Meet Bill Kong

Movie mogul: Kong is a major force behind some of the country’s biggest hits on-screen. — China Daily

He is unassuming and does not bind his discoveries to long-term contracts. But many of the talents he focuses on make it and they come back voluntarily to have another chance to work with him.

BILL Kong is the most unassuming movie mogul in China. He does not travel with an entourage. He wears the same jacket all the time or at least the same style and always carries a backpack, looking more like a high-school teacher than the owner of a major film production company (Edko Films).

When he speaks, with a tinge of Cantonese accent, he does not sound like a movie mogul either. He is self-effacing with his type of old-fashioned Chinese modesty.

He was a major force behind Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, two landmarks in China’s cinematic history, but he was hiding behind Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou.

He said Raman Hui and the stars should get all the credit for Monster Hunt, but it was Hui’s first foray into Chinese-language cinema and Bai Baihe and Jing Boran are not exactly marquee names.

“Don’t give ME the spotlight,” Kong said at many of last week’s public appearances when the movie’s box-office performance thrust him into a spotlight.

Kong is the most-respected movie mogul in China among those in the know. Wang Zhonglei, president of Huayi Brothers, wrote in his micro blog that Monster Hunt’s coup represents “a triumph of good films and good filmmakers, not just of money”.

In a previous interview I conducted with him in late 2013, Kong revealed that his “proudest film” was one that actually lost money for him. Ocean Heaven is about autism and it touched a nerve with families of patients, reinforcing Kong’s belief that a filmmaker should have an innate social responsibility.

“Of course, I’d have to make movies that are profitable to sustain our operation,” he adds when I bring up the topic again.

“Every movie has its own destiny,” he likes to say.

“When it should open, to what kind of competition and to what changing audience tastes, so many factors are beyond our control.”

Every filmmaker has his or her share of duds, but according to a recent online article, Kong has the fewest bad movies under his belt, and possibly the highest ratio of winners.

Monster Hunt, which surpassed Lost in Thailand on Sunday as the highest-grossing Chinese-language movie ever and overtook Avatar on Monday, has registered 1.5 billion yuan (RM985mil) in total by July 28. Kong says he knew only that it must open at a season when kids have free time, since this is a family-friendly tale, and July 16 was the earliest summer date he could obtain.

The movie could have debuted during the past Lunar New Year had it not been derailed by the arrest of Kai Ko, the male lead who was nabbed by Beijing police for taking drugs, which, under current Chinese regulations, would automatically cost the movie its right to public screening.

Kong spent an additional 70 million yuan (RM43mil) to reshoot it with Jing, a different actor.

However, a week before the new version came to light, Tiny Times 4 was released with Ko’s part – albeit much smaller – uncut. The uneven implementation of questionable rules and Kong’s honesty in dealing with these restrictions generated an undercurrent of sympathy for the veteran producer, whose integrity is legend.

Film has always been seen as the director’s art, and China has a dearth of competent film producers. Kong has never been a director, but his knowledge about film is so rich and his intuition so spot-on that he has reached a league of his own.

Unlike most Chinese producers who defer almost all decisions to the director, Kong applies the right pressure, especially to first-time directors.

Hui has participated in the Shrek franchise, but making a big-budget movie for home audiences is a different beast.

For a kidnapping scene in Monster Hunt, he devised a simple and straightforward method – by dragging the male lead out.

“After seeing the initial plan, Bill said to me: ‘Ang Lee would give it more thought’,” he recalled.

The result was a comedic flourish with the bed sawed off around his contour and the character dragged out through a tunnel.

The “What would Ang Lee do?” approach may not work in a Western work environment, but in Chinese culture, it implies a comparison that is galvanising without being too pushy.

Kong does not bind his discoveries to long-term contracts. Many of the talents he puts centre stage see their salaries skyrocket on the open market, yet they are willing to come back, often at voluntarily reduced rates according to inside sources, to work for Kong.

More than 90% of the cast and crew came back for the reshoot, says Hui, an endeavour that accounted for 75% of the film’s total number of shots.

Huba, the pet-like “monster” in the movie, is so cute that children are clamouring for one of their own. Yet, none is available on the market.

“We didn’t know the movie would do so well, so we dared not roll out merchandising,” says Kong.

Heads of film studios are rarely so humble; they would instead excel at playing the role of the champion and sounding prescient and triumphant. Kong leaves that kind of acting to his actors. He may not play the big boss, but he could well be China’s answer to Louis B. Mayer. — Asia News Network

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