Hollywood’s Search for a Chinese Superhero

Can a Chinese hero save Hollywood from cultural irrelevance?

The deluge of Hollywood superhero movies shows no signs of abating, with an estimated 63 comic book adaptations set to hit the big screen by 2020.

A sizeable chunk of the global takings come from China, the world’s second and soon–to-be largest film market. However, Hollywood’s future success in the Middle Kingdom is far from assured. With competition from an improving domestic industry and the massive new audiences outside top tier cities less responsive to English-dialogue driven fare, it is predicted that US films will lose market share as the box office grows.

As Hollywood studios increase their China presence, they are recognizing the need for more localized content. Earlier this year, the Russo brothers, directors of the Captain America franchise, announced they were teaming up with Chinese partners to form development and production studios in LA and Beijing, before unveiling plans for a $230m trilogy of Mandarin superhero movies starring an original Chinese hero.

Russo Brothers by Gage SkidmoreThe Russo Brothers. Copyright Gage Skidmore

Mellow Yellow

The Russos are not the first to see the potential in a Chinese hero. In 2011, former Marvel president Stan Lee co-launched Magic Storm Entertainment with a view to producing superhero movies for Asian markets. The first announced project was an English-language film titled “The Annihilator”, about a Chinese expatriate named Ming, “who must choose between remaining in prison or enlist in a secret U.S. super soldier program”. Slated to star Wang Leehom, the project appears to have stalled in the early stages.

The same fate appears to have befallen his latest project, Realm of the Tiger, this time a Mandarin language co-production with different partners featuring a heroine supposedly set to be played by Li Bingbing.

Stan-Lee-in-2015---Gage-Skidmore1Stan Lee and would-be superhero stars, Wang Leehom & Li Bingbing. Copyright Gage Skidmore

Lee has actually been devising Chinese characters for decades, albeit less heroic ones. In 1965 he co-created The Mandarin, a droopy-mustached throwback to the ‘Yellow Peril’ characters of the 1920s and 30s. Back then a xenophobic fear of the perceived threat from the swarming masses in the east saw Chinese characters presented as either primitive peasants or evil masterminds like Fu Manchu or Ming the Merciless.

Yellow-Perils1Spot the difference: ‘Yellow peril’ inspired super-villains Fu Manchu, Yellow Claw, Ming the Merciless and The Mandarin.  Marvel preceded The Mandarin with Yellow Claw in 1956 and actually bought the rights to Fu Manchu in 1973.

In fairness to Lee, The Mandarin was conceived during the height of the Cold War amid fears of spreading communism and nuclear war. Unsurprisingly when Marvel Studios co-produced Iron Man 3 with DMG Beijing, with an eye on reaping huge rewards from the China market, they chose not to present The Mandarin as an evil Chinese dictator with ambitions of world domination. The arch-villain was instead revealed to be a bumbling junkie actor used as a front for Aldrich Killian’s terrorist organization, provoking the ire of nerds everywhere.

Radioactive-Man1Another Lee co-creation, Chen Lu, China’s leading nuclear physicist who transforms himself into a Radioactive Man, a walking blob of nuclear waste recruited to help his government stop Thor blocking the spread of communism into India.

Everybody Was Kung Fu Whitewashing

American comic creators have been inventing Chinese characters for almost 80 years. Despite the prevailing Yellow Peril mindset, some more positive fictional characters began to emerge in the late ‘30s, like the Green Hornet’s sidekick Kato, a character that probably inspired DC’s Wing, a Chinese immigrant working as the driver and sidekick for a wealthy publisher and caped crusader in New York.

Van-Williams-as-the-Green-Hornet-and-Bruce-Lee-as-Kato-from-the-television-program-The-Green-Hornet.The Green Hornet (Van Williams) and Bruce Lee as his sidekick Kato on The Green Hornet TV show (1966-67).  The Green Hornet started life as a radio show in the 1930s
Wing1DC’s Wing, sidekick to the Crimson Avenger (far right).  Following his dignified early appearances in 1938, Wing’s design later descended into a racist stereotype typical of the era.

