Asian films reel in home viewers

CHINA - Domestic productions trump Hollywood ones in China, S.Korea, Japan

Hollywood movies once dominated in China, South Korea and Japan, but the East Asian trio are fighting back these days.

Home-grown movies devoured the lion's share of China's box office this year, and South Korean and Japanese movies are setting records and eclipsing Hollywood blockbusters at their own cinemas.

In China, six of the 10 most popular films this year were Chinese, led by Journey To The West by Hong Kong director Stephen Chow and starring Wen Zhang and Shu Qi.

In South Korea, local movies, led by Miracle In Cell No. 7, drew 100 million viewers as of Oct 4 and is on track to break the record of 114.6 million viewers last year. This means that every South Korean watched more than two local movies on average.

In Japan, animated movies like One Piece and Dragon Ball Z dominated the box office this year. In particular, The Wind Rises, the swansong of animation great Hayao Miyazaki, sold at least 10 billion yen (S$127 million) worth of tickets, the most for an animated film in Japan since Toy Story 3 in 2010.

Last year, Japanese movies made up 65.7 per cent of total box office sales of 195.2 billion yen - crossing the 60 per cent mark for the first time since 1969, said Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

The combination of "Western genre conventions, film technologies, formats and rich East Asian socio- politico-cultural content might be a key factor behind such a victory", said South Korean film expert Jung Sun of the National University of Singapore.

China and South Korea especially are fast-changing societies where "pre-modern, modern and post- modern elements are complexly yet nicely mingled with each other like a melting pot", added Dr Jung, who is from the Asia Research Institute at NUS.

Beijing-based film researcher Rao Shuguang in turn believes the East Asian countries have turned the tables on Hollywood with a two-pronged strategy.

They do what Hollywood does - make big-budget movies like South Korean director Bong Joon Ho's sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer starring Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell and Song Kang Ho.

Or they go for movies that are very local, basically movies that Hollywood can't make, said Dr Rao.

One example is Lost In Thailand, a comedy about two Chinese buddies in Bangkok, which brought in box office gold. That kick-started a string of successes for Chinese films like actress Vicki Zhao's directorial debut So Young, which beat Man Of Steel at the cinemas in China.

Chinese productions in particular have been enjoying a bumper year so far, as more cinemas opened in smaller cities and attracted more viewers, who prefer films with familiar settings, noted Dr Rao. The films too have improved in production standards and storylines. They are no longer limited to period dramas or martial arts films but can be comedies, love or aspirational stories that appeal to the domestic market, like Peter Chan's American Dreams in China.

Likewise, movies made in South Korea have gone beyond the usual melodrama, comedy, horror or action films, said Dr Jung. Now they include thrillers, sci-fi and disaster films, and many movies also mix the genres, she added.

There has also been greater synergy between these countries' film industries.

Chinese arthouse film-maker Jia Zhangke, for instance, often works with the Japanese. His latest work A Touch Of Sin, which won a prize at the Cannes film festival for its script, has Japanese funding.

China and South Korea, in particular, have put more emphasis on co-productions.

Between 2005 and 2011, there were 23 such films, said trade magazine Film Business Asia, citing the Korean Film Council, which set up an office in Beijing last year to support collaborations.

One notable co-production this year was Mr Go, a 3D movie about a gorilla that can play baseball. Starring Chinese actress Josie Xu, it was partly bankrolled by Chinese film company Huayi Brothers.

The movie, made by a South Korean crew, took in 112 million yuan (S$22.8 million) in China, far better than previous South Korean releases here.

Besides East Asian cinematic improvements, one reason for their better showing is simply that Hollywood movies have become less appealing.

As Dr Rao noted: "Hollywood movies used to be quite innovative but there has not been any breakthrough in genre or theme. Their appeal has dimmed."

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.