed monsters and afternoon-tv explosions. This is distracting… what’s also distracting is the lack of judgement about to what level to raise the violence in a romantic comedy such as “The Mermaid”. I guess the lack of a film certification system and board is to blame. They would certainly have a word with the producers about scenes of vicious slaughter amidst a family entertainment movie such as this…

After the “Journey West”, another mystifying disappointment…

A film about a celebrity actor who gets into trouble after a drunk night out and seeks to remedy his life and career by making the ultimate superhero movie, said superhero being a Jian Bing (Breakfast pancake) vendor with superpowers… this could go either way, really. Even for the standards of Chinese comedy, this is camp and slapstick and as low-brow as it gets. That being said… I laughed a couple of times, and a few times out loud. Da Peng manages to mock the vacuous life of movie celebrities (certainly limited in its insight to the Chinese movies, international Hollywood stars would never be caught jogging with a bunch of bodyguards while puffing on a fat cigar, right?). That is fun already, and it gets more fun where he decides that – lacking resources after old friends and partners do not take his phone calls anymore – his film will need to be shot guerilla style, sneaking up on famous actors, kidnapping them or pretending an assault, with Jian Bing Man coming to the rescue. This actually works, some moments of utter hilarity ensue, with the locals probably mostly enjoying the known faces of Chinese films falling victim to assaults with raw eggs and onions, choice of weapon for every Jian Bing man of self-respect…

It is not much of a surprise that this film catapulted itself into the top grossing films in mainland China in a short time. When you look into other non-Hollywood domestic markets, simple-minded comedies that manage to push the right buttons at the right time are the one segment where local film industry can hope to compete with blockbusters for the hearts of the local audiences. Jian Bing Man follows “Lost in Thailand” in that respect, but with (I would guess) considerably higher budget (needed to show off some celebrity lifestyle and Beijing cityscapes). Whether or not Jean-Claude Van Damme was a necessary addition… well he is there and manages another split, which is an achievement that sets a good example for senior citizens. Stay fit, it might lead to a small part in the next screen sensation.

This film I saw as part of my project “Chinese Box Office Wonders” – I took it on myself to watch the 10 most successful domestic Chinese movies of the last year. See here for the introduction and the list of films.

“Back to 1942”, based on Liu Zhenyun’s novel “Remembering 1942” and by now the Chinese nominee for the 2014 academy awards, was the only film on the list I was actually quite looking forward to seeing. The topic is a serious one, for a foreign observer also one maybe not well known. On a meta-level it is always interesting to see how Chinese film makers (can) cope with aspects of Chinese recent history that are less than flattering for the rulers at the time.

On that last point, I was quite impressed. Without indeed knowing too much about the Henan drought of 1942 that, in combination with the invasion of the Japanese troops, killed about 3 million people in just a couple of months. The drought and maybe even a locust plague did away with the harvest, but but what was decisive was the government’s unwillingness to send substantial personnel and food aid. The reason is spelled out: sometimes when your burden is too big, it’s better to cast off that burden, leaving the starving people to themselves, focusing the troop efforts on a war with the Japanese that is not even fought with great determination. Even when the order comes in to withdraw from the battle lines, the military is not used to help the refugees leave the province, but instead they scavenge and steal what’s left, saving their own hides wherever they can. Food aid is hampered by an abundance of officials who care about nothing as much as about the well-being of their own clientele, and the governor of the province – even though apparently well-intended –  seems unable to cut through the mess and help his people.

“Back to 1942” is a story of plenty frustration and not much hope. There are no heroes, only people who succumb earlier or later to the cruelties of their system, be that system politics, farming, or military. The story is told from the perspective of a Henan town or village that, as everybody else, abandons their homes to flee west, in a rather irrational move, rather than moving to the warmer and less war-ridden South (but as is explained: “This is what Henan people always did in times of trouble”). Landlords turn paupers, wives and children get sold, plenty die of exhaustion and starvation and the cruel cold. The most lucky one might be the one who find some pimp to host them in a brothel or a farmer who needs a new wife and carries her away. Interesting that for the men, there is less choice than for the women on whether and how to survive.