Chinese portrayals further improved after the US joined World War II and became formal allies with China, ushering in, in 1944 Blazing Comics’ short-lived series starring the Green Turtle, widely believed to be the first Chinese comic book hero, who fights in China alongside local troops against the Japanese.

GT1The Green Turtle – the first Chinese comic book hero?

Attitudes were still far from enlightened. American-Chinese artist Chu Hing supposedly intended to create a Chinese hero but was blocked by publishers who felt an Asian character wouldn’t resonate with a US readership. Chu cunningly kept the Turtle’s ethnicity ambiguous by drawing his eyes obscured and using a surreal shadow of a turtle to represent his hero’s face.GT2

Whitewashing for a US audience endured 30 years later, when white actor David Carradine was cast as the lead in the Kung Fu TV series, in which a half Chinese Shaolin monk fights his way through the American Old West.

David_Carradine_Kung_Fu_1972David Carradine in the Kung Fu TV series (1972-75). Carradine played Kwai Chang Caine, a Shaolin monk who travels through the American Old West armed with his spiritual training and his skill in martial arts, in search of his half-brother.

Negative though that may appear, the show inspired a martial arts craze in America in the 1970s, leading to more admirable Chinese comic book heroes including ‘The Master of Kung Fu’, Shang Chi. If any US-created Chinese hero is fit for export to modern China it might be Shang. In 2005 he was one of ten characters included in a proposed Marvel Studios slate and, though he never got his movie, there are rumors he may soon appear in the Netflix Iron Fist series, supposedly played by an Asian male that probably isn’t John Cho.

latest-1Shang Chi debuted in 1973, initially as an evil character, the son of Fu Manchu.

It’s unknown whether a Chinese face would attract cinemagoers in China. Would say, a Chinese Superman, fare better than the lukewarm reception for Man of Steel or Batman Vs. Superman. That dream may be closer than we think, after DC recently bestowed the ailing caped crusader’s powers onto Shanghai teen Kenan Kong as part of their Rebirth event.

Kenan-Kong1Kenan Kong, a Chinese Superman

John-D.-and-Catherine-T.-MacArthur-Foundation1Kenan Kong is co-created and co-written by Asian-American artist Gene Yang Luen.  In 2014, Yang also revived The Green Turtle, telling his origin story in “The Shadow Hero”. Image courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

One US created hero that has remained Chinese to the core is Captain China, a Mandarin language series started in 2012 by American-Chinese duo Jim Lai and Chi Wang. Their Cap is a product of Mao Zedong initiative to create a Chinese superhero during the Great Leap Forward, revived after 50 years to demonstrate China’s economic power. Though amusing clashes between Cap’s Maoist anti-American ideology and China’s modern capitalist values ensue, surely no sane studio with designs on China would touch such sensitive subject matter.

Captain-ChinaJim Lai and Chi Wang’s Captain China.  Despite some confusion among netizens, he is not the star of the Russo brothers’ forthcoming movies.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a 16th century Chinese deity?

With 5000 years of history and mythology, it is often said that China already has the raw materials for great movie storytelling. While that forgets the all-important ‘telling’ part, it’s true that filmmakers frequently turn to the perceived box office security of fantasy, dipping into the archives for figures that can be repurposed as quasi-superheroes. League of Gods recently did just this, with the spirits and immortals of 16th century myth Fengshen Yanyi revamped amid spectacular blockbuster effects.

《封神传奇》对决海报横版带-logoCMKY-小League of Gods

US comic creators were riffing on Chinese mythology back in 2004 with Marvel’s Eight Immortals based on the legend of the same name. DC followed in 2006 with the Great Ten, based on the 14th century tale Ten Brothers, about a government-backed posse with excellent names like Accomplished Perfect Physician, Immortal Man-in-Darkness and Mother of Champions.

eightimmortalsMarvel’s Eight Immortals
GreatTen02DC’s Great Ten

Predicting what will work among China’s diverse masses is anyone’s guess. There is no tried and tested formula, though a glance at the most successful movies suggests that Chinese audiences favour escapism, fantasy and humor over the ever darker and more depressing stories told in US hero shows. So far, 2015’s super-silly Jianbing Man is China’s closest successful equivalent to a caped crusader.

