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The Chopsticks Brothers may have been new to the American Music Awards audience when they took the stage Sunday night to accept the International Song Award for their viral track “Little Apple,” but 1.4 billion people on the other side of the world have been unable to get their song out of their heads for the past six months.
The Chinese filmmaking and musical duo dropped the single on May 29, and since then, the song’s truly bizarre music video (see it below) has generated more than 280,000 cover versions, in total racking up over 900 million views on Youku, China’s largest online video portal. The retro-sounding dance hit is virtually inescapable in China, blasting in shopping malls and public squares and catapulting its creators to an unexpected stratosphere of fame.
The Chopsticks Brothers, also known as director Xiao Yang and songwriter Wang Taili, visited The Hollywood Reporter offices in advance of their AMA appearance to introduce themselves to American readers and explain just what Adam and Eve, a mermaid, the Korean War and plastic surgery gone horribly wrong are doing in the same music video.
The Chopsticks Brothers have been collaborating together for almost a decade.
The two met in 2005, when Wang was looking for a cheap director to make an ad for the small company he owned and hired Xiao, then a film student assisting on commercial shoots. They hit it off when they realized they both had big dreams of creating something unique. “He wanted to make movies,” Wang says of Xiao, “and I wanted to be a singer. But I was getting older, and nothing was happening on that front.”
“Little Apple” was written to promote their first feature film, Old Boys: The Way of the Dragon, which is inspired by their love for Michael Jackson.
The Chopstick Brothers established themselves online as Youku stars, and their 2010 short film Old Boys, about a pair of old friends who finally decide to pursue their musical dreams upon their idol Michael Jackson’s death, captured more than 75 million views. Youku decided to adapt the dramedy for its first web “microfilm”-to-theatrical release, where it grossed more than $30 million in the first two weeks of its release in July. That healthy performance was in large part thanks to the viral spread of “Little Apple,” a song that was written for the film but released six weeks prior.
Yes, they worried about how the music video would be received.
Xiao decided to ironically juxtapose the cheerful lyrics and bouncy tune of “Little Apple” with the most tragic love stories he could think of: “Plastic surgery gone wrong, a wartime romance and a mermaid and prince forever apart. And, Adam and Eve.” After about a month of prep time, the whole shoot took around three to four days, and it was then that the absurdity of what they were doing dawned on them: “We were dancing around in briefs that look like we’re naked, and I wondered: Too far?” Xiao says.
Meanwhile, Wang took convincing to play all the tragic female characters in the music video (even though he’s done it before, in the Chopsticks Brothers’ parody video “Memoirs of a Geisha Man“). “I’m a pretty traditional person,” he says. Adds Xiao: “He would like the world to know he’s actually macho.”
They were optimistic about the song’s viral potential, but they never imagined its ubiquity — which includes being used in a recruitment video for the People’s Liberation Army.
“We thought, ‘Now we’ve gone too far,’ ” Xiao says. “The government and the military are very strict. Even if it wasn’t my own song they were using, I’d be shocked.”
“There are flash mobs [dancing to ‘Little Apple’] all over the world,” says Wang. “You walk the street, from one end to the other, and are like, ‘Ugh, it’s everywhere?'”
The song has even popped up in unexpected places, including the remote desert city of Dunhuang, where the Chopstick Brothers went to film their next project. “We were in this tiny village, just a dozen households or so, populated by Kazakh shepherds,” Xiao recalls. “One of them got a phone call, and I heard his ringtone: ‘You are my little apple … ‘ I wouldn’t have believed it if I wasn’t there.”
Adds Wang: “If we could collect copyright fees, it’d definitely be a lot of money.”
They understand the “Gangnam Style” comparisons, but “Little Apple” was actually conceived before Psy’s smash was released.
“Our first two singles, Old Boys and Father, were emotional tearjerkers,” Wang says. “A lot of our Chinese fans would come up to us and cry, or people would sing our songs at karaoke and cry. So I wanted to change the mood.”
As work on the feature adaptation of Old Boys got underway, Wang began preparing its promotional single, deciding in spring 2012 to go for a carefree dance tune, similar to the disco songs he loved growing up. “A few months later, ‘Gangnam Style’ came out, which made me feel I was on the right track,” he says. “I had this feeling ‘Little Apple’ could catch on fire. But to what extent, I couldn’t imagine. Now it’s brainwash [the Chinese term for earworm].”
So who is Little Apple?
“‘Little Apple’ could apply to anyone,” Wang says. “Your friend, your child, your elders, your pets — they could all be your little apple.”
While Xiao contemplates the Chopsticks Brothers’ next feature — which they plan to take two years to work on — Wang will collaborate with Youku to expand its nascent Little Apple brand, which will include international versions of its music video, all the better to conquer the world with. Next up: South Korea, featuring girl group T-ARA. Says Luke Lu, general manager of Youku Original Content: “Wang doesn’t want to be a girl anymore, so we found four pretty girls to back them up.”
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