Malaysian-made festive movies have given the Chinese New Year box office season a local edge.
CHINESE New Year in Malaysian cinemas used to be anything but Malaysian.
In the past, come the CNY season, local moviegoers would flock the cinemas to watch Hong Kong movies by the Hui brothers, Raymond Wong, Eric Tsang, Stephen Chow and Jackie Chan. Aces Go Places, Police Story, All’s Well Ends Well, I Love Hong Kong ... these were the well-known Hong Kong franchises that used to be a staple in our cinemas during CNY.
In recent years, however, there seems to be a change in this trend, with more and more local Chinese New Year movies released, thanks in part to a growing local Chinese movie industry.
This year, the competition is especially fierce, with four local movies fighting it out with the usual Hong Kong and Hollywood fare during the festive Chinese New Year period from Jan 23 to Feb 13 – Ah Beng: Mission Impossible (which opened on Jan 23), The Journey (Jan 30), Huat Ah! Huat Ah! Huat! (Feb 6) and Bullets Over Petaling Street (Feb 13).
According to Adrian Teh, chairman of Chinese Film Association of Malaysia, there had been 12 films in total vying for those lucrative slots.
However, the National Film Development Corporation’s (Finas) wajib tayang (compulsory screening) policy only allowed for one local Chinese title per week, so only a select few local titles could open during that crucial period, while the others were pushed to other dates.
“This year is the craziest year for local Chinese movies opening during CNY. The festive window only lasts two to three weeks, which means there are only a few release dates available,” said Teh, who is also CEO of Asia Tropical Films (ATF) and director of movies like The Wedding Diary (2011) and The Wedding Diary 2 (2013).
Rise of a genre
Judging from the fierce competition this year, it is hard to believe that just five years ago, there were hardly any local CNY films in the cinemas during this festive time.
The starting point for this upsurge in local Chinese movies can be traced back to 2010, when ATF released Ice Kacang Puppy Love. Directed by A-Niu (Tan Kheng Seong) and starring some of Malaysia’s biggest Taiwan-based stars (Lee Sinjie, Gary Chaw and Fish Leong, to name a few), the film eventually went on to collect more than RM8mil in local and foreign box offices. However, at the time Chinese language films were not recognised as “local films” by Finas.
That changed in 2010, when the Chinese Film Association Malaysia (CFMA) fought for and won the right for Chinese-language local films to gain “local film status” under Finas, which came with a number of benefits, including the Wajib Tayang Scheme (in which local cinemas are required to screen all local productions for at least one week), and a tax rebates for all local productions under the scheme.
Unsurprisingly, that victory galvanised the industry and paved the way for more local Chinese films.
That same year, Malaysians finally got a local Chinese New Year film that we could be proud of. That movie was Chiu Keng Guan’s Woohoo!, which raked in RM4.2mil at the box-office, a record for local Chinese films at the time. Chiu then went on to break that record again with his 2011 CNY release Great Day, which earned RM6.5mil.
During an interview to promote his latest movie The Journey, Chiu said that Chinese New Year films for him used to mean watching movies by HK filmmaker/actor Stephen Chow.
“For me, CNY was a time to enjoy movies by Stephen Chow, who filled our holidays with tons of fun with his unique brand of humour,” he said.
However, when it came to his own CNY movies, Chiu steers clear of Chow’s slapstick “mou lei tao” comedy in favour of something much more meaningful.
Chiu has certainly hit upon a successful template – Woohoo!, Great Day and The Journey are all entertaining drama/comedies that deliver a heartfelt moral message.
“To me, a Malaysian CNY movie is like a mirror. It feels close to our hearts because it’s a reflection of us,” said the director, who won the award for Best Director at the inaugural Golden Wau Awards in Kuala Lumpur last October.
Beauty queen-turned-actress Debbie Goh will be making her big screen debut in her first CNY action comedy Bullets Over Petaling Street (Feb 13). The two-time winner of the Most Popular Actress Award at ntv7’s Golden Awards recalled how making a trip to the cinema to watch CNY movies became a major family activity for her during the festive season.
