Curse of the Golden Flower/ Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia (2006), Zhang Yimou

July 20, 2008 at 3:27 am

Based on a classical Chinese play and set around the end of the Tang Dynasty of 10th century AD, Curse of the Golden Flower is the most lavish of Zhang Yimou’s costume epics, featuring more than 1000 extras along the world’s most bankable Chinese-language stars (Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li), extensive battle scenes and superbly elaborate sets and costumes. It is the film that comes the closest to the Western concept of an epic film in that it places large-scale historical movements in direct relation to the intrigues and the intricate relations of the royal court, and in that its plot is most directly reminiscent to a classical Western-style tragedy. With the density of emotion and feeling confined within the closed world of the family, the story is reminiscent to ancient Greek dramas, or it can be directly compared to Shakespearian tragic plots.

And indeed, in an interview at the film’s world premiere (notably taking place as part of the AFI fest in Hollywood), actor Chow Yun Fat articulates clearly that the film’s team were conscious of how close this film is to classical Western narratives, by comparing it to tragedies like King Lear and Hamlet.

In this reportage realized by Asia Pacific Arts (with the reporter making the remark that the premiere does not seem to have received much coverage from the mainstream networks), director Zhang Yimou is seen claiming that the absence of China-specific historical and cultural background knowledge should not impede the Western viewers’ reception, as they will undoubtedly be able to appreciate the epic tale simply as a profound human drama.

The utterings made in the context of this reportage are really noteworthy in that they reveal important aspects of the dynamics of transnational considerations in filmmaking: clearly, the film was pitched to investors as a project of great commercial potential precisely because of its dramatic/tragic plot (comparable to the very popular Shakespeare) that would make the culturally specific background irrelevant and thus supply it with the cross-over potential for a commercially successful project.

According to the (incomplete) data made available at Box Office Mojo, the film’s worldwide gross was $78,568,977. US domestic revenues are about 8.4% ($6,566,773) while the international ones account for an even bigger proportion of 91.6% ($72,002,204). Handled by Sony Classics, the film had a run of about 14 weeks, between January and March 2007, reaching its widest US release at 1,234 screens. Internationally it has played in theatrical distribution across 35 or so territories, in North and South America, Asia and Europe. About a dozen or so companies were involved in the film’s international distribution, half of which are overseas arms of Hollywood players such as Buena Vista International (Singapore) or Columbia TriStar (Argentina).

The revenues from the film look good, but this changes as soon as one realizes that the budget of Curse of the Golden Flower is actually at about 50% higher than that of Hero (at the time the most expensive Chinese film). Hero was made for about $30 million, whereas the estimated budget for Curse of the Golden Flower is $45 million. Thus the revenues that the film has realized, less than 200% cannot really compare with the 600% that the two other previous epics of Zhang Yimou brought in.

Like the previous two epics, the credits for the sound effects and the visual/CGI departments are heavily populated by Western names of professionals belonging to the growing class of transnational specialists working in these industries.

What I find particularly striking in the case of Curse of the Golden Flower is that while being the film that comes the closest to what a Western costume epic is like in plot and style, this is also the film that is least commercially successful of the three. Is this indicative of a wider trend when ‘foreign’ epics are concerned? It may well be the case, so this will be a question I will be asking myself in looking at another Chinese epic that did not seem to do very well, either, Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin (1998).

This entry is part of my investigation into international epic cinema, which also includes entries on other films from China (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, The Emperor and the Assassin), Thailand (Suryiothai), Kazakhstan (Nomad), India (Asoka, Jodha Akbar), and elsewhere (Mongol).

© Dina Iordanova
20 July 2008

House of Flying Daggers/Shi mian mai fu (2004), Zhang Yimou

July 19, 2008 at 2:11 am

Zhang Yimou’s second installment in the wuxia genre, House of Flying Daggers came to the West just a few months after the delayed release of Hero (2002). In this context, the procrastination that surrounded Hero‘s release may have played a positive role in enhancing the impact of this second film. But it can also have been the other way around, as in this instance the second film really came too soon after the first one (between two and four months in different Western countries); Miramax had been concerned about releasing Hero too soon after Crouching Tiger (see my discussion of this here); such fear may have been more applicable in this case with the two Zhang Yimou films. Whereas in real terms there had been a two year gap between the making of the two films, to viewers in the West they came within the same season.

House of Flying Daggers was made for an estimated 100,000,000 CNY (c. $15 million US) and within China it made about CNY 55,000,000 on theatrical release (c. $8.1 million US). Clearly, the film could only make successful business on the realization of international revenues. Distributed by Sony within the USA, by Focus films internationally, and by about another 15 companies regionally, the film made a total of $92,863,945 worldwide during the 18 weeks that the Box Office Mojo has monitored the release in 2005, of which about 88% came from international revenues ($81,813,851) and only 12% were domestic US ($11,050,094 at 1,189 screens).

Judging by these numbers, it appears that the domestic U.S. revenues may have indeed been damaged by the timing of the release, just two months after Hero. But it is also important to note that the gross revenues are at levels similar to those of the other film. Made for about $30 million, Hero made this amount about six times over. Similarly, made for $15 million, House of Flying Daggers also made it about six times over. What is different in the revenue patterns of the two films is the balance between international and US box office revenues.

