'Red Cliff,' 'One' boost early '09 box office tallies

BEIJING — The start of the Year of the Ox was celebrated with wild fireworks in Beijing, but many in the biz are expecting a less incendiary year than last at the box office. In addition to the poor economy, the government is keeping the decks clear in the second and third quarters for some sensitive anniversaries.

At the same time, a busy start to the year, with John Woo’s “Red Cliff II” and Feng Xiaogang’s “If You Are the One” breaking B.O. records, plus some activity later in the year, could make for a solid performance.

October marks the 60th anniversary of the revolution that brought the Communist Party to power in China, and it’s 20 years since the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators on Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

A campaign against pornography has seen hundreds of websites shuttered, and the tight controls on the media environment are likely to continue throughout the year. In some ways, they are merely an extension of the controls introduced last summer ahead of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Among the patriotic projects said to be in the cards is a biopic of Lei Fang — a propaganda mainstay in China who was a soldier and hero of the Mao Zedong era who died in 1962.

Even though funding is getting tight, with slowing growth in the world’s fourth largest economy, there is production activity going on. Tsui Hark will direct Andy Lau in the period martial arts suspense thriller “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” in Hong Kong and China beginning in May, according to the Huayi Brothers. Huayi is also working on “Aftershocks,” another major Feng Xiaogang project, and “Sound of Wind,” a spy pic co-helmed by Gao Qunshu of “Tokyo Trial” fame and Chen Guofu, who made “Double Vision.”

Enlight Media has a busy slate of 15 domestic and foreign pics during 2009, although the biggest, Imagi toon “Astro Boy,” ran into financial problems during production.

Other releases include “Claustrophobia,” due in February, which marks the helming debut of scripting vet Ivy Ho and stars Karena Lam; last year’s thriller “Transsiberian” and Wong Kar-Wai’s “Ashes of Time.”

Hit Taiwanese romance “Cape No. 7,” bows in China on Feb. 14, after much wheeling and dealing with the Film Bureau. Pic’s release is another sign that China’s relationship with Taiwan is improving, since Taiwan’s pro-Beijing leader President Ma Jing-yeou was elected last year.

Growing pressure on Beijing to crack down on pirates will also start to reap dividends this year — there have been some high-profile arrests and jailings in the last few weeks. There also are hopes that online programming could start to pay off through ad revenue. There is still a way to go, however, and the pressure on even some of the country’s biggest websites to stop providing links to pirate sites will continue all year long.

Despite the slowdown, it is getting easier to watch movies in cinemas, as investors pile their cash into construction, and the country remains underscreened. In 2009, the Wanda group plans to build 100 cinemas. However, Chinese firms have kept a tight grip on this sector, as Warners discovered, so there is not much room for foreign input — although Imax is cooperating very successfully on a series of major projects in China.

Another initiative bruited for the new year is the possible introduction of a much-needed rating system. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television’s proposed Film Promotion Law could help finally free the biz from heavy censorship and make China an easier market for both domestic and foreign players.

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