'Breakup Buddies' Director Ning Hao Talks About Keys to Success

THR speaks with the Chinese director whose road trip comedy sits atop the international box-office chart

Ning Hao is comedy gold in China. His road-trip chuckle-fest Breakup Buddies just shot to the top of the international box office chart with a weekend take of $38 million in China, pushing the film's nine-day total to a whopping $93 million.

A tale of a recently divorced man and his best friend who set off on a series of misadventures, Breakup Buddies reunites actors Xu Zheng and Huang Bo in their first movie together since megahit Lost in Thailand, which grossed nearly $200 million in China in 2012.

Ning has done it before. His 2005 dramedy Mongolian Ping Pong was a festival hit and he had major mainstream success in China with Crazy Racer and No Man's Land.

The movie opened in 20 theaters in North America this weekend, grossing $240,000.

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Shortly before the film's release, THR sat down with Ning over some spicy Sichuan food in a Beijing restaurant to talk about China's metamorphosis, finding an audience and shooting the movie in the beautiful backpacker resort of Dali in the southwest.

Who do you think is your main audience?

"I think my biggest audience is Chinese. Intellectuals can watch this film and normal people can also watch it. I think the audiences won't be too young. Young audiences watch comedy. For this theme, I think we need audiences with a bit of mature experience.  It won't do worse than No Man's Land. The so-called success is the box office.

What inspired the movie and why did you set so much of it in Dali?

The year before last, I went to Dali with Yue Xiaojun. Yue had just gotten divorced and he had some problems and felt like he wanted to kill someone. I said let’s go. We made a trip. After this trip, I thought the theme was interesting and wanted to make a film about this subject.

For the last 30 years, China has experienced fast development. After the fast development, it is slowing down. It is like a transition from a young person to middle age. He faces some problems and he must think of what was not good before and where to go in the future. My feeling is that China is experiencing middle age and adjusting itself after fast development.

Because of the fast development, people’s values are a bit thin and the only one value is success. It will create some problems for sure if you measure everything by this yardstick, including love. So a one-night stand appears to be a way of releasing pressure and dissatisfaction with love. It becomes a normal phenomenon. I want to use this angle to tell a modern story.

Are you a fan of road movies?

I don’t watch too many Hollywood road movies. I actually prefer science fiction or action films to road movies, so I'm surprised I've made so many road movies.  I like Journey to the West (an ancient novel of characters on a quest, including the Monkey King), that kind of road movie. I would like to make one related to that.

How do you see the film market developing?

The market should and must grow. If there is no market, then there are no other things. Everything starts from the market. Market growth is more about new audiences. The film market is growing in the second or third tier cities where people are transforming from an agricultural population to an urban population. For them, entertainment is a priority. So you have to consider these new audiences.

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From the point of view of film making, you must make complicated subjects understandable. You can't use traditional methods, that era is gone. Some people say film is less exquisite now but they are being too traditional.

There is a lot of talk between China and Hollywood. Is that of interest to you?

At the moment, all my projects are domestic and no English films yet. What is crucial is whether the story is in Chinese or English. I am more familiar with the domestic market, so all my films are Chinese.

Do Hollywood films have an impact on China or is there a room for both?

I think at the moment, there is enough space for both, developing in a balanced way. If there are more, Hollywood films might suppress domestic films. That means Chinese films need to improve their quality and be better. I believe there is enough space because China is so big. The advantage for domestic filmmakers or directors is that they understand China and Chinese audiences. So with this advantage, there is space for Chinese films as well. It will not survive if it doesn’t improve.

What made you choose Dali to shoot?

In the past, I went there a lot and I am familiar with that place. I think art itself is like this. Art has the duty to record the era you live in and art is just a mirror that reflect the era. It has no other cultural value. It doesn’t matter if it's Van Gogh or Da Vinci. It recorded what that era needed. So this is my concept. Film records the era you live in. I like to research the contemporary situation.

What made you put the two (Xu Zheng and Huang Bo) together?

I know them very well and we have been together since I started making films. We have been very good friends. When I made the film Crazy Stone, they were there, No Man's Land. We live very close to each other and we are neighbors. After meals, I go and tell them stories. They think the story is very good and then we decided to make it into film.

Can you see the three of you working on more films?

If it suits, then it is a priority.

Are you working on a new project?

I am making a science fiction film with a big budget.

The budget for Breakup Buddies was 70 million yuan ($11.4 million).

Now everything is expensive. 10 years ago in China, there were a lot of things you can do for free, but now you can't. With house prices rising, everything is getting expensive.

There seems to be no gap between your films?

Yes, basically I get no rest. I hope I can get some exercise now.

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