Chinese New Year Welcomes Slew of Comedy Releases (Berlin)

HONG KONG -- Comedy rises again in the year of the rabbit, as local-language Chinese New Year films return to their former prominence. Lighthearted fare always thrives during the beginning of the lunar calendar, and comedy is poised to continue as filmmakers take advantage of the lucrative Chinese market's new-found love of laughs.

"Comedy is now the mainstay of the Chinese-language film industry," says producer, comedy writer and actor Raymond Wong, who was behind many in the genre since the 1980s, including some of the highest grossing Chinese New Year comedies. Wong is credited for re-launching the trend with 2009's All's Well Ends Well, a continuation of the successful 1990s series that became the top Chinese-language film at the Hong Kong box office that year. "Hong Kong comedy filmmakers are more adept as to what appeals to the mainland audience. We've tested the grounds with films specifically catered to the Chinese New Year period, and the season has become more established as a movie-going season in China."

Like Christmas in the West, Chinese tradition holds that families unite to celebrate the new beginning of the lunar calendar, called the Spring Festival in the mainland. Before and during the Spring Festival, Chinese migrant workers travel across provinces to go home and spend as much time as possible with their kin. In the past, the Chinese New Year timeslot was not seen as a strong box office season in the mainland, but now comedies made with the Spring Festival release date in mind are competing for a larger slice of the box office pie. Two bona fide Hong Kong Chinese New Year films will go head-to-head in theaters: Wong's All's Well Ends Well 2011 and I Love HK from Shaw Brothers/TVB. Meanwhile, the period superhero action comedy Mr. and Mrs. Incredible from producer-director Peter Chan's We Pictures is also in the running.

Beginning in the late 1970s, the Chinese New Year became one of the most prominent and profitable periods of the year. But it all changed during the 2000s, when audiences found themselves greeted by violence, triads and drugs in the 2007 Chinese New Year thanks to the Derek Yee-directed Protege.

"It's part of the Hong Kong culture to watch seasonal comedies during Chinese New Year, but for a few years in the mid 2000s the market share was lost to imported films even for this period," Wong says.

Adds Mr. and Mrs. Incredible helmer Vincent Kok: "During the downturn, local filmmakers could afford big stars for Chinese New Year comedies, which is one of the main attractions of the genre."

Since Wong reignited the comedy genre, other 1980s veterans have followed suit. Last year's 72 Tenants of Prosperity, produced, co-directed and starring Eric Tsang for Shaw Brothers/TVB, conquered the box office last Chinese New Year with HK$27 million ($3.5 million).This year's follow-up, I Love HK, which once again puts the Hong Kong audience front and center. "It's part of our collective memory for the whole family to see a seasonal comedy during Chinese New Year, and we want to recapture that," says Chung Shue-kai, who shared directing duties with Tsang on 72 Tenants and took over on I Love HK.

Shaw/TVB's Chinese New Year outings favor a strong dose of Hong Kong nostalgia. I Love HK centers around a public housing community and reinforces such local beliefs as rising from defeat. Chung says the idea for the film was borne out of the Hong Kong tourist massacre in the Philippines in mid 2010, a tragedy that unified the people of Hong Kong. "We want to celebrate Hong Kong people's sense of togetherness and unity in the face of adversity," says Chung, who has relocated primarily to Beijing in 2006. He adds that he hopes the sentiment might be shared by audiences in China, especially those who grew up in public housing. "It's a distinctively Chinese characteristic, to band together in hard times," he says. A happy ending is the prerequisite for films in the Chinese New Year genre, and true to form, the film winks at the audience through their seasonal greetings, delivered by its cast of almost 200.

Although I Love HK boasts such a large group of actors, an ensemble cast of superstars has always been the main draw of Wong's All's Well Ends Well films. True to its starry roots, All's Well Ends Well 2011 boasts A-list stars in its leads, including Wong's Ip Man series action star Donnie Yen in his most comedic role yet, and the newly-crowned box office queen Carina Lau of the 700 million yuan grossing Let the Bullets Fly.

The third installment of the All's Well series uses one-third of its HK$50 million ($6.4 million) budget on its stars alone, and could only get a maximum of 10 days of shooting from each lead. Even so, Koo from All's Well and Ng from I Love HK also appear in Kok's Mr. and Mrs. Incredible.

Incredible actually went into production well before its Chinese New year competitors, and Kok treats the issue of overlapping casts in a generous manner befitting the season. "I'm glad that my cast is of such high demand," he says. "It shows that the Chinese New year comedy genre has returned to its former glory."

While Kok admits that the real battleground is in the Chinese market, comedy helmers such as himself and Wong are now convinced that the cultural gap in appreciating humor between the Chinese audience and Hong Kong filmmakers can now be bridged. "Chinese audiences, especially those in southern China, grew up on a steady diet of Hong Kong comedies, some of which in the form of pirated VCDs," Kok remarks.

With eyes on comedies, Wong is also planning to update for the mainland audience another one of his hit 1980s comedy franchise, The Happy Ghost, a series of campus-based teenage comedies which he wrote and starred in as the title character. While the Chinese censors' ban on superstitious subject matter can be sticky, Wong believes it can be renegotiated by downplaying the ghostliness of the title character, who was in essence a mentor figure to young people. "It's not unseen for youth-oriented films with supernatural elements to be shown in China," Wong points out, "just look at Harry Potter."