Courtesy of Sohu VideoJianbing Man. Courtesy of Sohu Video

If the heroes of the past can teach us anything, it’s that their stories reflect the fears of the society in which they are created. The diverse concerns of China’s cinemagoers are different to those in the US, and transplanting an American genre onto another culture is more complex than simply casting a Mandarin speaking Chinese actor. If Hollywood must keep pushing superheroes, they face an unknown road ahead. Perhaps the most compelling solution is to leave the spandex at home, and focus on learning the true identity of the Chinese audience.

Queer is Here

ShanghaiPRIDE Film Festival programmer Mathew Baren on establishing a queer film festival in China

“Chinese queer experience is different, but probably not in the way you would think,” explains Matthew Baren, festival programmer for ShanghaiPRIDE Film Festival 2016. “It’s about dispelling misconceptions. Of course they face many problems, but they have different problems for different reasons. In Europe and North America, much of the difficulties that queer people face are because of religion in society, which isn’t really a factor here. Here it’s more about family, even to the point where someone can come out but still be expected to get married, have kids and continue the family line.”

ShanghaiPRIDE launched in 2009 but it wasn’t until 2015 that Baren and colleague Alvin Li introduced a formal film festival element. The aim, he explains, is to give a voice to underrepresented queer filmmakers in China, “LGBT stories still very often tend to be about white men, but there are some amazing stories coming from China that deserve to be heard.”

ShPFF_opening_023

Alvin Li (ShPFF Festival Coordinator & Events), Desmond Loh (Producer, Stink), Cheng Pei Pei (actress), masamojo (filmmakers) and Matthew Baren (ShPFF Festival Coordinator & Programmer) at ShPFF 2015 award ceremony

Moreover, entering the short film competition gives filmmakers access to ShPFF’s network of festival programmers worldwide. Last year’s winning film, A Straight Journey: Days and Nights in Their Kingdom is testament to that.   The 22-minute portrait of 48 gay people and their families in 11 cities across China by Beijing photographers masamojo premiered at ShPFF 2015 and has gone on to feature in festivals in Beijing, Taiwan, Europe and the US.

masamojo’s “A Straight Journey: Days and Nights in Their Kingdom”

Like masamojo’s film, Baren notes a tendency in Chinese queer film toward real stories, compared to the fictional narratives common to those from the west, “I think that’s kind of a dynamic of Chinese independent or DIY filming. People are shooting with their DV camera the things they see on the streets on a day to day basis.”

Though homosexuality was legalised in China in 1997 and attitudes in society are gradually becoming more open-minded, China’s gay community still faces challenges. For China’s LGBT activists, filmmaking is an important tool for bringing issues to light. In one recent landmark case, filmmaker Fan Popo last year sued the State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT) for allegedly demanding that Chinese video streaming sites take his documentary about the mothers of gay children, ‘Mama Rainbow’, offline. SAPPRFT denied ever sending such a request and Fan won the case, but restrictions on queer content do not appear to be easing.

‘Mama Rainbow’ by Fan Popo

Events like ShPFF and the Love Queer Cinema Week (formerly Beijing Queer Film Festival), the country’s longest running gay film festival founded in 2001, tend to favour bars and venues provided by international consulates as opposed to official state-approved cinemas. Baren suggests that such intimate environments help encourage another of the festivals key objectives: dialogue and discussion. “As much as it is about watching great movies and supporting filmmakers, it is a forum in which people can share their ideas and their knowledge.

The theme running through this year’s programme is gender, addressing issues affecting transgender, non-binary and agender people. Gender minorities are often the most marginalised within our community. They don’t have legal protection in the workplace or housing, they are more likely to receive abuse, there are fewer spaces for them,” explains Baren. “We want the festival this year to be a space where trans voices can be heard, and where people can educate themselves.”

ShPFF 2016 trailer

This year’s festival builds on a successful inaugural year, which saw one of China’s best-loved movie stars, Cheng Pei Pei, attend the festival’s China mainland premiere of Lilting, the British film in which she starred alongside Ben Whishaw. An array of established directors such as Beijing Queer Film Festival founder Cui Zi’en and producer Desmond Loh from Stink Shanghai made up the experienced jury. Judges this year include Lilting director and BAFTA award nominee Hong Khaou, and Kit Hung, the filmmaker best known for Teddy Award nominated Soundless Wind Chime. The winning film will be entered into contention for the UK’s Iris Prize, with a top prize of £30,000 towards the director’s next project.

