SHANGHAI – Kuiba, the $7 million Chinese animated debut feature film from veteran Beijing-based television studio Vassoon Animation will be released nationwide in July by the Shanghai Media Group, China’s latest attempt to showcase its homegrown cartooning talent.
Premiering in the wake of Hollywood smash hit Kung Fu Panda 2 and within weeks of the much-anticipated opening of Transformers 3, Kuiba’s monkey-boy hero Manji will have his work cut out for him as he struggles through a world part Japanese anime, part Chinese back-to-the-future. Titular villain Kuiba, a laser-shooting phenomenon reminiscent of a Transformer, travels through a landscape of ancient architecture peopled by talking animals in traditional costumes.
“This is a story about a boy struggling to be a hero, struggling with his inner demons,” Stefanie Zhang, Vassoon’s overseas distribution manager told The Hollywood Reporter on the sidelines of the 14th Shanghai International Film Festival on Wednesday.
Although monkey-like, Zhang said Manji is not based on the Monkey King from the Chinese classic Journey to the West, the source of countless hours of filmed entertainment that’s seldom travelled far beyond China with much commercial success.
Zhang said Vassoon is China’s oldest private animation studio, founded in 1992 by CEO Wu Hanqing, a veteran of the state-run China Film Group’s script department and a former member of the one-party government’s board of film censors.
To complete Kuiba as a feature (it started out as a TV project), Wu and her husband, Vassoon Chairman Wang Chuan, sold their house and got minority help from a venture capital fund at Tsinghua University, Zhang said.
“These people are passionate intellectuals who want to prove that while Japan’s had microphone for a long time, it’s China’s turn now,” said Zhang, who joined Vassoon in 2010 after leaving a job programming the Taiwan International Animation Festival for four years. “The film is infused with China’s and [writer] Lu Xun’s selfless philosophy of giving and not expecting anything in return.”
“That’s why I’m here,” she said. “I saw the crumbling of animation in Taiwan and believe China’s the key to the future.”
Vassoon CEO Wu, who previously worked on scripts with directors like Chen Kaige and Wang Xiaoshuai, and is a daughter of professor of Taiwan literature and a well-known female radio hostess, Zhang said. Wang trained as a lawyer before a previous career at The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper. Wang wrote and directed Kuiba after a serious study of the animation industry in China.
“The study results told them to make Kuiba as a feature film, not for television, because Chinese TV can’t afford it,” Zhang said.
China’s theatrical box office ticket sales soared 64 percent in 2010 to hit $1.5 billion.
Vassoon’s attempt with Kuiba to break away from the small screen – where it has outsourced talent to Warner Brothers’ Batman TV series through a South Korean middleman, Zhang said – comes as Beijing pushes for China’s animation industry to compete with Hollywood’s expansive soft power.
In 2008, DreamWorks Animation’s original Kung Fu Panda was the first animated feature to gross more than 100 million yuan at China’s box office, which, three years ago, equaled about $15.2 million. The film that made a global cinematic hero of China’s national mascot was a wake up call to the domestic animation industry, which has yet to produce a ‘toon that’s travelled much beyond Hong Kong and Taiwan.
At the opening last month of a new $690 million state-backed animation facility in Tianjin, the port city nearest the capital, Beijing, Minister of Culture Cai Wu said that animation production was a part of China’s overall development plan for its cultural industries from 2011-2015.
China’s one-party central government, which is expected to undergo a leadership transition in 2012, introduced its latest five-year plan earlier this year. Much was said about the importance of media in promoting China’s image overseas.
Earlier this year, Legend of a Rabbit, a feature-length 3D cartoon about a humble bunny who takes on a badass panda to save a kung fu school, was announced as the Tianjin Film Studio’s $12 million attempt to give Kung Fu Panda 2 a run for its money.
Legend of a Rabbit, which was heavily promoted at the Shanghai International Film Festival this week, clinched 15 territory presales at the European Film Market in Berlin in February, but has yet to land a sale to a distributor in the United States or Japan, Elliot Tang, of the Tianjin Film Studio said.
The latest installment of the TV-inspired animated film series Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf grossed 127 million yuan ($18.7 million) for distributors Polybona and Eastern Mordor during the peak movie going period of the Lunar New Year holiday in January 2010 — peanuts next to the $19.29 million Kung Fu Panda 2 grossed in two days, breaking all previous Chinese opening weekend records, including that of Avatar, the country’s current No. 1 all-time box office leader with grosses of more than $200 million in China alone.
Zhang, who speaks French and English, said she’s hopeful after buyers she met at Cannes in 2010 “expressed serious interest” in Kuiba “It’s early yet, but we’re trying and have more projects coming.”
Vassoon’s next animated feature, Ksitigarbha, was selected by the 2010 project promotion section at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Festival, Zhang said.