Bill Kong, Asia’s leading film producer, has turned quietly optimistic about the prospects for Chinese cinema. The sales and distribution arm of his Hong Kong-based Edko Films has picked up international sales rights to “Full River Red,” the Chinese film that’s the world’s highest grossing movie with a 2023 release.
The Chinese film industry had a torrid time in 2022, seeing box office plunge to 11-year lows, censorship and bureaucracy take an additional toll, and only a handful of mainland films make it to overseas festivals.
Now, selected distributors in Berlin could be in for a treat.
Directed by venerable Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, period drama “Full River Red” was the number one film in mainland China over the recent Lunar New Year holiday and continues to ride high at the Middle Kingdom box office. To date, it has grossed $541 million in the space of 11 days.
Set in the 12th Century, the film’s narrative features a brewing rebellion against the Imperial court. When an ambassador from the rebels is murdered just before a crucial meeting, new alliances are formed and secrets are revealed.
“In China, ‘Full River Red’ was positioned as something of a comedy to suit the typical Lunar New Year requirements, but I would not describe it as comedy at all. Rather, the political intrigues and shifting alliances have resonance and relevance to contemporary world affairs,” said Bill Kong, Edko principal and long-time partner of Zhang.
“While I was not involved in the production of this one at all, I have been closely involved with many of Zhang’s movies and can say that this is one of his very best. It has a script that is both clever and commercial,” said Kong. The box office haul is a personal best for Zhang.
The film also boasts a starry cast headed by Shen Teng, pop idol turned star actor Jackson Yee, Zhang Yi and Lei Jiayin.
Rapidly-changing COVID-control conditions and economic slowdown have led to turbulence in the mainland Chinese film industry. This has meant that the films contending for honors at the Lunar New Year were lined up with unusually short notice.
“Full River Red” is too late to qualify for an official slot in Berlin. Instead, Edko will arrange a private screening for buyers on the margins of Berlin’s European Film Market.
“We’ve done some tests and shown it to a few partners. We now hope to bring all the buyers together at the end. They don’t see this kind of story so much any more,” Kong said.
Kong, a veteran producer of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and Jet Li-starring “Fearless,” is quietly optimistic about the prospects for Chinese-language film and expects its visibility in international markets and festivals to recover after a hiatus. The selection of half a dozen films across different sections of the upcoming Berlin festival points to at least some Chinese films getting to travel again.
“Things were backlogged by COVID. But everything from my perspective is now very much back to normal,” said Kong. “I’m making movies again in Hong Kong and in [mainland] China. And I’m able to import movies into China.”
Kong, who also operates cinemas in Hong Kong and mainland China, is unsentimental about audience trends. “Chinese audiences have developed good taste and box office depends very much on film quality. Box office will blossom if the movies are good enough,” said Kong.
The recent Lunar New Year holidays delivered $1 billion of box office in the space of just six days, the second highest total on record. “Chinese New Year had very good movies,” says Kong.
The veteran is skeptical of current wisdom that suggests mainland China audiences have become hooked on the diet of patriotic Chinese titles that have dominated screens in recent years and that Hollywood movies will struggle to find a way back.
“First, look at the other movies that did well in China, such as ‘The Wandering Earth 2.’ These are very well-made,” said Kong. That film has also performed strongly in North America, where it has grossed over $3 million.
The rising tide in China will lift all boats, including the fortunes of Hollywood, Kong contends. “Ant-Man’ and the other Marvel movies have been allowed to play. If they can pass censorship they will do well,” Kong said. “I don’t believe that audiences in China have fallen out of love with American movies — rather, the superhero movies may have been repeating themselves too much.”
Kong and other filmmakers in Hong Kong, which operated on a different COVID cycle and has fewer content restrictions than mainland China, have also enjoyed an exceptional last half year.
Hong Kong-made films including Louis Koo’s “Warriors of Future,” which broke the local box office record, and Edko’s second-placed “Table for Six,” achieved a remarkable comeback after cinemas in the territory had been shut on government order for most of the first half of 2022.
The Hong Kong revival comeback continued over the recent Lunar New Year, when distributors served up a different menu of Chinese-language films from the mainland.
Edko’s courtroom drama “A Guilty Conscience,” was the holiday winner, with a HK$32.4 million ($4.15 million) score, ahead of Emperor Motion Pictures’ “Everything Under Control.”