In China, as in the U.S., holiday movie releases are eagerly anticipated by studios and filmgoers alike, but the holiday is Spring Festival -- Lunar New Year -- and the run-up to it. The Year of the Ox is winding down, the Year of the Tiger is on the horizon, beginning February 14, relatively late this year. The last two holiday seasons saw the release of two very successful films from director Feng Xiaogang, the war drama "Assembly" and the romantic comedy "If You Are the One." Although a new release from Feng is lacking this year, holiday audiences will still have a screen smorgasbord to feast on, with the chance to see Chinese A-list stars Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat, Donnie Yen, Jay Chou, Leon Lai, Aaron Kwok, Vicki Zhao, Chen Kun and Andy Lau, plus new productions from top tier directors Zhang Yimou, Wang Jing, and the Pang brothers. So it is no exaggeration to say this is the most powerful lineup in the history of New Year's releases. Time will tell how successful these are, and when (if ever) they have theatrical release in the West, but here are the 10 most anticipated Chinese movies slated for holiday release. (Release dates are for general release in China; some may have earlier limited release.)
We will look more closely at each of these films and their makers in upcoming posts, including details on their filming and interviews with their makers from the Chinese entertainment media.
[Click on any poster for larger image]
Chinese title: "Hua Mulan"《花木兰》
Release date: December 8.
Director: Ma Jingle
Principal cast: Vicki Zhao, Jaycee Chan, Chen Kun
What should work: Work on "Mulan" began just after the 2009 Lunar New Year with director Ma Jingle putting together a strong team of talent to make this costume war movie. The star of the team, the biggest draw, is Vicki Zhao, a major figure in Chinese film and TV over the past decade. For this film she changes her past image of a strong-willed girl to that of a famous Chinese heroine, Mulan, and those who have seen pre-release screenings say the contrast is simply amazing. The movie has epic battle scenes and an underlying love story, ingredients for a major commercial success.
What might not: A large-scale film, very large. Chinese audiences have great expectations for their domestic productions, and those expectations are higher for a major production, especially one as hyped in the media as this one. In addition, the Mulan legend is a very familiar one to Chinese, and making a satisfying adaptation presents a considerable challenge.
Directors: Danny Pang, Oxide Pang
Principal cast: Aaron Kwok, Ekin Cheng, Charlene Choi, Nicholas Tse, Simon Yam, Tang Yan.
What should work: "The Storm Riders" set box office records in China 11 years ago, and its special effects opened a new page for Chinese language films. Now we have the sequel, retitled in English as "Storm Warriors 2" and with the Pang brothers at the helm. It has already created quite a stir of anticipation among fans of the original, and with Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng returning from the first entry, offers good star power. Add to the cast Charlene Choi, Simon Yan, Nicholas Tse and Tang Yan, and it would seem "Storm Warriors 2" should be a can't miss. (The producers must see it this way, as "Storm Warriors 3" is already in the works.)
What might not: The packaging of "Storm Warriors 2" as a macho, Hong Kong-flavored martial arts epic may turn away some women viewers, and while Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng are already veteran stars, they have not proven to be box office dragons in the past. All filming was done on location in Thailand, resulting in some lingering customs clearance problems. But final judgement will be made by Chinese audiences who have experienced super-scale Hollywood productions, and that could make it difficult to sell the million or so tickets needed for profitability.
Director: Zhang Yimou
Principal cast: Xiao Shenyang, Yan Ni, Sun Honglei, Ni Dahong
What should work: Whether good or bad, in recent years any film directed by Zhang Yimou has had considerable domestic box-office appeal, and the producers have already boasted this Chinese remake of "Blood Simple" will bring in CNY400 million [US$58.5 million]. While some observers think this exaggerated, no one can ignore the box office potential of a Zhang movie. Couple that with the intricate twists and turns of the plot and TV favorite Xiao Shenyang making his big screen debut, it would seem breaking through the initial 100 million mark would be easy.
What might not: Although "A Simple Noodle Story" has been set for Lunar New Year holiday release, the specific date is still undetermined, and so far there has not been a significant publicity campaign for it. This often indicates that producers have doubts about a film's staying power, so hold it back for later release, when the competition might be less formidable. In addition, the film's lead actors, Xiao Shenyang, Sun Honglei, etc. have yet to prove their box-office appeal; only director Zhang has accomplished this, but without battle scenes or such international stars as Gong Li, Chow Yun-Fat, Zhang Ziyi and Jet Li, can even Zhang assure box office success?
Director: Chu Yen-ping
Principal cast: Jay Chou, Lin Chi-ling, Chen Daoming, Eric Tsang
What should work: Jay Chou's presence: this pop music megastar has a fan base that practically guarantees some box office for any movie in which he appears. Advance reports are that "Treasure Hunter" is an "Indiana Jones"-type of action film, which combined with Jay's drawing power should be a guarantee of success.
What might not: Chou's films have always been regarded as cultural fast food, and Jay has all along been a singer, not an actor. Reports are that "The Treasure Hunter" has some great special effects, but movies that rely on these often counter that strength by dumbing down the story to please audiences.
