Will local audiences warm to Chinese filmmaker Xu Zheng’s Lost in Hong Kong?
Actor-director is curious about the reception a film with a Chinese view of city will get, after initial enthusiasm in China for the follow-up to Lost in Thailand tailed off
Actor-director-producer Xu Zheng should have every reason to feel on top of the world, not least because we are 393 metres above sea level on the Sky100 observation deck at ICC in West Kowloon, where part of his latest offering, Lost in Hong Kong, was filmed.
The former theatre actor is now China’s only filmmaker to have two titles grossing more than 1 billion yuan (HK$1.2 billion) each at the box office – even if this fact, somehow, appears lost on him.
“I don’t have any particular feeling about this,” Xu says stoically when asked about his bankable profile. “I’ve always thought that money should be [considered] a bonus only. The most important thing is that you’re doing what you like to do. I’m lucky that I’m doing what I like.”
It takes staggering poise for the 43-year-old to just breeze past the topic. Xu’s directorial debut, Lost in Thailand (2012), made over 1.2 billion yuan in China and became the highest grossing Chinese-language movie at the time. His follow-up effort, Lost in Hong Kong, opened on September 25 in China (it will be released in Hong Kong on November 19) and took in a record-breaking 200 million yuan on the first day.
The new film’s domestic takings have since dropped off, notably as a result of its mixed reception; currently at 1.6 billion yuan, Lost in Hong Kong’s earnings are set to fall short of the new Chinese record of 2.43 billion yuan, set by the 3D fantasy film Monster Hunt earlier this year.
“Monster Hunt is a summer movie catering ... for all ages,” says Xu. “People who watched Lost in Thailand had been really, really looking forward to watching our new film. But once we decided on the subject matter, we knew that Lost in Hong Kong was not a family movie. It’s not very suitable for kids.”
Lost in Thailand is a wacky road movie that charts the slapstick-filled expedition of a businessman (played by Xu) from Bangkok to Chiang Mai with an annoying sidekick (Wang Baoqiang) in tow, and Lost in Hong Kong replicates that premise – Xu’s protagonist is followed around by his insufferable brother-in-law (Bao Beier) – but shifts its focus to such sober topics as broken dreams and frustrated married life.
The audiences have been divided,” says Xu. “Some asked why the film is so different from Lost in Thailand; others had contrasting views on the relationship issues portrayed. Unlike Lost in Thailand, which had a greater focus on comedy and more of a light-hearted atmosphere, Lost in Hong Kong revolves around a person who can’t let go of his youthful memory.
With a budget of 100 million yuan (compared to the relatively modest 30 million yuan for Lost in Thailand), his new film is a passion project in more ways than one. Like many of his compatriots, Xu began consuming Hong Kong films and Canto-pop songs when he was a teenager.
“When we caught John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow on VHS, the impression was huge. It was impossible to see that sort of gangster film [in cinemas] in mainland China,” he recalls. “VHS was quite popular in Shanghai, where I lived, and we were able to catch up with older stuff like the comedies by Karl Maka and the Hui Brothers, and TV series such as The Legend of the Condor Heroes and The Bund.”
While Lost in Hong Kong is characterised by the litany of Canto-pop tunes on its soundtrack and the range of classic film references peppering its fevered dash around Hong Kong, Xu says his most memorable experience during the shoot was his brush with the umbrella movement protest late last year.
“The Occupy Central [campaign] was happening when I was filming here,” he says with a chuckle. “I was worried that our shoot would run into trouble. But it turned out to be fine; we were quite lucky that things went smoothly.”
Xu says he wasn’t disappointed with the paltry figures that Lost in Thailand achieved in Hong Kong (it took less than HK$1 million in early 2013). “We didn’t seriously work on the promotion,” he says. “You can’t just screen a movie and expect people to come voluntarily. There are no free buns falling from the sky.”
Ahead of Lost in Hong Kong’s release in the city, it remains to be seen if the prevalent anti-China sentiment has bled into the city’s pop-culture ecosystem. Among the various Hong Kong celebrities making cameo appearances in the film, prolific director Wong Jing is easily the most divisive figure due to his repeated, unfriendly remarks against his pro-democracy peers.
“I think Wong Jing is working mostly in China now,” says Xu, grinning. “I saw some [of those remarks]. For a place with true freedom, everyone should have the right to express his own opinions. But then again, when I wrote the script, I wasn’t aware of Wong’s political stance.”
Regardless, Xu is looking forward to finding out if film-goers will be lured into cinemas by his take on their city. “Nowadays, it’s Hong Kong filmmakers who go and work on the mainland – seldom the other way round. I’m not sure if they’d be interested to check out Hong Kong as seen through a Chinese filmmaker’s lens.”
Although Xu’s name has risen towards the top of the international box office charts with Lost in Thailand and Lost in Hong Kong, he remains an enigma not just to Hong Kong audiences but most foreign observers as well. The actor-director is, however, determined to play down what could only be described as his stardom on home turf.
“I think the foreign analysts should understand that some of us are only enjoying wonderful box office results because of [China’s] market expansion,” says Xu. “All I ever wanted is to be a little chess piece. I’d like to keep making the movies that I like, but I wouldn’t promise to become a master or something. It’s enough for me as long as I’m doing my job properly.”
Lost in Hong Kong opens on November 19