Will The Wolverine profit by heading east?

SINGAPORE - A few months back, it was announced that China is now the second biggest movie market in the world after the US, with Japan third.

Chinese cinema audiences ponied up US$2.7 billion (S$3.4 billion) in 2012 compared with the Japanese at US$2.4 billion.

Though US moviegoers were good for a robust $10.8 billion, Hollywood will obviously want the lion's share of all that Asian moolah as well.

Enter The Wolverine, which opens here on July 25.

We've already had five movies - X-Men (2000), X2 (2003), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and X-Men: First Class (2011) - featuring the hirsute comic book superhero, but this is the first one set in the exotic East.

Australian superstar Hugh Jackman reprises his role as Logan/Wolverine, who sets off for Japan in order to escape his painful past.

Guess what he finds there? More pain.

He gets mixed up with a yakuza boss (Hiroyuki Sanada), falls for the wrong women (Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima), fights a villainous samurai (Will Yun Lee) and tangles with a snake mutant (Svetlana Khodchenkova).

Set in the aftermath of X-Men: The Last Stand, the story is based on the classic Wolverine comic series written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Frank Miller in 1982.

While this latest sequel isn't entirely faithful to its source material, it does maintain the Japanese setting as well as many of the same characters and plot points.

"I just immediately loved the intrigue of the world," Jackman, 44, told the movie website /Film in an on-set interview.

"It was based on some things that are true - the yakuza, certain elements of Japanese life - and I just like the juxtaposition of this world with who he is as a character.

"It's just so opposite to him.

"He's disdainful of it all, dismissive, and then he actually starts to learn some things.

"The film is not jam-packed full of mutants everywhere and powers, but it is otherworldly in a way.

"It's a fish out of water story."

Wolverine has a legitimate history with the Orient, though obviously a flick like this would be a non-starter if Asian bums weren't filling cinema seats in such huge numbers.

Marvel Entertainment would undoubtedly have sent him to Finland if Scandinavia was flaring as brightly as Asia on their radar.

The money to be made in Asia is quite staggering, and if Hollywood wants its share, it will have to compete with the increasingly competitive fare being produced in some Asian countries.

Top five

Of the top 10 films released in Japan last year, seven were made in Japan, with only the movie musical Les Miserables - incidentally starring Jackman as well - managing to crack the top five.

In eighth position was Resident Evil: Retribution, which is based on a Japanese video game and featured Chinese actress Li Bingbing in a prominent role.

This sequel actually made more in Japan than it did in the US - US$48 million compared with US$42 million.

Last year, the highest-grossing film in China was the super-mega-smash hit Chinese comedy Lost In Thailand.

Obviously, locals want to see local stuff.

That said, the amazing thing about Hollywood is that locals everywhere also want to see their stuff.

Hollywood speaks to people in some magic way that film-makers in other parts of the world can't seem to fathom.

Jackman was mobbed while shooting in Japan, just as he would have been pretty much anywhere.

"People went crazy," his co-star Fukushima told the movie website Screen Rant.

"Hugh gave an autograph to everybody while waiting on the street.

"He was like, 'Everybody line up,' and just gave autographs. Like hundreds of people.

"It took like 45 minutes. He was so nice and everybody was like, 'Thank you so much'.

"It was really great."

The Wolverine may seem somewhat ham-handed in its depiction of Japan - it looks about as culturally sensitive as the 1993 Japan-panic flick Rising Sun - but the clich├ęs are depicted so lushly and with such verve that one can't resist.

People generally like to see their countries pop up in Hollywood films - everything looks bigger, brighter, mythic.

Let's remember that Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai was the second-highest grossing movie in Japan in 2003, coming in way ahead of Finding Nemo and The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers.

The Wolverine will surely not offer an accurate depiction of life in Japan, and that's precisely the point.

Hollywood is planet Earth's dream machine.

"I'm a huge fan of Japanese films," The Wolverine director James Mangold told Screen Rant, "but I don't know that it's necessary for a movie like this to lean in every way to Japanese culture.

"My own inclination is that this is really an international film.

"Part of what's so exciting for me about it isn't only the Japanese aspect, but the fact that we're bringing those ideas and that culture in conflict with Logan and mutancy and other characters in the film who represent other cultures.

"That kind of clash going on is, to me, really exciting."

There's no telling yet how successful The Wolverine will be, but something tells me it'll do just fine.

The Asia-friendly US$190 million giant robot flick Pacific Rim - which features a Chinese Mark-4 Jaeger named Crimson Typhoon and whose leading lady is Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi - may have disappointed at the US box office recently with a haul of only US$37 million.

However, it came out tops in Korea and Russia, and could yet turn a profit once it's released in China and Japan.

Yuan, yen or dollars, it's all good.

Solid Gold

US director James Mangold, 49, is a man with the golden touch, more or less.

He's helmed some solid, award-winning flicks such as Girl, Interrupted, Walk The Line and 3:10 To Yuma as well as popcorn fluff like Kate & Leopold, Identity and Knight And Day.

With The Wolverine, he's delving into the superhero genre and taking his career to a new level.

But can he finally deliver the flick that Wolverine fans want to see?

How would you describe The Wolverine?

I wanted to make a real character-based film, which was not about a villain destroying a city, a football stadium, a country or the planet.

The film's energy, its engine, its drama and its drive come from the journey of the character.

It is like a great Western or a great noir film. We can have all that action, we can have all that conflict, but you care about the characters in this film.

What is Logan's journey all about?

It is about immortality. The problem if you are an immortal like Logan/Wolverine is that you have the advantage that you will live forever, you're nearly indestructible, but you also have disadvantage and pain because you will see everyone you love die.

You will watch the world that you know fade, you will watch love fade and you will say goodbye to every family member, loved ones, friends and compatriots that you have known.

You have worked with Hugh Jackman before (in Kate & Leopold). What do you think sets him apart as an actor?

He is a brilliant actor.

Hugh is one of the most lovely men in the world and a great friend, but he's also enormously talented.

He can take human thought and human feeling and turn that into a nugget of cinema.

The reality of being a great actor for film is an understanding of how to take feelings and make them into something great on screen.

It doesn't always need a word. That is what Hugh does so well with Logan. You can see it in his eyes; you can feel it.

We don't have to set anything up, you know who he is.