The time slot between November and February has long been a golden time to release films in China. The season is studded with festivals and holidays such as Christmas, New Year, Chinese Spring Festival and Valentine's Day.
This year about 30 films are scheduled to screen in the season, half of which first screened in late November.
As in previous years, the season is dominated by blockbusters, such as Zhang Yimou's A Simple Noodle Story (三枪拍案惊奇), which has raked in 200 million yuan ($29 million) in two weeks, although the film was not highly praised by critics.
Teddy Chan's Bodyguards and Assassins (十月围城), costing 150 million yuan and featuring more than 10 stars, took 74 million yuan on its first weekend.
Domestic films screened during the season still lack variety. Costume dramas and kungfu films are still the most popular genres, comprising at least eight movies. In addition, most of them lack a solid storyline, but instead feature a stellar cast or a famous director.
Things get better in January and February, when viewers can pick from science fiction, romantic comedies and a detective story.
China's film market has been booming. The annual box office gross has increased over 20 percent each year over the past five years and reached 4.3 billion yuan last year.
This live-action film about a young woman disguised as a man and going to the battle-front takes a cue from the Disney animation of the same name: It fleshes out plot and character details from the original poem, which focuses only on Mulan in her home village and leaves the middle section blank. However, it does not linger on the gender trickery, which could be a rich source of comedy. That completely removes the potential of casting the story in a homoerotic light.
Only one day passes after Mulan enlists in the army and the man in her life find out her true identity. The plot revolves around the duo's attitudes toward war. The film is careful not to depict Mulan and her paramour as bloodthirsty warmongers. Their decision to fight is based on defending their homeland and preventing more bloodshed. On top of that, the movie adds nuances to the enemy camp, making sure it also includes peace-loving elements.
The film has enough battle scenes to qualify as an epic, and enough twists and turns to make it unpredictable till the end.
A Simple Noodle Story (三枪拍案惊奇)
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Noodling on a cinematic theme
Zhang Yimou wants you to laugh
Zhang Yimou's first cinematic outing after his much-lauded Olympics Opening Ceremony show is a slapstick comedy.
Yes, the plot is licensed from Coen Brothers' Blood Simple, but the noire tone is overwhelmed by a feverish pitch of swirling colors and rustic humor. The Coens are probably scratching their heads.
It has finally dawned on Zhang that spectacles, though crowd-pleasing, may not yield the best returns. A comedy featuring low-priced TV stars, on the other hand, could well be the best choice in terms of return on investment.
The movie is a kitschy smorgasbord of regional comedy routines; with a Bollywood-style number to go with the credits at the end (think Slumdog Millionaire); and a young transvestite man who has made stumbling and bumbling into an art form. No wonder it has turned out to be the most controversial film of the year.
Storm Warriors (风云II)
A decade ago, the game-inspired Storm Riders wowed audiences in both Hong Kong and the mainland. The special effects were less than Hollywood elaborate, but everything else was good enough to congeal into a classic action fantasy.
Now, at the hands of the Pang brothers, the sequel has completely forsaken plot and character development and presents instead a slide show of heroic poses and lavish virtual sceneries. It is essentially a two-hour music video, for which you can press mute and watch while cleaning the house.
The last time a Chinese filmmaker got so fixated on special effects that he forgot about story-telling, Chen Kaige was lambasted and ridiculed. But Storm Warriors makes The Promise (无极) look like a masterpiece. The Promise is overblown, but it does have a plot.
I heard the second sequel is in pre-production. Who would want to put money into a film whose best use is to be a series of screen wallpapers?
Bodyguards and Assassins (十月围城)
By far the best Chinese-language movie of the year, this is a thinking man's action film, which centers on Dr Sun Yat-sen, a revolutionary leader bent on overthrowing the corrupt Qing Dynasty. He returns to Hong Kong for a secret meeting with local leaders. The imperial court sends assassins, but a hodgepodge of Hongkongers and mainlanders risk their lives to protect him.
Though fictional, this intense tale takes on an extra layer of authenticity with a mammoth set of early 20th century downtown Hong Kong, built in a Shanghai backlot. The all-star ensemble cast is so immersed in their roles and their characters so richly etched out that each could grow into a separate storyline.
The action sequences are well designed and executed, enriching characterization. But this is not a movie where you fight to look good. It has a lofty spirit - an ideal that embodies the long-term urges of the Hong Kong people and their affinity with the mainland.
The Treasure Hunter (刺陵)
This film is so lame it becomes a comedy, as opposed to the adventure story it was intended to be. Starring Taiwan pop icon Jay Chou and model Lin Chi-ling, it has a classic storyline - a couple explore an ancient treasure land - but never reaches the humble heights that the Mummy series and other passable adventure films achieve.
The hero is like a video game avatar, fighting one rival after another, for no apparent reason.
Loopholes are everywhere. An inn in the heart of the desert has water falling from an electric fan every minute; while the corpse in a watery tomb is totally dry. The scene of treasure hunters entering and leaving an ancient tomb full of poisonous air without any masks is another faux pas.
Counting how many loopholes the film has will be the first thing you want to do after seeing it, because it makes you feel superior to the screenwriters, but soon you will give up on such a tedious job. Further discussion of the storyline is unnecessary because there is no real plot to speak of.