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January 15, 2016

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Domestic fantasy movies outperform Hollywood

ZHENG Zhe was gripped. Like countless times before, he was at the movie theater to watch China’s latest blockbuster, expecting a mediocre story line prepped with special effects.

But “Mojin: The Lost Legend,” a tomb-raiding adventure, was different.

“The scenes depicting how veteran tomb raiders venture into an ancient grave and trigger a trap grabbed me within the very first few minutes,” Zheng, an engineer and self-proclaimed film buff, says.

With a production value of 240 million yuan (US$37 million) Mojin has grossed more than 1.6 billion yuan since opening on December 18. It’s now one of China’s top box office hits of all time, and has already broken the record for a local language IMAX film in China.

Like millions of Chinese moviegoers, Zheng was hooked by director Wuershan’s robust action, lavish special effects and, most importantly, the movie’s compelling plot, which is often neglected in domestic productions.

The movie, based on the hit online novel “Ghost Blows Out the Light,” is not only a rare domestic film production about tomb raiders, but also far outperformed Hollywood productions, grossing 11 times of what “Avengers: Age of Ultron” made in China.

Increasingly, domestic productions are able to compete with Hollywood blockbusters.

“You’re seeing Chinese filmmakers getting better at their craft,” Rance Pow, head of the film industry consulting firm Artisan Gateway, told Bloomberg Businessweek. In July, just after “Monster Hunt,” another action fantasy movie, became the highest-grossing Chinese movie ever.

And yet the reasons for the success of adventure fantasy movies, experts and insiders say, goes beyond better craftsmanship and favorable release dates. Movies like Mojin are also emblematic of the government’s changing attitude toward the movie industry.

Every day, an average of 15 new movie theaters are built in China, mostly in cities with less than 1 million inhabitants. Currently, China has more than 30,000 movie screens for a population of 1.3 billion. In comparison, the US has 40,000 movie screens for a population a fourth of China’s. China is now the second-largest film market in the world after America, and there are no signs that it will stop growing.

Securing a large slice of the market is increasingly important as its value and the number of viewers is growing.

To be able to compete, censors appear to be getting more lenient.

Before production started, Wuershan and his team met with censors and were given a green light.

“The film censors told us that tomb raiding is allowed as subject for shooting,” he said.

Still, they were told that they were not allowed to depict any crimes with the protagonists on the screen. So, in its essence, Mojin isn’t a tomb-raiding movie but a tomb expedition, as nothing is stolen from the grave of a Mongolian princess that has spiked the interest of the veteran tomb raiders. Restrictions mean that directors need a lot of imagination to create compelling plots and convincing storylines, but, nitpicking aside, Wuershan says that the fact that he was allowed to shoot Mojin was already a significant sign of progress.

“We hope that the censorship system can give domestic directors more freedom in their creations in the future to be able to compete with Hollywood blockbusters.”

Few homegrown adventure and fantasy films have emerged over the passing decades, but, as censors are loosening their grip, the fantasy action adventure genre is quickly gaining popularity.

Like Mojin, many of the sci-fi fantasy and adventure films scheduled for release this year are adapted from popular online novels that already have a large and loyal fan base.

The 200-million-yuan sci-fi fantasy movie “The Three-Body Problem” is slated for release this summer and is based on the novels of the same name by award-winning writer Liu Cixin, who tells the story of humanity’s first contact with aliens. A total of six movies based on the novels are planned.

Also based on a popular online novel and thus highly anticipated, “The Grave Robbers’ Chronicles” will hit the movie theaters in July.

On the back of Mojin’s success, industry experts believe that even more adventure and, more specifically, tomb-raiding movies will go in production soon.

Online, movie buffs agree that Chinese adventure and fantasy movies will increasingly be able to compete with Hollywood productions, given that scripts and storytelling continue to improve. Film critics like Gu Xiaoming also believe that the genre will gain popularity.

As movie theaters are particularly popular among people in their twenties, gripping sci-fi blockbusters and adventure stories area a safe bet to attract a large number of young viewers, he says.

Plots can be inspired by technical and scientific progress, he says, naming “The Martian,” in which a stranded astronaut has to survive on Mars using limited supplies and his wits, as examples. The genre, Gu says, gives Chinese filmmakers a great opportunity to stand out compared to their Hollywood counterparts.

“Chinese film makers usually have their own unique Oriental perspectives and philosophies to interpret new science and technology,” he says, adding that Chinese filmmakers can also draw on the many ancient legends and folk tales.

Already, Chinese filmmakers are taking a larger slice of box-office revenues each year.

As of early December, China’s box office receipts had already hit a record high of more than 44 billion yuan, a 48-percent increase year-on-year. Domestic films accounted for about 60 percent of the total.

Out of the 10 highest-grossing movies in China, only three — “Fast & Furious 7,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Jurassic World”— were Hollywood productions.

The producers of Mojin hope that they can celebrate an even bigger success with a sequel, which they say will be released within the next two years.

In total, the production company has secured the rights to six “Ghost Blows Out The Light” novels.

For Wuershan, there’s no doubt that the genre will continue to draw a large audience.

“I think that the appeal of the adventure fantasy genre lies in its depiction of how people face their fears. It’s about making choices in critical situations,” he says.

NEW Year a battle ground for foreign and Chinese movies

TYPICALLY one of the most lucrative season for movie theaters, Chinese Lunar New year will see the release of a range of works by Chinese and foreign filmmakers who hope to set records. More than 20 movies are battling for the audience’s attention around the holidays.

The animated film “Kung Fu Panda 3” will hit cinemas across China on January 29. In the third installment of a Panda’s legendary adventures, hero Po joins a gathering of martial arts masters and meets his parents.

Hong Kong comedy star and film director Stephen Chow will present a new fantasy film titled “The Mermaid” on February 8. Following his 2013 blockbuster “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons,” Chow’s new film tells the modern fairy tale of a biology professor who falls in love with a mermaid. The movie features elements of thrill, fantasy and comedy.

“The Man From Macau 3,” the third installment of the Vegas to Macau comedy series, will also be released on February 8. The film has nurtured a large number of fans in China.


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