I commend the film for not pulling many stops. If you want the good guys to survive and the bad guys to die, a drought in wartime is not where you get that. Children are separated from their families and never seen again, or smothered to death by accident when chaos breaks out. The denial and incompetence of governmental sections is addressed, as is the complicated political landscape within which these decisions had to be made. This is not always told in the most subtle way (in one clumsy scene there heads of police, education and some other departments make a claim for receiving help first, rather than the general public of Henan), but given what kind of Chinese films addressing historic events I have recently seen, “Back to 1942” is almost of spectacular quality. The acting is also very solid, with Zhang Guoli as landlord Fan in the downward spiral, Chen Daoming plays “Generalissimo” Chiang Kai-Shek as tough leader who feels he needs to wall the pain about his people’s suffering behind a wall of discipline and administrative diligence. Adrian Brody and Tim Robbins pop up, the former at least with an role important to the plot development, as TIME reporter who alerts Chiang to the severity of Henan’s misery.

What I liked most, and what some international reviews oddly criticized, is the lack of pathos. This drama does not play out as structured accumulation of misery towards a resolution of death or survival, but – I think more credibly and realistically – as an effort in endurance, without a true prospect. The refugees go west until they die or are stopped. The government gets entangled in compromises without there being a Gordian knot in sight that could be cut. Individual fates start, diverge, converge, dissipate, until the world is not the same as it was before. This lack of clear and clean resolution is to be commended!

This film I saw as part of my project “Chinese Box Office Wonders” – I took it on myself to watch the 10 most successful domestic Chinese movies of the last year. See here for the introduction and the list of films.

This film should be established as compulsory watching at film schools around the world. It shatters the notion that anybody can make a solidly entertaining action movie given a certain budget. It provides ample evidence that film making is pretty hard, that it requires skills which need to be built up over time, that the production of a movie is a vocation, a craft which should be learned properly and systematically. It may not be the most complicated of things, but you need to get some people involved who have a vague idea of what they’re doing, and some others who have seen a film or two in their lives. “Come visit our Film Academy”, film academy’s promotion flyers should shout, “or else you will end up making movies like ‘Switch’!”
I read that the reception of the film was not very good, to say the least. There is the suspicion that the film only ended up with the high box office figures because of the spectacularly bad press it got – and many people wanted to see Andy Lau in this kind of car crash of a film. On the other hand, I learned to enjoy “not very good” films on their own level of existence, they are created to provide forgettable escapism for an hour or three, and I don’t mind that. This is the attitude with which I started watching “Switch”… I admit that I was not prepared for the spectacular mountain of incompetence that “Switch” is. There is no hint of skill, either in photography, direction, sound, acting, visual effects… nothing. Some deficiencies are even more outstanding than others. The production design basically consists of buying everything from a designer furniture bargain bin and pretending it is cool. The award of most rotten composition of a movie I remember having ever seen goes to: editing, stunt coordination, product placement:
• Min. 7: realisation creeps in… this will be tough… somebody was shooting footage and then handed it over to a four-year-old, who started pushing all the buttons on the Avid machine and then some… the editing / timing is completely off, creates almost incomprehensible successions of cuts and scenes. This is not “modern-style frantic”, it is “text book incompetent”.
• Min. 10: Andy Lau’s character has a doctorate degree in law from Oxford? Then why can’t he say a single straight (four-worded) English sentence? Thank God for the English subtitles…
• Min. 15: this is what they consider to be a dense atmospheric setting with creepy protagonists? It would be funny would it not look so poorly made.
• Min. 23: I was waiting for this… the Japanese sadist has had a bad childhood …
• Min. 49: Yes, we all thought the “Minority Report” computer interface was quite slick, but that was like 15 years ago. Also: If you show a character handle the screens like that, at least pretend that he has a reason to do so. And don’t show it seven times, 3 minutes each…
• Min. 66: Quite a feat to make Andy Lau look stupid and clumsy in a fight scene. This is called “Dumbass Kung Fu”? Do they not have choreographers, stuntmen, any of the things that you need for a movie fight?
• Permanently: Buy Audi! Because Audi is a very good car. It is very fast and will never get a scratch! Buy! Even when shot at, really! Great car! In silver and red! Even better if you are tapping on your nonsensical Nokia mobile phone interface while driving an Audi, this makes you invincible!
• Min. 72: refer to comments about the Minority Report interface… really, there’s still somebody who thinks the Burj al Arab is a very cool setting for an action movie?? Yes, it used to be, but that was, like, 320 movies ago …
• Min 80: No Audi will ever get damaged in a car chase.
• Any non-Audi car will fall over, hence: buy Audi! Or else your car will fall over and a hand-painted burst of flames will signify that it exploded. Not with the Audi, of course! Take out your Nokia and tell all your friends about it!!
• Min. 91: Even when a shot of a camera moving around a black Audi is superimposed on an aquarium, creating the immaculate illusion of the (unbreakable) Audi to smash into said aquarium, there will never be a single scratch on any black Audi. Hence: Buy Audi, brand of the champions! (Despite Audis being unbreakable, for shooting the scene it looks they used Lego cars to make it appear more convincing, like transcending the idea of a car crash and making a more general point about all this being a child’s play IF you drive an Audi, silver or black. The red one is for social occasions only).
• Min. 104: Is this is the best showdown ever? The two opponents taking the time to dress in white Olympic fencing gear and fighting it out with the foil??? Maybe the two actors were out of contract time or were taking the Audis out on a spin, so the whole scene plays out without even pretending they are present on the set, full-face fencing masks and all…

