Abe Kwong Man-wai does not get an exciting film pitch every day. The vice-president of Beijing Enlight Pictures, however, was sold on the spot when actor-turned-filmmaker Xu Zheng knocked on his door with the script of Lost In Thailand.
"I was already touched when Xu Zheng, a professional actor, told the story in our meeting room - his gestures animated, his eyes blinking with excitement," says Kwong, whose private film company invests in and distributes popular contemporary Chinese films. "I knew the story would sell because the audience could really use a comedy that would give them a good laugh."
The wacky farce, often dubbed China's answer to The Hangover and starring Xu, Wang Baoqiang and Huang Bo, follows three men's journey in Thailand. It broke every box-office record in China, with domestic gross income exceeding HK$1.6 billion.
"We were aiming at half the amount. We never thought it would go on to be the first Chinese film to surpass the 1 billion yuan [HK$1.25 billion] mark," Kwong says.
Following Lost In Thailand's jaw-dropping box-office success, a string of contemporary movies, especially romantic comedies set in modern-day China, joined the club. Those films shared similar traits - starring top Chinese
actors and portraying a modern Chinese lifestyle - and have taken the industry by storm.
The mainland movie scene, which for the past decade had been saturated with high-budget sci-fi, fantasy or action blockbusters and the so-called "main melody" propaganda flicks, is welcoming a refreshing genre that touches upon the audience's everyday life.
In Finding Mr. Right, for example, actress Tang Wei, of Lust, Caution fame, plays a materialistic woman expecting her first-born in Seattle. The film grossed about HK$660 million in the domestic box office.
That record was surpassed by So Young, actress Zhao Wei's directorial debut. The romantic comedy, which addresses the post-1980s generation's bitter adolescent years, grossed more than HK$860 million on the mainland.
Among the many factors that contributed to the trend, the popularity of cinemas spread across the mainland is one that's often overlooked.
Thanks to rapid commercial property development, the number of silver screens soared in the past decade. According to EntGroup, a Beijing research facility specialising in the Chinese film industry, there are now more than 15,000 silver screens on the mainland while in 2002, only about 1,000 were available. "Going to the cinemas has become the norm," says Shanghai-based independent film critic Sun Mengjing. "People have a desire for cultural life, and going to the cinema is part of it. A movie is spread through word of mouth, and people worry that if they haven't seen the movie, they will be out of the loop."
Mainland filmmaker and critic Cheng Qingsong also reckons that the expansion of cinemas has helped audiences develop the habit of going to the movies. "Ten years ago, the audience would only go to the cinema to watch blockbusters, such as Hero [2002 wuxia film directed by Zhang Yimou starring Jet Li and Zhang Ziyi]," Cheng says. "Films like Lost In Thailand or So Young wouldn't have stood a chance back then. But those films have accumulated a base of cinemagoers who have become more sophisticated and are craving alternative genres."
Marketing and promotional strategies on online and mobile platforms, such as Weibo, Taobao and Weixin, have also infiltrated the younger generation of moviegoers.
"Online platforms, like traditional media, are becoming 'must-haves' for film promotions," Kwong says. "When we send stars and crew on road shows to different provinces, we have more than 100 employees researching local hot spots and coming up with specific marketing strategies. We choose different stars for different cities."
Films that tell stories the local audience can relate to, have found a market niche which Hollywood productions fail to enter. These contemporary Chinese films also fit the bill for small-to-medium-budget investments, proving to be most lucrative and cost-effective to produce.
Boasting a cast of up-and-coming stars and a plot stripped of extravagant sets and post-production effects, such small-to-medium-budget films often cost only HK$13 million to HK$44 million to produce.
"When I first started on the mainland in 2007, there were only mega-budget blockbusters or really low-budget movies, but nothing in between," Kwong recalls. "It's a good sign that medium-budget productions are hitting box-office jackpots, because you cannot only count on blockbusters to keep the film industry going - there's too much risk. For example, for a 200 million yuan investment, we have to gross at least double the amount just to break even."
The audience's change of taste has encouraged industry veterans who are hoping that the new trend will nurture a more mature and healthy film market on the mainland. However, there are concerns of another round of saturation.
