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August 27, 2009

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Shanzhai! Stop me if you've seen this movie before...

A new Chinese film is being seen in some quarters as a pale imitation of a Hollywood blockbuster - and with more movies and TV shows seeming to be copying earlier ideas, is imitation still the sincerest form of flattery? Xu Wei asks.

With local movie buffs still gripped by "Transformers" fever, Hong Kong director Jeffrey Lau has released his latest parody or shanzhai (knock-off) of the Hollywood live-action series.

"Metallic Attraction: Kung Fu Cyborg," which was released across the country last week, has a star-studded cast of pop idols - Alex Fong, Hu Jun, Wu Jing, Ronald Cheng and Sun Li.

Director Lau prefers to call his film a sci-fi romantic comedy which features people transforming into battling robots.

A third of the film's US$14 million budget went on motion capture and CGI technology to produce the robot action, some of which is based on Bruce Lee's trademark fighting methods using nunchaku and sticks.

Lau says he came up with an idea to make a film about superheroes in China after seeing "Spider-Man," "Superman" and "Batman" years ago.

"I burst out laughing when watching 'Transformers,'" Lau says at an earlier interview.

"The visual effects were stunning but the robots didn't know how to fight. So I decided our Chinese superheroes should be kung fu experts."

Set in 2046, the film centers on a cyborg who falls in love with a human girl. But the intelligent cyborg has a computer program which prohibits him from a romance with human beings. Meanwhile, he has to stop the destruction of some evil cyborgs.

The film's visual effects are the work of a team who contributed to Stephen Chow's "Kung Fu Hustle." All the cyborgs in the movie are adept at kung fu. They can instantly transform into vehicles like trucks and motorcycles and they use a variety of sophisticated weaponry.

However, China's answer to "Transformers" has aroused much controversy among movie buffs.

Some audiences praised the film's more vivid depiction of the cyborgs' emotional world.

"When I watched 'Transformers' with my boyfriend, the dazzling and noisy fight scenes were excitement for him but torture for me," says Kathleen Song, a 20-something accountant. "But Lau's film shows a good balance of romance and action. I was impressed by the touching love story as well as some typical Chinese humor."

However, in the eyes of many Transformers fans, the knock-off version lacks originality and passion.

Some say it's good for director Lau to have big dreams, but the material for this film, particularly the robot's love for a human being, is too familiar and outdated.

Lau doesn't want to make comparisons between "Transformers" and his latest effort. He would rather regard this movie as a sci-fi sequel to his highly acclaimed fantasy "A Chinese Odyssey" from 15 years ago.

"Love seems to be an eternal subject for my films," he says. "I hope that the audience can find humanized cyborgs in my film. They have intricate characters and warm hearts."

Shanzhai, literally mountain village, refers to knock-off and pirated brands and goods. Nowadays, shanzhai covers film, TV and other realms of culture and commerce.

For the first time, this year's China Central Television's (CCTV) Lunar New Year's Eve Gala faced competition from a grassroots online parody.

This shanzhai version presented by ordinary netizens aimed to change the old-fashioned format and tedious programs in the original and appear to be more casual, avant-garde and funny.

Shi Mengqi, the brains behind it, recently received 1 million yuan (US$146,391) in sponsorship. He is now looking for veteran directors around the nation for next year's knock-off version.

In addition to televised entertainment shows, some classic TV dramas also serve as an inspiration for knock-off ones.

Hunan Satellite TV's latest idol drama "Meteor Shower" is considered a funny copy of the Taiwan series smash hit "Meteor Garden" (2000), which revolves around the romance of a poor girl and the rich group F4.

The mainland version, which stars "Super Boys" Yu Haoming and Wei Chen as F4, has received lots of buzz for its rambling plot, too many advertisements and clumsy acting to depict the "aristocratic temperament" of F4.

"The new version has many ridiculous scenes such as substituting Internet surfing for snooker as F4's favorite leisure entertainment," says Huo Yanni, a local TV fan. "The flowery costumes of F4 look like cheap rip-offs."

According to famous TV hostess Xu Chunni, shanzhai parodies can be identified at first sight by their coarse imitation, cheaper settings and second-hand originality.

Dragon TV's weekly dancing competition show "Let's Shake It" has become a hit since it was launched. Though some shanzhai versions of the dancing show have already been found on other TV channels, it is impossible for the knock-offs to exceed what the original one has achieved.

"The reason is quite simple," Xu says. "The original one is usually the classic one. Even though some of its elements and concepts are transplanted to the parodies, it still has a mature structure and platform for further innovation and breakthrough."

The Chinese version of "The Prince of Tennis" hopes to break such a stereotype about knock-offs with a more star-studded cast and glamorous settings.

From Friday, the second season of the serial based on famous Japanese manga will start on Dragon TV.

The major characters of the series are played by the grassroots idols of the talent shows "My Hero" and "My Show." Well-known tennis player Michael Cheung also made his acting debut in the sequel as a tennis coach.

Another bid to change the traditional view of knock-offs is the ongoing popular Chinese folk singing TV contest.

Classic folk songs of the world are performed by domestic and foreign celebrities in an innovative way.

Fashionable modern elements such as R&B, rock 'n' roll and jazz are also included in their singing.

Tang Ping, a veteran TV producer and director of the show notes that it's virtually mission impossible for a show or a TV drama to satisfy a diverse audience with different cultural backgrounds and tastes.

In her eyes, shanzhai has been misunderstood for a long time. Knock-off is not such a bad thing and its production process also requires courage and innovation.

"For sure, originality is always what we pursue in TV production," Tang adds. "However, sometimes it is inevitable to borrow some good ideas from really wonderful shows. If they have their own creative changes and adjustments, the process should also be respected. What we reject is a mere imitation."


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