BEIJING, Dec. 31 -- The country's movie-making industry is experiencing a boom, with ticket sales increasing and more quality offerings from homegrown talents.
Box office takings in China have been rising 20 percent annually for the past five years, and though Hollywood blockbusters such as Transformers 2 and 2012 were the most profitable films this year, local productions were big hits too.
And 2009 was a bumper year for moviegoers with the gross box office surpassing last year's 4.3 billion yuan ($630 million) to reach 6 billion yuan.
Following, are 10 significant local films and though they are not all artistically refined, they made a big impact in 2009.
The Message, Overheard, Night and Fog and Bodyguards and Assassins excel in terms of acting and storytelling; while Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf, Crazy Racer and Cow were breakout movies in their genres.
The Founding of a Republic and A Simple Noodle Story provided big talking points in the film industry; while City of Life and Death was appreciated for tackling a sensitive issue and raising discussion.
(1)A Simple Noodle Story
The film marked Zhang Yimou's return to cinema after he directed the spectacular Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics last year.
Adapted from the Coen Brothers' 1984 crime thriller Blood Simple, the film is a combination of slapstick and thriller.
The slapstick part is mainly provided by three actors of er'renzhuan - folk duets featuring ballads, dancing and cheap jokes - and raised great controversy.
The spy thriller is one of the most refined films of the year. To begin with, each of the seven main actors did a brilliant job in putting life into their characters. Secondly, the script is well written. Set during China's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, the movie centers on a cat-and-mouse game between a Japanese chief and five suspects, one of whom is a planted agent. The story is full of unexpected twists, yet convincing at the same time.
In addition, the Oscar-winning designer of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (卧虎藏龙), Tim Yip, made the entire wardrobe by hand. The set, two villas perched on a seaside cliff, features vintage furniture and ornaments collected from all over the country. The antique sofas, lights, tableware and LPs cost more than 4 million yuan ($585,420). The film won five nominations and the Best Actress award at the 46th Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan.
Cow is almost a one-man show. It signifies the coming-of-age for Huang Bo, the comedian who specializes in playing low-life characters. His nabbing of the Golden Horse - as best actor for this performance - is much deserved.
The War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45) is as often filmed in China, as the European theater of WWII is for Western cinema. So it is not easy to squeeze anything fresh out of it. Writer and director Guan Hu adopted a small-scale approach that was ingenious in both concept and execution. The story revolves around a cow, a gift from a European country, and how it has an unexpected impact on different people, including Japanese soldiers.
The flashbacks are seamless. The locale is so intricately integrated into the plot the audience has a strong sense of participation. All characters are richly delineated and not even the Japanese invaders are caricatured. An actor with star power may boost the box office, but Huang Bo brings out the poignancy of the human dilemma in this slightly farcical tale.
Written and directed by Alan Mak and Felix Chong, writers behind the Infernal Affairs (无间道) trilogy, Overheard focuses on insider trading, which has rarely been depicted in Hong Kong films.
Three wiretappers at the Hong Kong commercial crime investigation bureau find out about a listed company trying to manipulate the stock market. With the crucial information in hand and facing the temptation of getting rich overnight, they trap themselves in a fatal dilemma.
Stocks have been a big issue in the Chinese mainland, too, since the market hit a record 6,000 points in 2007, attracting millions of investors, ranging from tycoons to school kids.
With the help of his father and brother, both senior policemen, Mak talked with many former staffers at the Hong Kong commercial crime bureau, which investigates commercial fraud, computer crime and counterfeiting. He also asked for help from actress Anita Yuen, who has 10 family members working in the Hong Kong police force. The film tells an engaging story and the three Hong Kong actors, Lau Ching Wan, Louis Koo, and Daniel Wu all did a great job.
(5)Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf
China has lacked a popular homemade cartoon series, while Japanese manga is hugely popular around the world.
Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf is an exception. The film is about a battle of wits between a herd of goats and a couple of wolves and earned more than 80 million yuan ($11.7 million), at a cost of just 6 million yuan.