Director: Teddy Chen
Principal cast: Donnie Yen, Leon Lai, Nicholas Tse, Wang Xue Qi, Fan Bingbing, Li Yuchun, Zhou Yun, Eric Tsang, Bateer
What should work: Even if you just take into consideration the film's all-star cast, it looks impressive on paper. It relates a most critical date in the history of the Chinese revolution: the 1905 plot to assassinate Sun Yat-Sen in Hong Kong before he could organize the Chinese revolution that overthrew the Manchu empire, and how people from various walks of life heroically laid down their own lives to protect him. The setting of central Hong Kong has been reconstructed from scratch on a scale of 1:1, at the most generous financial outlay for a Chinese language film in recent years.
What might not: Success or failure may rely on performances, especially from those who are relative screen newcomers. Although indeed a cast of stars, not all are film stars, and some of those in the cast may be there because of their box office potential, and not necessarily because they were most suited to their role: two examples are ethnic Mongolian basketball star (and former US NBA player) Ba Te Er and Chinese pop singer Li Yuchun [aka Chris Lee].
Director: Ning Hao
Principal cast: Xu Zheng, Huang Bo, Yu Nan
What should work: Ning Hao's dark comedy "Crazy Stone" created a frenzy among young Chinese filmgoers, and his follow-up comedy "Silver Medalist" easily broke through the CNY100 million [US$14.5 million] threshold. For the story line of his latest effort, Ning's first New Year's release deals with poaching in China's west, another in the growing trend of setting productions in that harsh region. With its attractive subject matter and Ning Hao's past successes, "No Man's Land" should get its share of holiday box office.
What might not: At present, Ning Hao has not done much publicity work for the film, so it's not known if he has continued his successful past narrative technique with this one. (It certainly doesn't sound like a comedy.) In addition, none of the cast are A-list although it does include Xu Zheng and Huang Bo from his earlier successes, as well as my personal favorite Yu Nan (as a pole dancer in a bar!). These things in combination could put "No Man's Land" at a competitive disadvantage.
Director: Hu Mei
Principal cast: Chow Yun Fat, Zhou Xun, Ren Quan, Jian-Bin Chen
What should work: Two obvious strengths: first, superstar Chow Yun-Fat, whose name on an Asian marquee is a virtual box-office guarantee; second, this film is clearly aimed at the global market, and the character of Confucius should aid in worldwide marketing.
What might not: It's an art film, and art films rarely match critical acclaim with Chinese box-office strength. From the award-winning (including the Golden Lion at Venice) "Still Life" and last year's literary masterpiece biopic of Mei Lanfang, "Forever Enthralled," we can foresee potential limited appeal. If younger audiences were not attracted by a historical subject from the 1920s (Mei Lanfang), will they be drawn in by one from about 500BC?
Director: Wong Jing
Principal cast: Andy Lau, Fan Bingbing, Xu Xi Yuan, Xu Jiao, Eric Tsang, Fan Shiu Wong
What should work: Wong Jing has a lengthy track record of commercial blockbusters, and for this one he spent CNY200 million [US$29 million] on building an amazing world of the future. In addition to matinee idol Andy Lau, it has Fan Bingbing, Xu Xiyuan, Fan Shiu Wong and Eric Tsang -- a mixture of both familiar and newer stars. By combining sci-fi + action + romance, it would seem to be exactly the type of escapist entertainment holiday audiences are seeking.
What might not: It's a science fiction movie, and Hollywood blockbusters of this genre have set the standard by which Chinese audiences are likely to judge it. Its one hope is to so captivate the audience they will appreciate it as a good domestic production, without consciously and continuously making comparisons. However, if "Future X-Cops" turns out to be another "Forbidden City Cop 009," it is difficult to imagine it having much box-office success.
Director: Ding Sheng
Principal cast: Jackie Chan, Wang Lee-Hom
What should work: In 2008, the pairing of Jackie Chan and Jet Li in "The Forbidden" inspired the martial arts community, and while its plot was ordinary and at times incoherent, Chinese audiences flocked to see the rare site of these two kung fu icons fight. In this Chinese New Year holiday period, Chan faces off with a new opponent, Chinese-American singer/actor Wong Lee Hom [aka Alexander Wang]. A costume film relating the dangerous adventures of an old soldier and the young general he has kidnapped should give the film limitless Chinese box-office appeal, as Chan's pictures usually have.
What might not: The one disadvantage (and it's a very small one) is that it will be released fairly late in the spring holiday season, and many filmgoers may have expended their entertainment budgets by then. But if the movie matches the box-office performance of previous Chan New Year's movies, the only concern will be whether Chan's middle-aged character can still win a fight.
Director: Daniel Lee
Principal cast: Donnie Yen, Vicki Zhao, Sammo Hung
What should work: Strong leads and supporting cast, generous production budget, and simultaneous holiday release in China, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia, with HK one week later. Set in the Ming dynasty, the Chinese title means "The Brocaded Guards," which refers to the elite imperial guard sworn to protect the Emperor and his family, and obey orders only from him. They were called that because of the ornate embroidery they wore on their uniforms. Pre-screening comments have praised the movie's entertainment value, and in granting its release certificate China's Video Film Board called it "one of the most enjoyable" of the New Year's releases.
What might not: As with all big-budget productions, results could fall short of expectations. Much of the advance publicity plays up the Yen-Zhao love story: will they have the requisite on-screen chemistry?