Summary: I think it’s very likely that BMW and Samsung paid for the whole film, just to make a fool out of the competition. Worked well: Nokia has gone the way of all things mortal within half a year of the movie being released. I expect Audi to call it quits any day now. Andy Lau, on the other hand, is as unbreakable as a silver, red or black Audi. This abomination of a film cannot do him any harm. Everybody else should be thoroughly ashamed on themselves.

That is quite an insightful comment here on China Daily, linking nicely to my “Chinese Box Office Wonders” project:

“it is the typical Hollywood way of story-telling that is absorbed by these Chinese films. And that secret is called genre films. These films are commercial in nature; they conform to strict formulae in narrative, which Chinese filmmakers had always ignored or disdained.”

Full text by Raymond Zhou at  Fast forward with film |X – Ray |

CZ12 (or “Chinese Zodiac”, as it is also called, because some Chinese zodiac sculptures looted from the Beijing Summer Palace serve as McGuffin) is not a good film. By no category or definition. Now I have never been a fan of Jackie Chan’s “oeuvre” in any way, and do not find the least bit of pleasure in the effort of Chinese and Hongkong movie industry to find new ways of making people of all ages, genders and physical skills bounce about in their martial arts varieties and get roped around “like a feather” (which in all cases that I actually did see looked as light as meat chunks on the butcher’s hook. And I know what I’m talking about, butchers in the family and all…). When you combine this with what I dare to call a “Chinese sense of humour” (i.e. excessive use of slip-on-banana kind of slapstick, pulling faces in front of an automatic camera while being kicked in the balls by a camera tripod, blatant use of homosexuality references, etc. etc.), then … it’s really not my piece of cake. This means “CZ12” never stood a chance of being liked by me. No problem, but for what it is, is it well done?

Nope! The film adds to its own misery by doing what it’s doing in a surprisingly amateurish way: Its action power is basically exhausted after the opening sequence involving some full-body-rollerskating escape, which is so poorly directed that it was painful to watch. After that: a bit of change of scenery, some girls screaming so as to be rescued by the brave heroes, some girls talking about their underwear, some girls pulling each others’ hair. Some old men pretending they are still very good at fighting very young men. Some international actors who clearly do not know what they signed up for (Oliver Platt, please, have a word with your agent, or is business really so dire? If you need a job, call me!).