Lilting1Cheng Pei Pei and Ben Whishaw in Hong Khaou’s “Lilting”

  • ShanghaiPRIDE Film Festival runs from 17-26th June.  Submission for the ShPFF Short film competition closes April 15th.  Click here for more details.
  • ShanghaiPRIDE 2016 runs from June 17-26th.  Click here for more details.
  • ShanghaiPRIDE Film Festival runs a monthly underground queer cinema night, Catch their next event on April 7th at Craft (5 Donghu Lu), 8.30pm, Free entry

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PIGPEN CINEMA Presents Michael Jackson: Journey from Motown to OFF THE WALL

Tue. Apr 19, 2016
Doors open 9 | Movie starts 9:30
65 Maoming Bei Lu (Weihai Lu/Yan’an Lu)
Drink specials: beer|wine|cocktails
Free “Grumpy” movie popcorn
Only 35 seats
First come first serve policy

“Director Spike Lee documents an in-depth look into the evolution of The King of Pop, Michael Jackson, and the cultural significance – and lasting impact – of his seminal first album as an adult, ‘off the wall.’”

Stephen Chow & Hong Kong Mo Lei Tau Comedy

During the 1990s, Stephen Chow’s name became synonymous with a unique comedy genre known as mo lei tau.  Though his recent movies retain many of the elements of his earlier work, the director is consciously moving away from the genre that made his name.

Stephen Chow

Stephen Chow is one of Hong Kong and China’s best loved comic actors and directors.  His new film, The Mermaid, has broken all major China box office records including biggest opening day, single day gross and opening week of all time, ultimately becoming the highest-grossing film ever in China and the first to join the ‘3-billion-yuan club’.  Whilst the success can be partly attributed to both the growing number of cinema screens across the country and the movie’s timely release to span two major holidays, the crucial catalyst is Chow’s enduring popularity.

Chow started out as a television comic actor in the late 1980s before getting his break in the 1990 movie All for the Winner.  The subsequent wave of movies in which he starred, and sometimes wrote and directed, would become known as mo lei tau comedies and came to define the proceeding decade in Hong Kong moviemaking.  The popularity of these movies saw Chow become Hong Kong’s leading comic actor and, alongside Chow Yun-fat and Jackie Chan, the major box office draw of the period.

Mo Lei Tau

Mo lei tau comes from the Cantonese phrase mo lei tau gau, which literally means ‘cannot differentiate between head and tail’, but is more commonly translated as ‘coming from nowhere’ or, more simply, ‘makes no sense’.  The term describes a wave of lowbrow, anarchic and absurd movies that satirized society, flagrantly disregarding filmmaking and narrative rules such as the fourth wall.  Whilst slapstick humour is central to the genre, it is perhaps most notable for its wild wordplay and creative license with the Cantonese language.

Video Clip from A Chinese Odyssey Part Two – Cinderella (1995)

Video Clip from King of Comedy (1999)

Though the term ‘mo lei tau’ wasn’t coined until Chow’s emergence, linguistic elements can be traced back to the Hui Brothers, a prolific Hong Kong moviemaking trio in the late 1970s.  Jackie Chan’s slapstick Kung Fu roles in the 1980s continued the evolution, before Chow became the figurehead for mo lei tau films in the 1990s.

The reasons the genre emerged, flourished and became intrinsic to Hong Kong popular culture are tied to the sociopolitical climate of the time.  The previous century had been a period of upheaval and transformation as Hong Kong grew from scattered fishing villages into a densely populated commercial hub, fuelled by an influx of migrants fleeing the political and economic difficulties on the mainland.  By the early 70s, Hong Kong’s formerly immigrant population was beginning to seek and embrace its own, native cultural identity.  A key element of that identity was language.  In a nation where the youth spoke Cantonese but were made to learn and write in English and Mandarin, Chow’s wild abandon with linguistic conventions provided them with a new vernacular, that excluded non-Cantonese speakers, and which they could call their own. 

