China gets its own movie theme park
Feng Xiaogang wanted to be an actor but became a director. Now, finally, one of his ambitions has come true with the opening of China's first movie theme park and studio complex, he tells Mathew Scott
If it's true you can judge a man by the company he keeps, then Feng Xiaogang must be doing very well indeed.
The man often described as the mainland box office king has for the past hour or so been seated in the middle of a theatre as a 30-minute show reel plays to a crowd of about 1,000, taking us through the highlights of the 56-year-old filmmaker's career. There are clips from Lunar New Year comedies such as The Dream Factory (1997) that first brought Feng fame and also the blockbusters, such as Aftershock (2010), that he has turned his attention to as his interests expand, along with those of the mainland audience itself.
In a further reflection of Feng's stature, when he takes to the stage - and takes in the applause - his broad smile is beaming down on a crowd that is split equally between political heavyweights, business leaders and A-list celebrities.
"For the past 20 years I have been following my dreams," Feng says to the gathering. "And it's you who enable me to make films."
But these days he is doing more than that - and that's why we've been joined here just outside the city of Haikou by the likes of Wang Lu, vice-governor of Hainan province, who's seated along from Ken Chu Ting-kin, chairman and CEO of the Mission Hills Group which has been developing the land nearby. Not far away from that pair sits Ge You, acclaimed star of many of Feng's films, while the Hong Kong acting community is represented by, among others, Jackie Chan, Andy Lau Tak-wah and Miriam Yeung Chin-wah.
On June 7, Feng cut the ribbon on his latest venture as the first stage of the Movie Town theme park was officially opened to the public. It is part of a complex that will eventually feature three streets that recreate the sets used in some of his biggest hits, as well as four massive film studios and a collection of boutique hotels.
The project is set to cost US$300 million and is being developed through a partnership between the filmmaker, the Mission Hills Group - owners of the sprawling 10-course golf complex next door - and one of the mainland's most successful film studios, Huayi Brothers.
The public relations puff says the aim is to attract about five million visitors a year and the property is one of a number of projects being fully supported by the local government as it seeks to expand Hainan's attractions.
Later, we walk down "1942 Street", which features recreations of the Republican-era buildings in Chongqing as shown in Feng's 2012 war epic, Back to 1942, with 91 buildings covering 25,000 square metres.
If it works, the theme park will be further proof of the filmmaker's canny knack of combining creativity with business acumen.
The mainland's commercial cinema market has grown during the past decade to the point where it is set - within the next five years - to become the world's largest, with estimated yearly takings of more than US$11 billion. And Feng has managed to track the trends his home audience has followed across that period of remarkable growth, with romantic comedies such as If You Are the One (2008) - which took in about US$54 million - giving way to the more weighty historical-themed blockbusters that have in recent years dominated the mainland box office, such as Aftershock, which turned its attentions to the 1976 Tangshan earthquake and collected more than US$100 million domestically.
The theme park and studio complex is a natural progression both for the film industry and for himself, Feng says later. "Chinese cinema is growing and has become more important. We need to make more films and give our audiences more opportunities to enjoy being part of Chinese cinema."
Even as long as a decade ago, when the commercial film industry had just started its massive expansion, Feng was spouting the mantra that mainland filmmakers should learn from - but not simply copy - others, saying American and Hong Kong filmmakers "can point us in the right direction".
And the director today sticks to that theory. "In the past we have learned things from the West and now we are developing things for ourselves, and that's what led me to help create this theme park and these studios," he says.
Specifically, "I had always hoped that the film sets we create do not have to be removed after shooting due to a lack of space and I have always wanted China to have its own studios. Many years ago, when I visited Paramount in Hollywood, I saw they had this massive studio and I never thought that one day we would have our own studio. Now we will have this, and it is important for our industry."
Feng knows first-hand the power that cinema has to affect the lives of its audience - he tells a rambling story of how as a young man he became enthralled by seven-time Oscar winner Patton (1970), which traced the story of American general George S. Patton, and decided then that he wanted to become an actor, just like its lead, George C. Scott.
"When I made my first film [ The Dream Factory], I also acted in it and I was so poor in that film," he recalls ruefully. "But I still wanted to act. I could still see myself on the screen like that guy in Patton, wearing the helmet and going into battle. But Ge You found me and showed me the way. He told me I didn't have to act. I could make films. So I am thankful for that, even though I still like to play some small roles."
Feng has also discovered over the years the trickle-down effect that a successful film can have on the destination in which it is set. If You Are the One was credited with kick-starting a rush of Chinese visitors to Japan's Hokkaido prefecture, while both If You Are the One 2 (2010) and last year's Personal Tailor featured scenes shot on Hainan that led the local authorities to the director's door.
"They asked since I had set two films in Hainan, did I want to do something more here, but I am not a businessman," says Feng. "But they offered me help and that's how we've come to be where we are today."
With Movie Town now open, Feng will turn his attention to his next production, with rumours of an English-language remake of his 2004 hit A World Without Thieves doing the rounds. The director will neither deny nor confirm the rumour.
What he does confirm though is that no matter what other businesses he might become involved in, he will certainly keep on making films.
"To be honest, I am not a man with a good temper. As a person, I am not entertaining at all. I will often lose my temper with [people]. But I hope that people will put up with me and that is why I try to make entertaining films."