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January 10, 2012

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New Year's silver screen dazzles

THE jam-packed holiday film season is underway and the fare is as varied as war epic "The Flowers of War," action-thriller "Mission Impossible 4" and the 3D Technicolor remake of the 1965 animation "Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven."

Producers are trying to squeeze more and more films into the so-called "harvest season" from Christmas and New Year's through the Chinese Lunar New Year ending late this month. Industry experts say packing the season with so many films doesn't benefit producers, reduces revenue and creates unnecessary conflicts.

Competition has been fierce since early December when seven moderate- and small-budget films were released in China. They were followed by domestic blockbusters, Zhang Yimou's "The Flowers of War" and Tsui Hark's 3D martial arts film "Flying Swords of Dragon Gate."

In Shanghai, "Flowers" has taken in more than 50 million yuan (US$7.9 million) and "Flying Swords" took in 40 million yuan in ticket sales at the Shanghai United Cinema Lines, the city's major cinema chain.

Nationally, "The Flowers of War" took around 70 million yuan alone on the three-day New Year's holiday and so far has made more than 540 million yuan.

Most small-budget films shown in December only earned a few hundred thousand yuan.

In January, the silver screen will be packed with around 10 Chinese movies and two Hollywood mega-productions - "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" and "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol," further pushing the box-office competition.

Industry observers warn that too many films released in the same period is not a productive approach and can cause unnecessary conflicts and "aesthetic fatigue."

"Most viewers with limited time and budget usually choose blockbusters for an exciting audio-visual experience," says Wu Hehu, deputy general manager of Shanghai United Cinema Lines.

Huang Min, an official with the Ever Shining Circuit Cinema Chain, says films shown in the holiday season don't always generate the most profits.

"Though the holiday film market needs a diverse menu to entertain people with different cultural backgrounds, only a few small-budget productions can set themselves apart from the competition," says Huang.

"Light-hearted fare and animated films are likely to be the black horse for this festive season," he adds.

Huang is optimistic about the box office performance of Hong Kong director Derek Yee's highly anticipated drama "The Great Magician" starring Tony Leung "who never disappoints."

Slated for release on Thursday, it tells the story of a legendary Chinese magician fighting a warlord and using his magic to rescue his fiancee after the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Since school winter vacation begins soon, good box office is predicted for the latest installment of the domestic animation series "Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf" and the Taiwan romantic film "You Are the Apple of My Eye," about high school memories.

"Sherlock Holmes 2" and "Mission Impossible 4" may not perform as well as hoped because pirated DVDs are already available, says Yu Jianjiang, a manager from the Stellar City Cinema.

This is the season for light-hearted hesui pian (movies celebrating the New Year), usually featuring starry casts and simple stories. Director Feng Xiaogang is considered a master of the genre and moviegoers are disappointed that he has not released a film this year.

Most of his comedies have been box-office hits and strengthened the tradition of movie-going in the New Year's season.

Instead, Feng is working on a melodrama about the 1942 drought in Henan Province. He has spent more than 10 years preparing to shoot the film about humanity and resilience in the face of natural disaster. It's expected to be the most important work of his career.

Hollywood blockbusters

The two foreign blockbusters - "Sherlock Holmes 2" (to be released on January 15) and "Mission Impossible 4" (to be released on January 28) - are strong contenders in the New Year film season. Both performed well in North America.

Guy Ritchie's British-American action mystery "Sherlock Holmes" is the sequel to the 2009 "Sherlock," staring Robert Downey Jr as the legendary sleuth and Jude Law as his trusted associated Dr Watson. Again Holmes matches wits with his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty.

Tom Cruise, who reprises his role of IMF Agent Ethan Hunt is still engaging and energetic in the latest "Mission Impossible" installation, considered the best in the series.

Cruise actually climbs Dubai's 830-meter-high skyscraper, the world's tallest, instead of using a simulated facade. He's on his way to clear his organization's name as the IMF is shut down when it's implicated in the bombing of the Kremlin.

Black horse

The Taiwan film "You Are the Apple of My Eye" (released last Friday), based on a novel of the same name, has proved to be the "black horse" in the film competition when it was screened in Hong Kong.

Since it opened last October, it has earned US$7.9 million in Hong Kong, becoming the territory's highest-grossing Chinese-language film, breaking a record previously held by "Kung Fu Hustle" (2004).

The directorial debut of Taiwanese author Giddens Ko, the nostalgic film turns its lens on youthful confusion, rebellion and first love. It evokes memories of bicycle rides to school, sports competitions, graduation and lingering after class to get closer to a girl.


Experts hold high hopes for two animated films "Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf IV - Mission Incredible: Adventures On the Dragon's Trail" and the 3D version of "The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven," both to be released on Thursday.

"Mission Incredible: Adventures On the Dragon's Trail," the latest installment of the popular domestic animation series "Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf," celebrates the coming Year of the Dragon in the Chinese zodiac. In the film, pleasant goat, big big wolf and their friend, the little dragon, save the world.

The series has a large fan base among children.

"The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven," the 3D version, is a tribute to the 1960s animated film of the same name and is expected appeal to children and adults who remember the original.

The 3D remake is a collaboration between the Shanghai Animation Film Studio and Technicolor, which has been involved in the post-production for the special effects in the "Harry Potter" series, "Avatar" and "Pirates of the Caribbean." The original film's colors have been polished and the Peking Opera-style score is combined with the elements of Western symphonic music. Three-dimensional technologies and stunning visual and sound effects have been added to Monkey King's fighting scenes in Heaven.

Classic animation presents a challenge to modern film makers since the remake must be beautiful and modern but true to the original.

To get it exactly right, graphic designers spent many hours in the Forbidden City and Shanghai Museum to learn more about ancient architecture and culture.

Weighty film

Hong Kong director Derek Yee had almost made the "The Great Magician" another weighty film like "The Flowers of War" about the Nanjing Massacre. But he changed his mind at the last minute.

Yee told reporters that he didn't want to release a weepy film during the New Year's period, so he added a lot of funny scenes and lines.

The story of a magician rescuing his childhood sweetheart from a Qing Dynasty warlord is award-winning Hong Kong actor Tony Leung's first screen appearance in two years.

The film features many ancient Chinese magic tricks, such as illusions of waking the dead and becoming invisible.


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