Chinese director Ning Hao has flown directly from Busan film festival in South Korea to China’s Pingyao International Film Festival (PYIFF) with his latest film, The Movie Emperor, starring Andy Lau.
After premiering in Toronto, the satirical comedy played as the closing film in Busan, one of two ‘Pingyao Surprise’ films at PYIFF and will next screen at Tokyo International Film Festival. It will receive a wide theatrical release in China and international territories, including North America, on November 17.
In a thinly veiled satire of China’s film industry, Lau plays an old school movie star trying to regain relevance in the TikTok era by playing a pig farmer in a ‘serious’ Chinese drama aiming for film festival exposure. In order to get into character, he immerses himself in rural life, while still madly schmoozing to bring in investment, and insists on doing all his own stunts. Ning also stars as the artsy director making the film.
Never afraid of controversy, Ning started his directing career with satirical arthouse films such as Mongolian Pingpong (2005) and Crazy Stone (2006) and has more recently delivered blockbuster hits including Breakup Buddies (2014) and Crazy Alien (2019).
He also supports new directing talent through his Beijing-based production outfit Dirty Monkey, which produced Wen Muye’s Dying To Survive and Shen Ao’s cyber fraud drama No More Bets, which grossed more than $500M in China over the summer.
DEADLINE: What gave you the idea for the film and did you always plan to cast Andy Lau?
NING HAO: I’ve always wanted to partner with Andy Lau because 17 years ago he invested in my film Crazy Stone, at a time when it was really difficult for new filmmakers to raise finance, but we could never find the right project to work on together. He’s such an urban guy and in my previous films the protagonists were usually suburban or even rural. Then the idea came to me – why don’t I get him to play a Hong Kong movie star who is forced to move out of his comfort zone.
A few years ago I downloaded and started using Douyin [Chinese version of TikTok] and similar apps and realised we have entered the era of short video, which raised a lot of questions for me as a filmmaker. What should we be doing to offer more depth or entertainment than a constant stream of short videos? When something appears that fulfils the same function that you do, but at a much lower costs in terms of both time and money, there’s no real need for the audience to choose you.
I realised in the future, it will be necessary for films to offer content of higher quality, more complexity and more profound insights than just simply being entertainment. If I can achieve that, I’ll have a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
DL: So has the rise of Douyin and short video apps had a negative impact on the Chinese film industry?
NH: There isn’t much point worrying about whether new technology is good or bad – you can’t stop time and technology from moving forward. It may help you, it may destroy you, regardless of the emotions you have towards that change. Short videos can spread knowledge and information more quickly and enable people to access entertainment within a shorter period of time, which can help films with marketing and promotion, but ironically also challenges the basic function of films.
Perhaps the biggest change in this age of social media and short video is that it’s given free rein to the audience’s freedom of speech. Even before short video emerged, the online comments about films could be ferocious. And that is what this film is all about. In traditional forms of communication, the audience is the object, but now with the growth of mobile technology, the audience has become the subject and fully realised their right to comment and speak up. So the audience can help you, but they also have the right to destroy you.
DL: Perhaps it’s not just the audience you need to worry about. This film includes some fairly biting satire about producers and investors in the Chinese film industry. Is it an industry that takes offence easily?
NH: Well firstly, I star in the movie myself, and make fun of myself more than anyone else, so I’m the only person who really deserves to get offended.
DL: How has the Chinese film industry been recovering this year? And do you think with the pandemic behind us, we’ll start to see more Chinese films receiving international distribution?
NH: We certainly hope so, and with this film at least, we are releasing in North America and other international markets. We just screened the film in Korea, where everyone knows Andy Lau, but I think he’s also fairly well known in the West. I hope Western audiences get a chance to see the film because it will be the first time they’ve seen him playing a character that is very close to his real self. We were also encouraged with the box office in China over the summer holiday period – there were lots of blockbusters and it felt like audiences were finally coming back to the cinemas in big numbers.
DL: What else do you hope to achieve through your production company Dirty Monkey? Are you still supporting new talent?
NH: I founded Dirty Monkey to help new filmmakers by not just producing their first films, but also seeing them through their second and third features, so that they don’t just make one film and then disappear. We’re currently working on a slate with around ten different directors.
DL: Do you also plan to collaborate with the U.S. and other international film industries?
NH: We’re always interested in talking to potential overseas partners, because at the end of the day, film is a cultural product and a strong tool for mutual understanding and communication. We also aspire to learn from other companies and have the opportunity to introduce good Chinese and films and directors to them. We definitely need to see more communication and collaboration between Chinese and international companies and producers.
This year’s Pingyao film festival has done a great job in terms of gathering so many programmers from international film festivals. But we also need to play our part as Chinese producers by reaching out more and interacting with international companies, directors and actors. No Chinese companies have really had enough collaboration and communication since the pandemic.