"There's no golden rule in cinema," says Cheuk Pak-tong, director of the Academy of Film at Hong Kong Baptist University. Cheuk is a devoted academic on cinema research and was a filmmaker during Hong Kong's New Wave movement. "If all you have are comedies, the audience cannot be continuously entertained, unless you have something fresh to offer."
To extend the lifespan of the contemporary drama trend, critics believe it needs to be handled carefully. "Part of the reason why such films are fetching billions at the box office is that the genre was previously missing, but not necessarily because the films are of high quality," says critic Cheng. "To truly stamp their mark on the film industry, filmmakers need to stop focusing on short-term profits."
Still, it's not necessarily the case that the trend will dominate the whole market, says Bill Kong, president of Edko Films. His influential independent film company is responsible for producing and distributing contemporary hits such as Finding Mr. Right in Hong Kong and on the mainland. "If the audience can associate themselves with a movie, the movie will naturally get more attention. But I'm not saying action, sci-fi or other genres aren't well received. We need different genres to provide variety for the audience to choose from," Kong says.
The growing popularity of contemporary dramas and romantic comedies, however, doesn't seem to favour Hong Kong filmmakers, especially ones who are not familiar with mainland culture.
Hong Kong filmmakers' gradual northward shift has been evident since the enactment of 2003's Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement, which facilitates mainland-Hong Kong collaborations.
Due to strict censorship on the mainland, the majority of Hong Kong filmmakers focus on blockbusters set in ancient times or based on adaptations of Chinese legends to avoid sensitive topics and social issues. Contemporary films, especially romantic comedies, were almost untapped by Hong Kong filmmakers. "The biggest challenge for Hong Kong filmmakers is to make upS their mind about whether they want to focus on Hong Kong audiences or the mainland market. It's one or the other," says Kwong of Beijing Enlight Pictures.
The status quo was broken last month with the premiere of Peter Chan Ho-sun's American Dreams In China. Starring top mainlander actors Huang Xiaoming, Deng Chao and Tong Dawei, the story is loosely based on the rags-to-riches tale of the co-founders of the New Oriental Education and Technology Group, which went public on the New York Stock Exchange.
Famous for his melodramas and romantic comedies in the early 1990s, including He's a Woman, She's a Man and Comrades: Almost a Love Story, Chan had shunned contemporary subjects since he jumped on the bandwagon to make a string of mainland and Hong Kong co-produced epic blockbusters, such as The Warlords and Wu Xia. He believes American Dreams In China will unleash his best potential.
"This is great, because it allows me to go back to what I enjoy filming the most," he says. "Before, I was forced to make blockbusters even though I don't enjoy the process, because otherwise I'd be jobless. It's natural the [contemporary comedy] trend is growing on the mainland. The audience has become more mature over the past 10 years."
Edko's Kong says the contemporary comedy trend gives Hong Kong filmmakers an incentive to learn about cultural differences between Hong Kong and the mainland. "The topics of love and romance, laughter and tears are universal," he says. "It's just a matter of different presentations in terms of backgrounds and cast. As long as it's a good story, it's still competitive."
Chan, who has been focusing on the mainland market for almost a decade is one of the first few Hong Kong filmmakers shifting up north, says: "I have learned a lot over the past 10 years working on the mainland, but not enough to call myself a local. [American Dreams In China] was especially challenging, because I'm telling a story that relates to mainlanders' collective memory."
Since the film opened on the mainland on May 17, it has fetched more than HK$126 million in three days. How the genre will perform in Hong Kong still remains unclear. Finding Mr. Right and Lost In Thailand only fetched moderate box-office grosses during their Hong Kong runs ( Finding Mr. Right stalled at HK$10 million, while Lost In Thailand failed to pass the HK$10 million mark).
Local comedies, such as Vulgaria, directed by Pang Ho-cheung and produced by Chapman To Man-chak, who also starred in it, have done well in the box office in Hong Kong. Vulagria more than HK$30 million and its star - model-actress Dada Chan - won this year's Best Supporting Actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards. However, Vulgaria's distribution couldn't pass the border to launch on the mainland because of its content and language. "If you can't tap into the contemporary comedy trend on the mainland, then focus on Hong Kong," Kwong says. "The most important thing is to know your target audience."
Chan agrees: "You can't have your cake and eat it too. The integrity of a film is that it stays true to its story. If it's an interesting story done properly, audiences from anywhere will like it."
American Dreams In China is now showing in Hong Kong cinemas