Hong Kong director brings fresh outlook on Chinese mainland war films

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/24 17:58:40

Director Andrew Lau (center) on the set of The Founding of an Army Photo: IC

With its star-studded cast, historical war drama The Founding of an Army is without a doubt one of the most eye-catching Chinese films of the year.

However, as a film depicting the founding of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), which celebrates its 90th anniversary on August 1, many moviegoers are concerned that the film might feel more like a history lecture than an entertaining summer blockbuster.

Although the last work of a trilogy that includes 2009's The Founding of a Republic (about the founding of the People's Republic of China) and 2011's Beginning of the Great Revival (about the establishment of the Communist Party of China), The Founding of an Army has switched out Chinese mainland directors Han Sanping and Huang Jianxin to bring in Hong Kong director Andrew Lau.

This move has raised the curiosity of moviegoers, who wonder how this Hong Kong director better known for his gangster films will handle the tough task of making a patriotic war film. 

Ahead of its nationwide release on Thursday, Lau and Huang, who still serves as the film's producer, sat down on Sunday with media to tackle questions concerning the film and to share their thoughts on what makes a good film. 

Hong Kong magic

"The language of this film with director Andrew Lau is very modern… and fresh. The way it's shot makes the film more interesting," Huang said at the press conference, praising the Hong Kong director by saying Lau outperformed his and Han's work on the previous films. 

Admitting that he felt he was under a lot of pressure, Lau said that he had to deal with doubts about his ability to make the film as soon as the project was announced.

"So I made an effort to do it well. I studied, read a lot books and met a lot people. Huang and Han also gave me their help." 

The Founding of an Army has held a few test screenings ahead of its debut, and so far the reviews have been positive. 

"I want to go for a second time and even a third time after seeing the advanced screening," netizen Xianzai Shi Mafen from Nanchang in East China's Jiangxi Province, posted on Sina Weibo on Thursday. "The war scenes are very shocking and the actors performed extremely well."

Nanchang was the city where the first uprising of the Communist Party of China took place. Many of the officers who led the uprising later became top leaders of the PLA. 

"I never expected the film to be that exciting or uplifting," Tong Xin, a journalist in Beijing, told the Global Times. "It's the kind of film that will make you feel tense one minutes and amused the next."

Compared to the previous films in the trilogy, The Founding of an Army feels more like a commercial film, Tong said.

Lau is not the only Hong Kong filmmaker who has taken on a patriotic mainland film. Recent years have seen a few such films from Tsui Hark's The Taking of Tiger Mountain in 2014 to Dante Lam's Operation Mekong in 2016 and Alan Mak and Anthony Pun's Extraordinary Mission that same year. Later this year, Lam's Operation Red Sea is expected to hit cinemas.  

Notably, The Taking of Tiger Mountain was the No.10 highest-earning domestic film in 2014 with 455.28 million yuan ($67.28 million) while Operation Mekong took third place in 2016 with 1.18 billion yuan. 

Comparing with mainland filmmakers who are all too familiar with such historical films, Huang said that Hong Kong filmmaker's unfamiliarity with the genre is to their advantage.

"The first time he (Lau) looked all the materials for the film, he focused on certain issues, like what we will do the first time we run into something," Huang explained.

"Having been immersed in this genre for decades, I lost my focus but Lau is very sharp." 

Huang also noted that Hong Kong filmmakers are much more used to market competition than their mainland peers, which has trained them to stay alert and sharp all the time in order to be successful.

"We should not ignore the fact that Hong Kong directors are more willing to learn than us," Huang said. "It's that kind of spirit that makes a good filmmaker."  

Betting on youth

Speaking of war films, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is no doubt on its way to becoming a major hit. Admitting that Hollywood has been able to attract audiences from both home and abroad, Lau said that the entire filmmaking industry in China will need to improve if it wants to achieve the same level of success. 

"Today's Chinese film industry is developing too fast. I think many films still do not reach the standard of quality," Lau told the Global Times.   

And Huang pointed out that "we need to believe in the young generation" when it comes to the future of the film industry in China.

As more and more young faces appear in film and TV works, their immature performances have often been the target of criticism.

Among the 50 or so stars in The Founding of an Army, more than a dozen are young actors in their 20s. This large portion of inexperienced actors is another reason moviegoers have expressed doubts about the film.

Explaining they had thought about hiring a group of more experienced actors between 35 and 40 to play these young characters, Huang said that Lau convinced him not to do so by telling him that "youth is not a role that can be played."  

"I was worried about whether I could live up to the demands of the role and whether I could accurately portray the general," Ou Hao, the 24-year-old actor who plays General Ye Ting (1896-1946) as a young man, told media on Sunday. "But the only demand the director gave me was to not limit myself and show the passion a young person possesses."

Citing fantasy action film Wu Kong as an example, Huang said that the special effects in the film were made by a Chinese team of 20-something youngsters.

"It turned out the special effects in the film were some of the best reviewed so far [in a Chinese film]," Huang noted, adding that even though this was the first time the crew on The Founding of an Army had worked on a war film, they did an outstanding job. 

"You need to give it time. It has been only 10 years since the Chinese filmmaking has become an organized industry, while Hollywood has been developing for a century." 

"Young people need training," Lau said, noting that young filmmakers will be an important part of a new era for filmmaking. "When I saw these young faces, I believe they are the future of our film industry. They work hard."
Newspaper headline: Founding of a new era

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