HONG KONG — It is still difficult to speak of an Asian film industry or an Asian box office market, as the region is so divided. But there are some small signs of change, especially those concerning China.
Audience tastes are fragmented by distinct ethnicities, religions and colonial histories — the Philippines, with its U.S. and Spanish roots and half-dozen local languages, has almost nothing in common with more culturally homogenous Japan, for instance — while local film industries have had significantly different degrees of success in appealing to their home populations. For much of the last decade, Taiwanese movies have scarcely achieved a 1%-2% market share at home, while the renaissance of South Korea between 1997 and 2006 saw local films surge to a high-water mark with two-thirds of local ticket sales.
Once there was a regional champion, some 20 years ago, in the form of Hong Kong movies. Powered by star names such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh plus cult directors such as John Woo and Tsui Hark, production labels Golden Harvest, Golden Princess, D&B, Shaw Brothers and others turned out a genre of films that had appeal from Indonesia to Taiwan and further afield in overseas markets.
When in the mid-1990s the appeal of Cantonese-language films slipped and its stars began to wane, it was Hollywood that most successfully filled the gap. In the last three or four years, several national industries have surged, but their influence on the regional box office has been short-lived (South Korea) or sporadic (Japan).
Now there are signs of Chinese-language filmmaking emerging as a possible regional champion.
This is powered by China’s revival as a world power, by the substantial financial resources it already offers and the promise of further breakneck growth as an entertainment market — albeit one skewed and shaped by government regulation. In the space of the last five years, the theatrical market in China (population 1.3 billion) has grown from, pitifully, being the same size as Hong Kong’s (population 7 million) to being one that is now four times larger. To many producers, the fact that China still lags behind India, Korea and Japan just shows the potential upside.
And in the last year or so, there has been growing evidence that Mandarin-language or Chinese-themed movies may emerge as Asia’s dominant regional filmmaking stable, something to which Hollywood and others will have to adjust.
Where many Chinese films would work only in China and Hong Kong or China and Taiwan, several have recently succeeded in a “Greater China” market comprising China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other territories with significant ethnic Chinese populations (Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia). Where “Battle of Wits,” “Curse of the Golden Flower” and “The Assembly” were hits in some Greater China territories and flops in others, the past year has seen “The Forbidden Kingdom,” “The Warlords,” “Lust, Caution,” “Three Kingdoms” and “Kung Fu Dunk” as creditable regional champions.
Significantly, while China’s distribution market is not open to foreign films (there is a cap of 20 “revenue sharing” imports per year), the market in Chinese-themed movies seems to be open to all comers: as long as — big proviso — they fall in line with Chinese government restrictions on content and genre.
To the further detriment of its own Cantonese-language industry, Hong Kong is supplying directors, stars, coin and production talent to Chinese movies.
“The Warlords” was helmed by Hong Kong-based Peter Chan, “Lust Caution” by Taiwanese U.S. resident Ang Lee, “Three Kingdoms” by Hong Kong’s Jeff Lau, “Kung Fu Dunk” by Taiwan’s Kevin Chu and “Forbidden Kingdom” by the U.S.’ Rob Minkoff.
Asia’s emerging market in co-productions seems similarly skewed to addressing Chinese themes. China’s new national champion is likely to be Woo, who made his reputation in Hong Kong and spent the past decade in Hollywood before arriving in the mainland for “Red Cliff” and his recently confirmed follow-up “1949.” The $80 million budget of “Red Cliff” was fully financed by investors in Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and Korea, with the biggest chunk of equity from Japan’s Avex group.
While the nationalistic Chinese themes of “Golden Flower” and “Red Cliff” may have limited appeal in Korea and Japan (which both have historic rivalries going back centuries), the big production values and use of regional stars make these pics the nearest thing to Asian favorites.
That is, apart from modern-day folklore about monsters and robots. Asked to explain why “Transformers” was such a boffo performer across Asia (or the critically panned “D-Wars” actually escaped B.O. ignominy) with women as well as men, many filmgoers responded simply: “It’s robots, isn’t it?” and “Everyone in Asia read these comicbooks when they were a child.”