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New Year rings in B.O. war

Pix battle over Hong Kong holiday

HONG KONG — It’s the city’s biggest holiday, a time of huge family get-togethers and equally enormous banquets. Chinese New Year is also a time when Hong Kongers check out the latest movies. And because the mid-February lunar festival accounts for about 20% of the city’s annual box office receipts, it is one of the most fiercely fought battlegrounds of the cinematic year.

To be sure, the summer school holiday period — which last year accounted for almost 45% of the year’s B.O. — is still the place for tentpole pictures. But distribs find Chinese New Year an ideal location to park year-end blockbusters imported from the U.S. market. This Chinese New Year, Hong Kong cinemagoers can choose from almost simultaneous releases of “Lord of the Rings,” “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Monsters, Inc.”

All that firepower amounts to stiff competition for local releases. But local filmmakers have reason to feel confident. The big news of 2001, according to Bob Vallone, general manager of UA Cinemas in Hong Kong, was that home-made pics “came roaring back to life.”

The local lineup this holiday period suggests there won’t be any need for Vallone to change his opinion. Director Johnnie To, whose “Love on a Diet” was the second-highest grossing release of 2001, is helming “Fat Choi Spirit,” a character-driven urban comedy starring perennial box office heavyweights Andy Lau and Gigi Leung.

Arthouse favorite Wong Kar-wai is producing “Chinese Odyssey 2002,” directed by newcomer Jeff Lau and featuring the crowd-pleasing charms of Cannes best actor winner Tony Leung Chiu-wai (“In the Mood for Love”) and pop singer and actress Faye Wong (“Chungking Express”).

And studio Golden Harvest is reuniting Sammi Cheng and Richie Ren, the stars of its 2000 seaside hit “Summer Holiday,” for a romantic tour of Europe in “Marry a Rich Man.”

Tailor-made pix

Says Woody Tsung, chief executive of the Hong Kong Motion Picture Industry Assn.: “Everyone is looking for feel-good films, which means Hong Kong filmmakers can tailor-make product for the holiday market. For example, it’s rare for a horror film to do well at Chinese New Year.”

For his part, Vallone is picking “respectable” returns for films like “Rings” and “Ocean’s Eleven” and giant grosses for “Monsters, Inc.” and “Chinese Odyssey.”

Whichever pic wins, one thing is clear: the Chinese New Year is becoming more vital to distribs and local studios alike. “What we’re seeing is key periods like this taking an increasing share of the year’s box office,” Vallone says.

Five of the top seven releases in 2001 were local pics, and two of those hits — To’s “Wu Yen” and Jackie Chan starrer “The Accidental Spy” — were released during Chinese New Year.

Imported productions like “Cast Away” took about 60% of the Chinese New Year B.O. last year. But observers are picking local productions to take a 50% share this time around.

While the recovery of Hong Kong’s film industry remains tentative, small victories like this could be another reason to celebrate the holidays.