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December 10, 2009

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New Year's films: Confucius, Mulan and noodle-shop murders

THE battle for cinemagoers is heating up in this season of New Year's movies. Opening tomorrow is Zhang Yimou's whacky crime comedy "The First Gun," and then there's "Confucius," kung fu and more. Xu Wei reports.

China's biggest film screening season is upon us, the "golden" period of hesui pian or New Year's movies that have become a tradition.

And the traditional fare has been light and often low-budget, because everybody needs a good laugh, and moviegoers weren't too fussy. But in the past few years the quality has improved and offerings vary from lighthearted or black comedy to melodramatic adventure.

The first big-budget film is Jingle Ma's war epic "Mulan" - about a famous female warrior - China's attempt to reclaim the Mulan icon from Disney that made the first highly successful film in 1998. It stars Zhao Wei as the lead role and is now in theaters.

It will share the hesui pian market this month with adventure film "The Treasure Hunter" (released yesterday), period epic "Bodyguards and Assassins" (December 18), fantasy film "The Storm Warriors II" (yesterday) and Zhang Yimou's latest offering, comedy "The First Gun"/"A Simple Noodle Story" (tomorrow).

Next month's menu features the much-anticipated biopic "Confucius" (January 20) by feature film maker Hu Mei. It stars action hero Chow Yun-fat as the iconic sage and has generated controversy over its portrayal of the philosopher saint as a man of action, humor and romance.

Competing for audiences will be James Cameron's 3D sci-fi epic "Avatar" (January 2) and the sequel to domestic cartoon hit "Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf" (February, exact date not decided yet)

Around 40 films, domestic and international, are expected to be screened nationwide, according to Wu Hehu, deputy director of Shanghai United Cinema Lines, the city's major cinema chain.

"It is a war without smoke and gunpowder among the film producers and distributors," Wu says. "Only those with more artistic excellence and higher quality can succeed with the critics and at the box office."

'Mulan' (now in theaters)

In 1998 Disney made the first animated "Mulan" film, which was wildly successful, but not a big hit in China. It was Disney that captured the international imagination and the market for the iconic Chinese heroine.

Now Hong Kong director Jingle Ma is trying to reclaim the Chinese Joan of Arc in an emotional war epic about the sensitive young woman.

Since it was released on November 27, "Mulan" has earned 100 million yuan (US$14.7 million) at the national box office, a good showing for a domestic film faced by competition from Hollywood mega-productions such as "2012."

The film stars actress Zhao Wei as Mulan, China's best-known folk heroine who joined the army in disguise, replacing her ailing father.

Though there are multiple Mulan projects, Ma's version is shot from an unusual angle. He portrays Mulan as an emotionally vulnerable woman who just happens to be good at military strategy and sword play.

'Bodyguards and Assassins' (December 18)

Hong Kong director Teddy Chan's period epic "Bodyguards and Assassins" is more than kung fu. It stars A-list actors Donnie Yen, Tony Leung, Nicholas Tse, Leon Lai and Michelle Reis. It also features figures with zero acting experience such as 2005 Super Girl champion Li Yuchun and basketball star Mengke Bateer.

It's the story of eight martial artists protecting Chinese revolutionary Dr Sun Yat-sen from an assassination attempt when he was in Hong Kong raising funds on October 15, 1905.

Unlike many stereotypical kung fu films, this one is more sophisticated and insightful.

Comedy thriller 'The First Gun' (tomorrow)

The film, aka "A Simple Noodle Story," is director Zhang Yimou's first film in three years and a rare comedy, kind of Chinese neo-noir crime thriller.

It's a whacky departure from his earlier award-winning works such as the artsy "To Live" (1994), "Raise the Red Lantern" (1991), "Red Sorghum" (1987) and the martial arts epics "Hero" (2002), "House of Flying Daggers" (2004) and "Curse of the Golden Flower" (2006).

Zhang also directed the extravagant opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

This time, to the surprise of many, he chose a smaller topic, without a glamorous backdrop and grand scenes.

"The First Gun" is based on the Coen brothers' 1985 neo-noir "Blood Simple." But the US film's Texas bar setting has been changed into a noodle shop in ancient China, and an ample dash of comedy has been added. It's the story of a noodle store owner who tries to kill his wife and her alleged lover.

Making his screen acting debut is Xiao Shenyang, who gained unexpected applause from his appearance in the 2009 CCTV Spring Festival Gala Show. He will sing the film's theme song, filled with rap, pop and traditional northwest China folk melodies.

Producers aim for overseas distribution and plan to launch by-products, such as online games and interactive salons.

Sci-Fi 'Avatar' (January 2)

The 3D science fiction epic "Avatar" marks director James Cameron's return to feature directing since helming 1997's "Titanic."

He wrote a 114-page script for "Avatar" as early as 1994 and once said he was inspired by every single science-fiction book he read as a kid.

The film, four years in the making, is the story of a former US Marine who is sent to settle and exploit an exotic planet rich in resources. He eventually crosses over to lead the indigenous race in a battle for survival against the earthlings.

Cameron had to wait 15 years to make the US$237 million film because film-making and 3D technology had not advanced sufficiently to portray his initial vision.

Screening on the Chinese mainland comes two weeks after its US release, but since it's bound to dominate the box office, the release of some moderate-budget Chinese films will be postponed until January.

Animation 'Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf II' (February)

Earlier this year, the Chinese animation "Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf" was a big box-office winner among domestic cartoon films. The "dark horse" grossed around 100 million yuan.

The film was based on a popular 500-episode TV animation series and its unexpected success drove producers to deliver an early sequel for Chinese Lunar New Year.

It's about the adventures of a gray wolf family and their goat friends who unite to defeat the enemy tiger.

The film is expected to appeal not only to children but also young adults and families.

Other films

The biopic "Confucius," Ning Hao's road movie "No Man's Land" and costume drama "14 Blades" will be released in late January or early February.

The making of "Confucius" has stirred heated debate because it portrays China's greatest philosopher, a virtual saint, as a man of action, humor and romance. Some believe the image of the iconic sage is sullied by depicting him as quite mortal.

"14 Blades" set in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) depicts a group of elite assassins trained since early childhood to become masters of the sword in service of the emperor.

"No Man's Land" is the latest effort by highly regarded young film maker Ning who rose to popularity with the small-budget comedies "Crazy Stone" (2006) and "Silver Medalist" (2009).

The film, which stars Huang Bo (protagonist) and Yu Nan, is about a man's drive to western China and his encounters with wildly different kinds of people and different aspects of human nature.

Chris Pan, a big fan for hesui pian, always has difficulty deciding which two or three New Year's films to see.

"I don't think they have to be lighthearted or heartwarming," she says. "The important thing is with whom we share sweet cinema memories."


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