Online Smash 'Old Boys' Gets Ready for Big-Screen Bow in China

"Old Boys" began life as an online movie but after 75 million hits and an upcoming big-screen version, it is seen as a possible future direction for Chinese cinema.

Old Boys: The Way of the Dragon is a bittersweet, sentimental tale of a hapless pair of amateur Chinese musicians called the Chopsticks Brothers, who also direct the film — two high-school friends trying, and for many years failing, to make it as musicians. They work as wedding hosts, as barbers, and finally enter a music contest performing Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," but the producer of the show doesn’t want them on it.

Internet firms are getting heavily involved in the movie business in China right now and the country’s tech and entertainment industries are rapidly converging, and thus movies like Old Boys are considered a template for the development of the Chinese industry.

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Old Boys: The Way of the Dragon began life online as a 43-minute micro movie in 2010, one of a genre of short movies popular on tablets and cellphones, and soon notched up more than 75 million views. It has touched a nerve in China among the generation who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, a period of massive social tumult in the country.

It’s about as big a counterpoint you can possibly imagine to China’s current box-office leader, Transformers: Age of Extinction, but this strong nostalgic local flavor should give the movie serious traction when it opens July 10.

“No matter how the film has changed, the spirit of the old boys haven’t changed,” director Xiao Yang told a news conference to launch the movie in Beijing. Meanwhile, his co-director Wang Xiaoli said: “This film tells a story about a small character who is not happy with his current situation and hopes for success. I believe it will be successful.” Neither Xiao nor Wang had much experience when they started making the movie, but this naive approach appears to have worked wonders for them.

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The song from the movie, "Xiao Pingguo," which means “little apple,” is everywhere right now. People are dancing in public to it – think Pharrell Williams’ "Happy," then multiply by a million.

China’s leading online video company Youku Tudou has backed the feature film, one of about 10 movies it will bankroll this year, spending about $50 million.

“This is the first mainland Chinese dream comedy. As well as having laughs for 90 minutes, the two characters chase their dreams. It is sad and funny,” said Zhang Zhao, head of LeVision Pictures, which joined Youku Tudou and Ruyi Films to produce Old Boys.

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At the Shanghai Film Festival, Youku Tudou unveiled a slate of more than 20 programs and drama series by its in-house production unit, part of the company’s strategy of offering its customers unique entertainment.

The company has 500 million users on both PC and mobile, and attracts more than 70 percent of Chinese online video viewers, according to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC).

It's a rapidly developing field. Internet giant Tencent has been beefing up its online video arm, to take advantage of its strong social networking business and wors to commercialize its hugely popular instant messaging tool, WeChat.

The online retail giant Alibaba, which is working on a New York IPO that could be the biggest tech listing in history, is expanding into the entertainment industry by setting up a film company in Hong Kong. It also has a stake in Youku Tudou and in the private production outfit Huayi Brothers.

Transformers: Age of Extinction is ruling the box office right now but the producers of Old Boys believe it will appeal to Chinese audiences keen for movies that speak to them, and it could be a success in the way that Tiny Times was last summer. A third installment in that tale of youthful folly is due at the cinemas this month too.

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