Mainland actress Gao Yuanyuan and Hong Kong actor Daniel Wu in Johnnie To's romantic comedy Don't Go Breaking My Heart. [Photo:China Daily]
Hong Kong filmmakers are turning to romantic comedies for easier access to the mainland market.
In Don't Go Breaking My Heart, a romantic comedy released on Mar 31, the heroine is a mainland girl working in Hong Kong, who is chased by two ardent Hong Kong men desperate to win her affections. The plot is almost a metaphor for the courting of the mainland market by Hong Kong filmmakers, including the film's director Johnnie To, regarded as one of the last hopes of Hong Kong-style cinema.
Lauded for his crime thrillers, To admits that a romantic comedy is a safe choice for entering the mainland market, where censorship co-exists with an annual box office rise of 35 percent since 2003.
"This is intentional. We need to cultivate that market. It's difficult to do that with the kind of movies we typically make. In order to avoid problems and excessive edits with the censors, we are making softer movies like love stories and comedies," To told the Associated Press in an interview.
As expected, the mainland authorities have left Heart intact, but To's previous crime thrillers screened in the mainland, such as Election and Mad Detective, were all subject to changes.
To has now lined up three light romances, clearly with an eye on the vast mainland market.
"The kind of movies we truly like may not be the kind of movies we are making now. But in view of our investors, we can't just make our own stuff. We need to return the favor to the (investing) company. Otherwise why should it support us? That is a deal we have to make," he says in his interview to AP.
To's shift to romantic films suggests not only an attempt to strike a personal balance between an auteur's artistic aspirations and commercial pressures, but also a rising trend confirmed at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival, which saw a revival of romance in Hong Kong cinema.
To's Heart opened the festival on March 20, with the director revealing two other projects in the pipeline - one, the comedy High Altitude Romance II now in production, and the other, a light romance starring Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng, which will start shooting in autumn.
To is not the only Hong Kong director turning to comedies.
Director Lau Wai-keung, whose crime thriller Infernal Affairs was remade by Martin Scorsese as The Departed, is making a tear-jerker revolving around a Hong Kong girl and a Beijing policeman.
Jacob Cheung, director of the war epic A Battle of Wits, is making Rest on Your Shoulder, a romance enhanced by 3D technology.
The next film of Wilson Yip, famed for his kungfu series on master Ip Man, is a remake of the late Leslie Cheung's A Chinese Ghost Story, an uncanny love tale between man and ghost.
Hong Kong filmmakers have traditionally attracted mainland fans mainly through two genres - kungfu and crime thrillers - but are now turning to light romance for easier market access.
"Crime thrillers face more risks than other genres when it comes to censorship," culture critic Tan Fei says. "And audiences are tired of costume kungfu dramas, which have been appearing every year since Zhang Yimou made Hero in 2002. In addition, there are too few kungfu actors who can ensure a good box office, and they are all very expensive."
His views are shared by Felix Chong and Alan Mak, directors of the period kungfu flick The Lost Bladesman, which will premiere on April 28.
"Jackie Chan is too big. The audience will be acutely aware that they are watching Jackie Chan rather than Guan Yunchang (a general from ancient times and the main protagonist of their film). And Jet Li is more like a monk than a general," Chong says.
They have zeroed in on Donnie Yen, who has risen to be an A-list kungfu star with the Ip Man series only in recent years.
Yen and Li actually lead almost all the kungfu period dramas now in production. Yen will play a hermit in Peter Chan's Wuxia, opposite Tang Wei, and the Monkey King in a fantasy based on the classic Journey to the West, while Li plays a kungfu monk in Legend of the White Snake and a martial artist in Tai Chi.
Although having universal appeal and offering an easier entry into the mainland market, love stories do not guarantee a promising box office, Tan says.
"Hong Kong filmmakers are quick to adapt to changes," Tan says. "They know making films for the mainland market is the trend, but love stories are not simply about putting a Hong Kong girl and a mainland boy together.
"To create a touching story, filmmakers need to spend more time living and working in the mainland and understanding its people."
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