Backlot: CineAsia — All Eyes on the East

Courtesy of China Film Group
Zhang Jingchu stars in "Aftershock," China's highest-grossing domestic release of all time.

As the venerable exhibition confab gears up for its annual gathering in Hong Kong, a look at four honorees who have changed the face of the Asian film sector.

Feng Xiaogang
Filmmaker of the Decade

In a movie market buzzing like no other, CineAsia will honor Feng for his contribution to a decade of Chinese box-office growth at the closing ceremony of the regional distribution and exhibition trade show. It runs Dec. 7-9 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center.

The timing couldn’t be better. Aftershock, Feng’s current Huayi Brothers Media hit about the devastating 1976 Tangshan earthquake, has become the top domestic film of all time, grossing more than 660 million yuan ($100 million). The first non-English film made in Imax, Aftershock is China’s official submission to Oscar’s foreign-language race, where a nomination surely would brighten his star overseas and open doors for rising bilingual actress Zhang Jingchu, 30.

Feng, 52, is the first Chinese director to gross more than $1 billion in ticket sales, not surprising considering that many Chinese moviegoers grew up on the urban comedies he faithfully released every New Year. His name — and that of his perennial star, Ge You — were such a strong lure that Feng’s films often were the only titles on which frugal audiences splurged all year.

As loved as he his, Feng is also a lightning rod for public criticism. Some say Aftershock revived painful memories of the 2008 Sichuan quake while glossing over controversy in the government’s handling of that event. Shi Shusi, a leading Chinese current-affairs commentator and blogger, wrote: “Without the particular historical background, Aftershock is undoubtedly a wonderful movie of moral education. … Regrettably, history is history. It can’t be wiped out or eliminated.”

Still, Feng’s films — long made with the backing of Beijing-based Huayi, China’s first major publicly listed film studio — have topped the domestic box office since his 1994 debut, Farewell My Love. Since then, Feng — who grew up modestly in Beijing as the son of a college professor and a factory nurse — has displayed remarkable versatility, moving easily among wildly different genres. His 2003 release Cell Phone appears at first glance to be a romantic comedy, but the film’s tale of a philandering talk show host undone by an errant phone call soon morphs into a biting social satire.

After the thriller A World Without Thieves in 2004, Feng would score back-to-back hits with China’s first attempt at a big-budget, Hollywood-style film about the Korean War — 2007’s Assembly, which took home the best Asian picture award at the 28th annual Hong Kong Film Awards — and his 2008 romantic comedy If You Are the One, which broke China’s box- office record at the time. “Feng Xiaogang is the perfect choice for Filmmaker of the Decade as he is one of the few Chinese filmmakers who truly cares about connecting with the Chinese audience,” film critic Raymond Zhou Liming of the state-run China Daily says. “Feng is not elitist; he’s not condescending. From his low-budget comedies to his big-budget war or disaster films, as long as you care about storytelling as he does, there’s sure to be a reward at the box office.” 

Son Kwang-ik
Lotte Cinemas CEO
DLP Cinema Marketing Achievement Award

Across the Yellow Sea in South Korea, Son, CEO of Lotte Cinemas, hopes to integrate his company’s successful conversion to digital cinema into new segments of the value chain.

“Our plan in the long run is to collaborate with China on co-productions,” Son says. ”We see that co-production with China and Japan are the only way to survive in the industry, given the small size of the Korean film scene.”

But before Lotte gets into making films, CineAsia will honor the Seoul-based operator of 62 multiplexes with the DLP Cinema Marketing Achievement Award. In 2008, Lotte established D-Cinema Korea with CJ CGV, the largest theater chain in Korea, to convert all of South Korea’s 1,000-plus screens to digital.

In June, Lotte broadcast the 2010 FIFA World Cup match between South Korea and Argentina live in 3D to 52 of its cinemas using RealD 3D systems. Lotte now has three multiplexes in Vietnam, and the first of 15 planned China locations is set to open in the northeastern city of Shenyang at year’s end.

Katharine Kim
CJ Entertainment CEO
Distributor of the Year

Another Korean industry leader eager to partner with neighbors in China is Kim, who will be honored as Distributor of the Year at CineAsia for her oversight of a media powerhouse whose recent box-office successes include the thriller The Man From Nowhere.

CJ’s first female CEO, Kim has expanded its business around the world by setting up CJEJ with T-Joy in Japan, inking a development deal with 1492 Pictures in Hollywood and co-producing two films in China: the Zhang Ziyi starrer Sophie’s Revenge and a remake of the Hollywood hit What Women Want. And that’s on top of green-lighting Warner Bros.’ hit co-production August Rush and handling Korean distribution of the Paramount and DreamWorks slates.

After studying film and art at the Pratt Institute in New York, Kim returned home to Seoul to cut her industry teeth at Columbia TriStar Films of Korea (now called Sony Pictures Korea), where she steadily climbed the company ladder for nine years to become executive vp.

“In the world of distribution you couldn’t ask for a more dedicated and respected professional who has done so much for their company in bringing film into the hearts and minds of moviegoers in Asia,” CineAsia managing director Bob Sunshine says.

Li Yaohan
Wanda Cinema Circuit chairman
Exhibitor of the Year

In China, where year-end box- office receipts will likely shatter last year’s record $909 million, one exhibitor stands out from the pack: Wanda Cinemas.

CineAsia will honor the Wanda Cinema Circuit as Exhibitor of the Year for expanding its market share to about 18 percent in China, with 71 cinemas and 600 screens. Beijing-based chairman Li is expected to accept the honor.

“Wanda does a lot of marketing,” says Li Chow, head of Sony Pictures in Beijing, referring to how Wanda cinemas breaks with tradition by installing larger, Western-style marquees that draw attention on crowded city streets. “Not all the cinema chains do that in China and that part is very good — they’re more open to new marketing.”


Thailand: Following previews, Thai movie-goers are expected to stand and sing the national anthem. Fail to do so, and you risk being escorted out of the theater.

China: Even domestic releases are subtitled in Chinese. The region’s vast number of dialects and huge immigrant population demand this. Directors are beholden to shoot in putonghua, which is similar to the Queen’s English in the U.K., so few films include much spoken dialect.

Japan: Strict forms of social etiquette affect every facet of life in Japan, and moviegoing is no exception. Cell phones in theaters must always be on “manner mode” (vibrate), and moviegoers always politely wait until the end credits have rolled before leaving.