“We’d gather the whole family together and flip open the newspapers to vote for the movies we want to watch. Then, we’d go pick the seats and one year we ended up with a very long strip of 15 tickets, which is part of the fun. Then we’d usually occupy one or two whole rows with our big group and enjoy the movie together as a family,” she said.
Though they used to pick Hong Kong movies like those by Stephen Chow, the Goh family have now grown to love local CNY flicks.
“They like to see faces they are more familiar with, and they feel more entertained by local artistes with a similar background. This year will be especially exciting because we will be watching my very first Malaysian movie to hit the big screen,” enthused Goh, who looks forward to an especially exciting family outing during the movie’s premiere screening.
Warm and spicy
Tung Yow Kung, general manager of GSC Movies Sdn Bhd said that Malaysians tend to relate better to local CNY films because they hit closer to home.
“Looking at the past few years’ fare, Malaysian CNY films are more home-oriented and deal with family relationships and local customs. That’s where it feels different from HK movies,” he said, adding that Malaysians are now spoilt for choice when it comes to festive films.
“This year alone, we have eight Chinese movies to watch – four local and four imported ones. That is great for Malaysians, who love variety and like having many options to choose from. With so many movies in the cinemas during Chinese New Year, and new ones opening every other week, it is merrier for everyone.”
GSC Movies’s Huat Ah! Huat Ah! Huat!, starring Aniu and Joyce Cheng (daughter of Hong Kong stars Adam Cheng and the late Lydia Shum), is coming out on Feb 6.
Aniu, whose directorial debut Ice Kacang Puppy Love won five awards at the Golden Wau Awards including Best Film and Best Actress for Lee Sinje, shared how his own filmmaking dreams were fuelled by watching Hong Kong fare during his growing up years.
“I used to walk out of the cinema feeling especially excited after watching a movie and then started to imagine what a thrill it would be to make movies of my own one day.
“A Malaysian CNY movie is just like our weather: warm and spicy. It feels like we are telling our own story, showcasing our own jokes and culture. I look forward to making our made-in-Malaysia gags available to an international audience,” he said.
Popular radio personality and actor Jack Lim is the producer and star of the Ah Beng franchise, which consists of Ah Beng: Three Wishes, this year’s Ah Beng: Mission Impossible and 2013’s Once Upon A Time.
Lim grew up watching Hong Kong movies by the Hui brothers during Chinese New Year.
“I really looked forward to watching movies by Sam Hui and his brothers Michael and Ricky. As we grow older, we’d watch Jackie Chan movies, followed by Stephen Chow movies, and after that, movies by Raymond Wong and Eric Tsang,” he recalled.
Today, the tables have turned and Lim’s own movies are now out-performing Tsang and Wong’s recent CNY movies.
“Our first Ah Beng movie topped the local box office at RM7.56mil and beat four of the foreign Chinese films,” he said proudly.
“Even Raymond Wong was surprised because the competition was expected to be between his film and Tsang’s. That’s when he realised that Malaysian artistes have their own appeal and can be a box office draw on home turf,” added the actor, who is also a guest star in Wong’s upcoming Hello Babies.
To Lim, a Malaysian film and not just a Chinese New Year film, should have a heavy local flavour.
“It should have an all-Malaysian cast, filmed all over Malaysia and be rich with local culture,” said the actor.
Regular Ah Beng franchise director Silver agreed: “When we were young, we used to watch HK movies; Hong Kong movies like Jackie Chan’s actioners or Stephen Chow’s comedies somehow lacked the CNY festive atmosphere that Chinese people here are accustomed to.
The time was right for us to make our own CNY movies filled with
our own culture, with our own
stars and spoken in our own Malaysian-Chinese.”
James Wong Chee Keong, actor and director of horror thriller The Transcend (which opened on Jan 9), reckons that Hong Kong movies were so popular during CNY because there wasn’t much choice in the first place.
“My CNY would be spent watching mostly Hong Kong productions. However, (with these movies) we’d have a good laugh and then we’d go home. We wouldn’t be especially moved by them,” said the director.
“But now, we’ve got our own Chinese New Year films with different messages – apart from having a fun time and getting together for the reunion, we are reminded to cherish loved ones and spend more time with them. These movies make us want to share, contemplate and reminisce. This is what Malaysian movies are good at,” he said.