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New Year's Movies - More than lite fare
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Going to the movies to laugh is a holiday tradition for the Chinese lunar New Year, and hesui pian or the New Year's movies have become a genre in themselves. A famed director takes a risk with a war film.

War flick challenges comic menus

Hesui pian or "movies celebrating the New Year" usually feature star-studded casts in tales that are light-hearted, satirical and heartwarming. Nothing too complex, dark or weighty for Christmas, New Year and the Chinese lunar New Year, which falls on February 7 next year.

This year there's plenty on tap that fits the bill for relaxation, and a departure from standard light-hearted fare - a provocative Chinese civil war battle mystery by veteran film maker Feng Xiaogang.

Feng is a legend in the hesui pian genre. His 1997 comedy "Part A Part B" was a hit in China and established a style of hesui pian. Then came "Be There Or Be Square," "A Sigh," "Big Shot's Funeral," "Cell Phone" and "A World without Thieves" in successive years.

But this year, Feng's offering "Assembly" won't provide much relaxation or a break from black comedies of the year. The film is Feng's first war epic - about the set-up slaughter of a People's Liberation Army company during the civil war - and the surviving captain's post-war quest to find out why all his men died.

The film follows on the heels of Peter Chan's "The Warlords" and together the two Chinese blockbusters, both featuring big war scenes and focusing on brotherhood, have raised the curtain for new year's pictures.

Some moviegoers, especially women, complain that the bloody scenes that depict the cruelty of war are too stressing: they want fun and relaxation.

"It seems that film producers squeeze their schedule into this season only to reap higher profits," says Ding Ying, a middle school teacher. "Such (violent) films run counter to the peaceful holiday ambience."

Fortunately, cinemagoers like Ding will have other choices.

Hong Kong film maker Wong Kar-wai's "My Blueberry Nights" hit mainland screens on Saturday, one day after the debut of Ah Gan's hilarious picture "Big Movie 2." Mainland director Wang Guangli's "Dangerous Games" will be released next Friday.

The new year's pictures for January and February will include "CJ7," a sci-fi aliens fantasy by Hong Kong "comedy king" Stephen Chow, as well as a basketball film "Kung Fu Dunk" that stars Taiwanese singer-actor Jay Chou.

Wu Hehu, deputy director of Shanghai United Cinema Lines, the city's largest cinema chain, says most of the new year's movies are more artistic and of higher quality than previous years' fare.

Though Zhang Yimou's "Hero" and Chen Kaige's "The Promise" were box office hits, they were strongly criticized by fans and movie critics for their weak story lines.

But Wu predicts that "Assembly" and "The Warlords" will succeed with the critics and at the box office.

Director Feng, whose name alone is considered a box-office guarantee, says it is a big departure and an adventure in his career to shoot a blockbuster without big-name stars.

"What I want to prove is that an appealing story line weighs more than a star-studded cast," says Feng. "This moving and masculine film may subvert the stereotype about new year's pictures."

Much of the 80 million yuan (US$11 million) budget financed the huge battle scenes while only one million yuan went to the cast.

Set during of China's civil war, the movie is a true story adapted from Yang Jinyuan's novel "Guansi." It centers on Captain Gu Zidi and his valiant Ninth Company.

Gu's mission is to quickly occupy an advantageous position to prevent the advance of the enemy, in support of the main PLA force. His orders are to retreat only when assembly bugle is sounded. But the captain hears no call. The tiny, under-equipped company fights on till the last man, Captain Gu.

The story then shifts forward to 1955 when China entered a period of peaceful development.

Gu is on a quest to discover the truth about that fatal combat mission and restore the honor of 47 comrades who died for China's national liberation.

The war scenes reflect influences from Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" and the South Korean film "Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War." However, "Assembly" and Feng's former comedies share a common concern with issues of individual identity and humanity.

"The characters are not born heroes," says Zhang Hanyu, who plays the leading role of Gu Zidi. "Many of them are ordinary people who make extraordinary decisions at the critical moment. These heroes are more human and real."

Producer Wang Zhonglei expects the film will take more than 200 million yuan at the box office nationally. Feng is also optimistic and hopes the film will appeal to audiences, particularly young people.

"Nowadays people have a wider definition of hesui pian," Feng says. "This genre is not only for fun, but also for moving and and heartwarming moments. 'Assembly' is a new attempt to diversity the screening offerings."

(Shanghai Daily December 26, 2007)

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