On his way home to Singapore, HBO Asia’s CEO Jonathan Spink has stopped off at Hengdian World Studios, in the Zhejiang Province of China, where HBO Originals is shooting two Chinese TV movies, “Master of the Drunken Fist: Beggar So” and “Master of the Shadowless Kick: Wong Kei-Ying,” both based on stories about 18th-century martial artists.
“We are pursuing the local production route because it works,” says Spink.
The learning curve for HBO Originals in Asia has been huge from the time of its first TV movie, “Dead Mine,” four years ago. “We’ve stopped trying to be pan-Asian,” Spink says. The company is no longer seeking “universal” subjects for its films and won’t shoehorn stories to fit the demands of a co-financier. For instance, the first HBO Asia series, “Serangoon Road” in 2013, was co-produced with the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Set in Singapore and shot in English, it bombed.
Now, Spinks says, “we are simply looking for things that can work.”
The Hengdian TV movies are co-produced and co-financed with the state-owned China Movie Channel. A movie-centric, specialty broadcaster, CMC is “very similar to us,” Spinks says. “And it’s easy to deal with the rights issues.” Avoiding the complications of a theatrical release for foreign productions, CMC will broadcast the pictures in China, while HBO transmits them across its Asian franchise. (There’s little doubt that HBO is also making a strategically and politically smart move by partnering with a Chinese government entity.)
“Shadowless Kick” director Guo Jian-yong makes no compromises. “Too many intellectual properties these days rely on big special effects,” he says. “What I want is to make performances as real as possible, which is why I’ve cast martial arts champions in the lead roles.” He says the genre can help a project cross borders. “These may be very Chinese stories, and deal with a very difficult period in Chinese history, notably the Opium Wars,” he notes. “But the martial arts can help make these appeal even to U.S. audiences. Martial arts is a language that, like music, dance, or sports, can have appeal anywhere.”
Even so, Spink admits that the group’s Asian output is unlikely to turn up on HBO’s domestic roster any time soon. However, he says, “HBO U.S. is getting more interested in what we are doing.”