Mandarin & The Mermaid

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Poster from The Mermaid

Whilst the Stephen Chow’s films have been edging stylistically away from mo lei tau since 2004’s Kung Fu Hustle, they have still relied heavily on the key elements of the genre.  The most significant departure began with 2013’s Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons, which saw Chow understandably embrace Mandarin to include and appeal to the enormous mainland audience.  The decision goes against one of the fundamental tenets of the genre as a tool of defiance and consolation, exclusive to Cantonese youth. In this sense, whilst The Mermaid is an accomplished addition to Chow’s body of work, it seems that he has, for now, left mo lei tau behind.

China’s Top Sci-Fi Author Astonished By Student Tribute Film

A spectacular film tribute to famous Chinese sci-fi novel The Dark Forest has blown away fans of the book, and the author himself.  The film entitled Waterdrop was created by Wang Ren, a Chinese student at Columbia University.

The Dark Forest is the second instalment of the trilogy The Remembrance of Earth’s Past, by preeminent sci-fi author Liu Cixin.  In 2015, the first book in the series, The Three-Body Problem (the title often given to the whole series), became the first Asian novel to win a Hugo Award for ‘Best Novel’, one of the world’s highest accolades for science fiction and fantasy writing.  The book was first published in 2007 but returned to the spotlight with a translated English version in 2014.

The film was inspired by a scene from the book in which a fleet from Earth captures an alien space probe named “The Droplet”.  In the book, The Droplet overpowers Earth’s spaceships and goes on to massacre their entire fleet.  After spending a year and a half planning to recreate the battle in film, Wang changed tack, choosing a more abstract interpretation.   Wang touches on his unusual approach with a somewhat cryptic explanation, saying “A very literal representation cannot reflect the droplet’s true essence.’

The-Three-Body-Problem

Cover of The Three Body Problem. Written by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu

The Droplet’s true essence, according to Wang, is the absolutely smooth surface of the probe, as described by Joel Martinsen in his English translation, “A highly smooth finish that made it a total reflector. The molecules in this thing are neatly arranged like an honor guard and they’re mutually solidifying with strong interaction. Its strength was a hundred times greater than the sturdiest material in the Solar System.”  The eventual film is one 14-minute shot, starting ultra-close to the ship on a single white molecular dot and slowly reverse-zooming, taking the viewer on an epic voyage through the tiniest molecules of the universe as reflected by the probe’s ultra smooth surface.

Wang used Render Farm software for the final rendering, and laid voiceover comprising cut up existing clips and recordings of Wang’s college friends.

Upon completion, Wang sent the film to his hero, Liu Cixin.  The author was amazed, gushing, “I can honestly say that this is what Three Body Problem looks like in my dreams,” adding that, if the feature length film, currently in postproduction and set for release in July 2016, generates the same power as Wang’s effort, “I could really die a happy man.”

Wang was first inspired by the story as an undergrad in Dalian, China.  Prior to Waterdrop, the Architecture major had no background in filmmaking or animation.  After Liu’s endorsement it may be time for the young talent to consider a new career in directing.

Pigpen cinema presents: AMY

Screening on Tuesday December 08, 2015
Doors open 9 | Movie starts 9:30
65-4 Maoming Bei Lu (Weihai Lu/Yan’an Lu)
Drink specials: beer, wine, and cocktails
Free “Grumpy” movie popcorn
Only 35 seats
First come first serve policy

From director Asif Kapadia (SENNA), AMY tells the incredible story of six-time Grammy-winner Amy Winehouse – in her own words. Featuring extensive unseen archive footage and previously unheard tracks, this strikingly modern, moving and vital film shines a light on our culture the world we live in today. A once-in-a-generation talent, Amy Winehouse was a musician that captured the world’s attention with her unforgettable voice and charisma. The combination of her raw honesty and virtuosity resulted in some of the most unique and adored songs of our time.

