China actor Huang Xiaoming is too good-looking to play a country-bumpkin loser. That was Hong Kong director Peter Chan's initial reaction when casting for the drama American Dreams In China. Speaking over the telephone from Hong Kong, Chan, 50, says: "I did approach him for the film, but the role was not fixed. It was he who insisted on playing the role."
The director admits that he had his doubts when Huang plumped for the part of loser Cheng Dongqing, one of three friends who meet at university and later run an English language school together.
He says: "When you are good-looking, you have a different experience in life, so it's very hard for you to understand what life is like for a loser and Cheng Dongqing is a loser who is looked down upon by others."
He was moved by Huang's persistence though and suggested that he gave it a go. And the actor came through with flying colours.
Chan muses: "He must have had such experiences in life as well, otherwise, it would not have been possible to act that part."
Indeed, he adds that Huang, 35, had shared his experience of how, since his days as a student at Beijing Film Academy, "there've always been people who look down on him and think of him as unsophisticated even if they think that he is good-looking".
Chan once called his regular leading man Takeshi Kaneshiro "the most handsome and most non-threatening man" in an interview.
What about his three leads in American Dreams: Huang as straight arrow Cheng, Deng Chao, 34, who plays confident Meng Xiaojun, and Tong Dawei, 34, as ladies' man Wang Yang?
"They are good-looking, but there is still an approachability to them. They are all character actors," says Chan.
"Perhaps Huang is more of the classic leading man mould, but he is not without substance."
In the film, Huang's leading man looks are buried under a dorky haircut and a pair of unflattering glasses. It gives him a chance though to prove that he can act.
He was been rewarded with a nomination for Best Actor at the Golden Rooster Awards, China's equivalent of the Oscars. The film notched up five other nominations, for Best Film, Best Director, Best Original Script, Best Supporting Actress for Du Juan and Best Cinematography for Christopher Doyle. The results will be announced on Sept 28.
The film, which opens here tomorrow, has clearly struck a chord in mainland audiences. It took in 535 million yuan (S$110 million) at the box office.
It is Chan's highest-grossing film there since he started gunning for the China market beginning with the musical Perhaps Love (2005), and its success is an indication of how moviegoers' tastes have been changing there.
He recalls that the industrialisation and commercialisation of film in China took off about 10 years ago. He declares: "Beginning with Zhang Yimou's martial arts flick Hero (2002) till about 2012, all the films had needed to be big films. If you were not a big film, you wouldn't be able to get audiences into cinemas."
For a generation used to watching pirated movies at home, nothing less than an event movie would tempt them to leave the comfort of their home and pay the high price of cinema admission. The average price in 2010 was reportedly around 40.40 yuan, according to media research firm EntGroup.
Chan saw the signs. From early character-driven works such as comedy He's A Woman, She's A Man (1994) and drama Comrades, Almost A Love Story (1996), he hopped onto the bigger-is-better bandwagon.
Perhaps Love reportedly cost US$10 million and starred top names Jacky Cheung, Kaneshiro and Zhou Xun. The Warlords (2007) was an epic period war film that had an even bigger budget of US$40million and starred Jet Li, Andy Lau and Kaneshiro. In 2011, there was the US$20-million martial arts flick Wu Xia which starred Donnie Yen. It took in 172 million yuan in China.
In contrast to those movies, American Dreams reportedly cost a more modest 40 million yuan and has made more than 13 times that.
Chan notes that after a string of big movies, "many of them not well done", audiences were beginning to tire of spectacle. At the same time, he adds: "Some small films were getting more mature and better-made."
For example, the comedy Lost On Journey (2010) - directed by Raymond Yip and about a farcical road trip taken by a cynical businessman (Xu Zheng) and a trusting young man (Wang Baoqiang) - cost 9.5 million yuan to make and earned 46.5 million yuan. Its sequel Lost In Thailand (2012) raked in 1.26 billion yuan.
The success of these films has given investors a confidence boost. Chan says: "They no longer insist on making big films and the opportunity for doing smaller movies has increased."
He adds: "In the first 10 years of commercialisation, movies have accomplished the job of pulling audiences back into cinemas. Now that they have gotten into the habit of doing so, they have discovered that they can watch smaller movies there as well."
The movies might not offer big-name stars or expensive special effects, but "sitting together, laughing, crying and being moved together is a different kind of cinematic enjoyment", Chan points out.
Audiences are getting more mature and they are beginning to hunger for depictions of themselves on the big screen. He says: "They want to watch movies which are closer to their own ordinary lives. You can obviously see more small and mid-sized films making an impact and this is a very good change."
Recently, the drama Tiny Times, about the challenges faced by four young women in love and life, made 483 million yuan. It might have played out like a fantasy, but at least it was a fantasy of being rich and successful that any man in the street could easily relate to.
Chan had previously attended the film school at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). While he was not part of the scriptwriting team, which comprised Zhou Zhiyong, Zhang Ji and Lin Aihua, some of his personal experiences in the United States made it into the film.
For example, Meng, played by China actor Deng, works as a busboy and a kindly old woman gives him a generous US$20 tip. That happened to Chan himself.
Asked if a scene of Cheng chasing after a fellow student played by model-turned-actress Du, 31, was a chapter from his life as well, Chan sounds almost bashful. He says: "I never chased after girls as I was the passive sort."
Chan now has a seven-year-old daughter with his partner, actress Sandra Ng, 48.
Meng is the character the film-maker identifies with most closely. He notes: "It's his attitude and mentality. He has a certain pride, self-confidence, idealism and speaks his mind. That kind of directness is not common in Chinese society.
At the moment, he is not ready to announce his next project.
But unlike directors who cash in on a successful title with a sequel or three, he dismisses the idea of a follow-up to American Dreams. He says: "There probably won't be one because the stories are already complete in the movie."
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