Its success is largely attributed to a fan base reared on 500 episodes of a TV series aired on 50 channels nationwide.
Now, the smart sheep and stupid wolves are as well known as Mickey Mouse among children here.
A sequel will be released in February, 2010.
China has been working hard to produce its own cartoons and there are currently 5,600 animation companies employing at least 200,000 people. Other locally-made favorites include The Story of Hongmao and Lantu and Calabash Boys.
The film's director Ning Hao is called "China's Guy Ritchie" thanks to his quick-paced, smart and hilarious black comedies.
The film features four groups and more than 10 characters. Major personalities include a cyclist, a fraudulent sexual-enhancement medicine salesman and his overweight wife, several gangs and two stupid murderers.
These characters find their lives interwoven with one another - and with murder, suspense and humor - in convincing and comical ways.
Ning came up with the original storyline in late 2006, and spent eight months with eight writers drafting the script. He was so demanding that at least six writers ran out of ideas.
One of the writers used an abacus to calculate the characters' intricate relationships with each other. He described the writing process as deciphering a "calculus" formula.
Another writer drew a story map of the characters' relationships. But it was so complex that it confused even Ning.
The film was one of the funniest of the year.
(7)The Founding of a Republic
This film was an event in the industry because about 80 stars, many of whom are A-listers such as Jackie Chan, Zhang Ziyi and Jet Li, appeared in it. Some of China's most famous directors, such as Chen Kaige and Feng Xiaogang, played parts too.
And all of them worked for free.
The stellar cast is largely attributed to the clout of Han Sanping, the film's co-director and head of China Film Group (CFG), the State-owned conglomerate. Han is a senior producer and CFG is the No 1 film company in the industry.
Telling a story of how the People's Republic of China was founded, the film was a tribute to the 60th anniversary of the country's founding.
It raked in 400 million yuan ($58 million), compared to the 430 million yuan of Transformers 2 in June.
(8)The City of Life and Death
Any film on the Nanjing Massacre will create a stir in China, especially if it is directed by a young Chinese director and narrated from an original point of view.
The film was controversial because it centered on director Lu Chuan's depiction of the Japanese troops.
Usually, in film treatments of the massacre, in which about 300,000 civilians and soldiers lost their lives, Japanese troops are portrayed as devils, rather than rounded individuals.
In Lu's film, soldiers share happy moments, making a pot of tasty soup, and one of them falls in love with a comfort woman. At the same time, they were part of a fine-tuned and ruthless killing machine. Some viewers were irritated, calling Lu a traitor who tried to humanize the Japanese invaders, while others marveled at his courage to raise a new point of view.
(9)Night and Fog
Ann Hui's follow-up to her much-acclaimed The Way We Are (天水围的日与夜) is not really a sequel, but rather a presentation of the flip side of the coin.
Tinshuiwai, the Hong Kong residential community where both stories take place, is known for the family tragedy on which Night and Fog is based. But the Chinese titles are so similar they can be seen as an organic whole.
While The Way We Are depicts the subtlety and warmth of Chinese relationships, Night and Fog dives into the violent world of one family. A middle-aged Hongkonger marries a young mainland beauty with a shady past. Her can-do spirit clashes with his slothful dependence on welfare. When violence spirals out of control, she and her twin daughters fall victim to his inner demon and to a bureaucratic system.
As usual, Hui's latest offering has great acting, clear exposition, with rich textures and much food for thought.
(10)Bodyguards and Assassins
China's so-called costume blockbusters are often disappointing because they seldom live up to their hype. But not this film. The 16 A-listers embody their characters perfectly and the story - eight grassroots heroes' voluntarily protecting the revolutionary leader Dr Sun Yat-sen in 1906 - fully engage the viewers. Also, the film stands out from conventional action films by being free of action in the first half, while the second half is a kind of action tsunami of dazzling kungfu scenes. Both parts are effective. The drama part is touching and the action part exciting.
(Source: China Daily)
Special report: Yearender 2009