Pigpen cinema presents: IRIS

Screening on Tuesday November 17, 2015
Doors at 9 | Movie starts at 9:30
65-4 Maoming Bei Lu (Weihai Lu/Yan’an Lu)
Drink specials on beer, wine, and cocktails
Free “Grumpy” movie popcorn snacks
Space is limited to 35 seats
First come, first serve

More on the film: Iris (2015, 80 min., dir. Albert Maysles)
IRIS pairs legendary 87-year-old documentarian Albert Maysles with Iris Apfel, the quick-witted, flamboyantly dressed 93-year-old style maven who has had an outsized presence on the New York fashion scene for decades. More than a fashion film, the documentary is a story about creativity and how, even in Iris’ dotage, a soaring free spirit continues to inspire. IRIS portrays a singular woman whose enthusiasm for fashion, art and people are life’s sustenance and reminds us that dressing, and indeed life, is nothing but an experiment. Despite the abundance of glamour in her current life, she continues to embrace the values and work ethic established during a middle-class Queens upbringing during the Great Depression. “I feel lucky to be working. If you’re lucky enough to do something you love, everything else follows.” (C) Magnolia

See trailer here on youku or youtube

Paul Mignot Launches the Galaxy S6

Everybody’s been wanting a peek at Samsung’s new Galaxy S6 phone for some time, but they weren’t going to know or see a thing about it until March 1st at Galaxy Unpacked, Samsung’s globally-live streamed premiere event for the S6 phone. Before Unpacked, Samsung asked director Paul Mignot to swell the fervor for the Galaxy S6, with a teaser film promoting the event, and he delivered something astounding. Paul Mignot poured his signature aesthetic of dark atmospheres and sleek, lustrous surfaces into the Galaxy Unpacked promo film; in the 45-second piece, a symphony of marvelous colors and shapes erupt from a black abyss. No actual Galaxy S6 phone is shown in the teaser, yet the enigma generated by Paul’s film brought Galaxy Unpacked to the attention of the whole world, netting 3 million views on YouTube in just a few days.

HELP! Robert Freeman is a Legend, and His Life’s Work is in Danger of Utter Ruin

P.I.G. director Dean Freeman’s father Robert Freeman was a trailblazing photographer, best known for the portraits and album covers he shot for his good friends, The Beatles. Beatles beatles-for-sale (1)

with-the-beatles-385

That’s right, Robert shot THIS one.

Tragically, Robert is currently in ill health, and unable to personally protect his portfolio—a photograph collection of tremendous cultural value, featuring the first ever Pirelli Calendar: Pirelli Plus canonical stills of the 20th Century’s greatest icons, from Muhammad Ali to John Coltrane to Andy Warhol. Screenshot 2015-04-03 17.57.52 Robert’s son Dean, with some assistance from Robert’s friend Sir Paul McCartney, is raising money here to help preserve Robert’s life’s work: pmtweet Dean is selling a piece of very rare Beatles memorabilia: a limited batch of prints of the exclusive above photo of John Lennon, taken by Robert inside Lennon’s home in Surrey. The high-quality, C-type metallic paper prints of this photo will be scanned from the original photograph directly and only upon order, and no more of these expert reprints will be made after May 15, 2015. Buy soon, to help the great cause of protecting both Robert’s and the world’s pictorial legacy.

P.I.G.’s Dean Freeman Went Off to Istanbul to Shoot an Affecting Short Film

“Because hate is legislated, written into the primer and the testament, and Black timeless night sucks us in like quicksand…I need love more than ever now. I need your love. I need love more than hope or money, wisdom or a drink.” – from ‘To My Beloved’

When not directing commercials, our directors will often go off and shoot their own personal projects, just to satisfy their needs for creation. Sometimes, like here, the results are fantastic, and remind us all why these directors are so in demand in the first place. P.I.G.’s Dean Freeman applies his style of bright, naturally lit, and uplifting images to his independently-made short, “I Need Your Love.” The 90-second, Istanbul-set film is a visual interpretation of a cherished excerpt from poet Walter Benton’s book, To My Beloved. “I Need Your Love” is an entrancing blend of music, poetry and photography, with a detached, yet penetrating voiceover narration by its star, model Godeliv van den Brandt. In 90 seconds, Freeman’s short evokes that sense of longing—those blurry gradients between melancholic and hopeful—that is found in the best moments of Wong Kar-Wai and Sofia Coppola’s films. If you enjoy “I Need Your Love,” check out more of Dean Freeman’s work here, and read the film’s full narration here.