I watched the film even though I knew this is not my genre, expecting at least some production values and some of China’s and Hongkong’s most experienced directors and actors at work. I would need to check whether “CZ12” and the recent “Journey West” are among the most expensive Chinese movies ever made. If this is the case – and I believe it is – then this tells a very sad story about the technical and narrative skills of the Chinese film industry. The involvement of the international setting (travelling from Paris to China to Vanuatu (I am told by Wikipedia) and some more) and a bunch of international actors is certainly aimed at opening the international markets. Really? With this??? (not much info there)

When writing about Jackie Chan’s recent “CZ12”, I almost started with writing “Where to begin?… sigh…”. Then I realised that this is exactly what I had thought (and written) when I started writing about the recent “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons”. I see a pattern emerging … popular Chinese films often leave me flabbergasted, making me wonder about this and that. In particular, they make my wonder why there are so few good ones. And why the not-so-good-ones still attract such large audiences. There are plenty of things to be considered (censorship eradicating any challenging material; professional training institutions not up to snuff; differences in general pop culture, of course  … ) and maybe there will be time some day to write them down.

Not now. Now I engage in a different adventure. A perilous one. I have recently written (for a German film industry magazine) about the perceivable trend of Chinese movie audiences to turn their backs on average Hollywood superhero franchise output, and hand their rising middle-class income over to the cashier to see domestic films instead. Some odd and unexpected candidates stormed the box office charts over the last year, the astonishing success of the low budget screwball comedy “Lost in Thailand” marking the turn of tides (now most successful Chinese film ever, and most definitely most profitable one).

When looking at the list of the 10 most successful Chinese films at the Chinese box office over the last year that I compiled for that article, I realised that almost nobody outside China has ever heard of these films, more certainly nobody has seen them. So what about going through this list one by one and writing short comments about them, to share the pleasure, if there is any to be found. And forcing myself into exposure to cutting edge Chinese pop culture while I am at it.

The experiment will not have dimensions as described in A.J. Jacob’s heroic task of reading the Encyclopedia Britannica cover to cover, or his equally astonishing project to live one year in full compliance with the Old Testament. Still, I am already quite scared of having to make sense of the success of the likes of “Tiny Times” (which sounds like a dumbed-down and sexed-down version of “Sex in the City” – if thinking about that concept does not blow your mind already…). And I am truly terrified of exposing myself to the subtle humour and elaborate character development I am used to from previous Jackie Chan movies –  there’s one on the list, whether I like it or not. Others are more interesting, with a drama about 1942 Hebei during the Chinese-Japanese war, or… well, that’s the one I am looking forward to. Maybe Andy Lau’s Oriental James Bond effort “Switch” will feature some eye candy (even though I read he already apologised to his fans for starring in it, but hey –  what does he know? He’s just a pretty boy!). And one of them I have already written about, said umpteenth screen version of “Journey to the West”, so only nine to go! And the good news is: not a single historic costume drama about the adventures of some rotten or heroic Qing, Ming or Tang emperor on the list (with the exception of “Journey…”, but let’s do the right thing and ignore that, especially I’ve gone through that experience already and kind of survived). May it be that the Chinese audience has finally had it with the funny hats and Gong Li’s swelling cleavage? Let’s not celebrate too early…

Here we go: starting today, in loose sequence, the most successful domestic Chinese movies of the last year. Buckle up… The list based on the total domestic (i.e. mainland China) box office revenue goes like this:

  1. Lost in Thailand
  2. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons
  3. CZ12 – Chinese Zodiac
  4. Painted Skin: The Resurrection
  5. So Young
  6. American Dreams in China
  7. Finding Mr. Right
  8. Tiny Times
  9. Back to 1942
  10. Switch
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