Set in the time of Tang Dynasty in the 9th century AD, the film evolves around intricate stories of betrayal, romance, and honor, and features spectacular and impeccably choreographed sword fight routines. Zhang Yimou’s love for colors, seen in his early classics like Ju Dou (1990), here comes to full swing; the art directors’ work could easily rival the concepts of top fashion designers. Watching House of Flying Daggers can best be compared to the experience of visiting a Shanghai Tang store.

The film’ reception in China has been quite critical, as reported in the Wikipedia article on the film. The critical reception in the West is more or less summarized by Jason Blake who describes the film as ‘ravishing to look at but dramatically inert’. When the IMDb users are asked to rank the three Yimou recent spectacular epics, almost unanimously the vote goes in favour for Hero, maybe because it is the purest form of an action film. One of the voters says: ‘The second film focused as much on opulence as action, and the third was an exercise in opulence’.

I found myself agreeing with The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, who assessed House of Flying Daggers contextually as a work of transnational cinema:

Entertainments like this have been criticised as Sino-American inventions, cumbersome magic-realist versions of martial arts, custom built for western audiences, which piously subtract the comedy that Asian audiences have traditionally enjoyed. Added to this criticism is the recent suggestion that Hero, with its bullish theme of Chinese unification, was in tune with a new reactionary patriotism. I can only say that if this Hollywood-ised wuxia is a new form of the genre, it’s all the more exciting for that. As for its alleged chauvinism, this movie’s content is much more ambiguous than that. The government is corrupt; the rebels are virtuous; we hardly know who is on whose side and the disguises and subterfuge are almost a reminder of Andy Lau’s cynical Hong Kong cop thriller Infernal Affairs. House of Flying Daggers is hardly an uncritical piece of cheerleading for the Chinese state.

Most of the crew involved in the making of House of Flying Daggers are Chinese, except crew members from two departments — sound and visual effects. Some of the specialists involved here, also worked on films such as Moulin Rouge, Lord of the Rings, 300, of the World Trade Center. Thus, the film is only partially representative of the tendency to employ transnationally the globally developing workforce in special effects.

© Dina Iordanova
16 July 2008

Hero/Ying xiong (2002), Zhang Yimou

July 17, 2008 at 11:41 pm

During the third century B.C., before becoming a united Empire, China is split into a number of warring feudal kingdoms. Jet Li, the ‘Hero’, is an ordinary peasant of extraordinary fighting skill. He comes to the service of Qin, the ruler, and puts his amazing skills to work for his protection against various assailants, played respectively by Asian stars such as Donnie Yen, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, and Zhang Ziyi.

Here I am interested in looking into the film’s distribution and reception history, as I believe it shows important patterns of the changing dynamics in world cinema. With Hero we have a situation where a non-Western film gains reputable and even superior standing in comparison with more traditional products of global Hollywood without necessarily becoming fully dependent on the exposure granted by Hollywood’s global distribution machine.

Made for an estimated 30 million US dollars and thus being the most expensive Chinese film to date, Zhang Yimou’s Hero is often referred to as China’s ‘frank attempt to surpass Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (Roger Ebert). Other reviews usually develop an argument about the potential of foreign film, frame it through the success of John Woo and Crouching Tiger, and cover it as a Hong Kong film. The article in Time magazine, is representative in that it summarizes Hero as ‘the most ambitious martial-arts epic since Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won four Oscars in 2001 and broke the box-office mold by becoming the most successful foreign film to hit the U.S.’

Confronted with the question as to what extent his work on Hero is triggered by the success of Ang Lee’s film (which at its time had the best box-office for non-English language film), director Zhang Yimou responds:

I don’t know much about the West. I’m not Ang Lee who knows so much about western market and the taste of western audiences. My English is not as good as his. In the past, am I just a farmer director? (laugh) But I think we need the international market. The budget is high. To make sure the boss (investor) make money, only focusing on the domestic market is not enough. Piracy has destroyed the domestic market. Now a movie with 30 million returns would be something very incredible and the producer can only get 10 to 15 million. This is only 100 thousands US dollars. This is not enough!

Hero‘s distribution history in the US seems to be the most interesting aspect in the film’s life, as it is reveals patterns that may be more significant that they seem. The film was released in 2002 across Asia, and rapidly became a blockbuster hit; it was one of the nominations for a foreign Oscar in 2002. Miramax had originally acquired U.S. and some international distribution rights in 2002 after the film’s great success in Asia but, as it has often been the case with other films acquired by Miramax*, a significant period of time passed before before the release of the official U.S. version. Meanwhile, the film gained a cult following in the States via copies of the DVD imported from other countries, a completely legal practice given the absence of a US-labeled product. In newsgroup reviews, Homer Yen remarks that because of the delay, by the time of its theatrical release the members of the sizable Chinese community in the US had already seen the film on DVD, either pirated or imported from HK. Another newsgroup review claims that Miramax have been dragging their feet with Hero‘s release as they apparently did not expect to be able to garner a significant income from another ‘wuxia’ film so soon after Crouching Tiger. They were evidently wrong, as Hero quickly ended up among the highest grossing foreign films in the US. Here is J. Hoberman’s account on the story behind the release, from the Village Voice:

Hero’s backstory is also action-packed. Having acquired the most costly movie ever made in China back in 2002, Miramax sat on its U.S. release, diddling with the running time, until other forces came into play. Quentin Tarantino persuaded his padrone Harvey Weinstein to restore the movie to its original length. Then, Weinstein’s estranged padrone Michael Eisner released some extra bucks to facilitate the movie’s release, acting to placate the Chinese officials whose help he needs for his Sino Disney World.

On release in the U.S., Hero had Tarantino’s names attached as a ‘producer’, clearly revealing the insecurity of the distributors who evidently did not believe the film could have a life of its own, without the endorsement of an American cult icon.

During the opening weekend at the end of August 2004, however, Hero made $18,004,319 (playing at 2,031 theaters with a $8,864 per screen average, and soon reaching its widest U.S. release at 2,175 screens). According to the IMDb, the opening weekend grosses were, respectively, for the UK £1,005,571 (26 September 2004; 254 screens), Australia AUD 2,258,748 (6 November 2004), for Italy €1,689,089 (10 October 2004; 313 screens) and for Spain €461,720 (16 November 2003; 91 screens). For more detail, see the good overview of the box office and reception of film at the Wikipedia entry.

According to Box Office Mojo Hero‘s worldwide gross came to $177,394,432, of which the international box office accounts for 69.7% ($123,684,413) and the domestic U.S. market, for 30.3% ($53,710,019). There are several observations that need to be made here: a) The distribution of Hero‘s revenues pretty much replicates the revenue balance of a typical Hollywood epic distributed internationally, with about one-third coming from the domestic US market, and roughly two thirds — from international markets. b) In the case of Hero, however, this is achieved by a combination of over ten distributors who handled the film in various countries and not one distributor that handles the film across multiple territories, as is typically the case of a Hollywood (even though one should also note that some major Hollywood players have been involved with the film internationally). c) Box Office Mojo’s data cannot be complete as there is no full reporting in the context in which they operate, nor do they include reliable DVD figures. It is likely that the film’s revenues could be thus, significantly bigger, especially as it is clear that nobody is keeping track on the piracy that plagues non-American releases. d) There have not been attempts to estimate if and what Miramax have lost by delaying the film’s release. Still, it is important to speak of this situation as economically important as it is about losses incurred (or potential profits not realised).

By way of comparison, again according to Box Office Mojo, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was made for an estimated 15 million dollars, made about 60% of its revenues from the domestic US market ($61,231,307) and only about 40% from international territories (circa 40 million dollars), totaling slightly over 100 million dollars in 2001.

Hero is a co-production between China and Hong-Kong (even though these are officially ‘one country’ today, they still co-produce between/within themselves). The realization of the film is largely a Chinese effort, with a line-up of Chinese and Hong Kong actors, led by diasporic legend Jet Li. When it comes down to visual effects, however, the credits list includes Hollywood specialists who have also been involved with films such as Moulin Rouge or The Matrix. Thus, the film is also partially representative of the trend to internationalization in special special effects, which I am discussing elsewhere.

Maybe because it cross-referenced two popular genres, the ‘wuxia’ martial arts film and the lavish costume drama, the response to Hero and the film’s media coverage was massive, including scores of interviews with the director and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who received numerous awards for his work (alongside the scores awards and nominations for the film, among which were nominations at the Oscars, the Golden Globe awards, and so on). A breathtaking number of user comments on the IMDb (790) is suitably matched by the number of external reviews linked here (245), indicative of the number of printed reviews that are not linked. (It is interesting to note that participants in the on-line exchanges are mostly based in the US, UK and Canada, thus one cannot say that much of cross-cultural discussion is taking place). The critical receptions, however, vary. On the World Socialist’s web-site the film is deplored for compromising with the status quo of cinema dictated by pragmatic box-office interests, while on the imdb message board a user interprets the film as an overt communist propaganda (with its low class protagonist-freedom fighter and its values of patriotic self-sacrifice). And while most reactions to Hero are in the ‘Wow!’ range, acknowledging it as a visually stunning poetic masterpiece, featuring jaw-dropping art direction and martial arts, there are reactions like the one of a newsgroup reviewer who complains over misleading marketing which made him expect a Tarantino-type film and which put him off due to the subtitling.

Besides Ang Lee’s Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, 2000), in the context of various discussions Hero has been cross-referenced to films ranging from Leni Riefehstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934), through Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and Ran (1985), coming to present-day texts such as Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003/2004) and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003). Other references include Tsui Hark’s Jet Li classic Wong Fei Hung (Once Upon a Time in China, 1991), The Last Samurai (2003), Alexander (2004) and Beowulf (2007).

* See Jonathan Rosenbaum’s excellent classical essay, The World According to Harvey and Bob, also Peter Biskind’s book on Miramax.

© Dina Iordanova
18 July 2008