Filmmaker and director Feng Xiaogang is a phenomenal force in the Chinese film industry. His black comedies Cell Phone, Big Shot's Funeral, A Sigh, Be There or Be Square and Part A Part B -- all so-called "hesui pian" (New Year films) -- have been big successes, both with critics and at the box office.
And now comes A World without Thieves, his latest film for the upcoming New Year, which has its Chinese premiere on December 9.
"I was personally intrigued and moved by the script," says Feng, 46, who was in Shanghai recently to promote the movie. "But this time -- a big challenge for me -- the movie is not a comedy."
Unlike Feng's usual style which includes black humor, grotesquery and a bizarre reflection of reality, the new 33-million-yuan (US$3.9 million) film deals with a more sentimental and idealistic story of bad guys giving up their ways and returning to the straight and narrow.
"It is something like a narcotic," Feng says with a grin. "Audiences may fulfill their dreams watching this two-hour movie."
Hong Kong star Andy Lau and Taiwanese singer/actress Rene Liu star in the film as a couple of thieves.
Sha Gen, a hardworking man, is on his way home with his 60,000-yuan pay to spend the Spring Festival with his family. Wang Bo (Lau) and Wang Li (Liu) at first plan to rob him but are later moved by his honesty and decide to escort him back home. Their train journey is the scene of a battle against another gang of thieves.
Sha Gen thinks he lives in a world without thieves. The pair find it hard to tell him the cruel truth. In the end, Wang Bo confirms Sha Gen's naive belief but at the cost of his own life after he fights the other thieves and returns the stolen money to its rightful owner.
"There's some extra powerful force, like a belief, a religion or a virtue, the law
or something else to achieve this idealistic result," Feng says. "The audience will be deeply touched as they watch the return of one's conscience."
The film started shooting in April at Labrang Monastery in Gansu Province. The famous monastery and the Buddhist images provide what director Feng describes as "a spiritual backdrop to the storyline."
Expectations are high for the movie's commercial prospects. It was in 1997 when Part A Part B came out that Feng's career of making "hesui pian" began. In each of the following years Feng made movies to catch the golden holiday seasons of Christmas, New Year and the Chinese lunar New Year.
The films established Feng's reputation as a popular commercial comedy director with a unique sense of humor and a talent for witty satire.
Last year, Cell Phone, which tackled the impact of technology on modern man-woman relationship, finished ahead of the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs III at the box office with more than 50 million yuan in ticket sales.
"The storyline of Cell Phone did help him a lot, as it's closer to people's daily lives," says Shen Kai, a post-graduate student at Fudan University. "The film also boasts an implicit Chinese-style humor that is to the taste of local audience."
However, A World without Thieves will face more fierce competition this year from Hong Kong "comedy king" Stephen Chow's movie, Kung Fu Hustle, which also opens in December.
With a big investment of US$20 million from Colombia Pictures, Kung Fu Hustle is the story of a young man who arrives in China in the 1940s to learn martial arts. The film took two years in the making.
"Unavoidably, I have had to release A World without Thieves ahead of schedule which traditionally coincides with Christmas," Feng says. "Chow's movie is a strong rival. And the movie investor even decided to sacrifice its DVD copyright profit to guarantee a high return at the box office."
But Feng seems optimistic about his latest movie and hopes both films will enjoy a good audience response.
Surprisingly, Feng even has a small comedy role in Chow's Kung Fu.
"I hope it is the most impressively eccentric and botchy character you have ever seen in Chow's movies," Feng jokes.
A native of Beijing, Feng didn't learn his craft through film school, like most of China's filmmakers. He worked his way up from the production of television, then started writing scripts. After eight years as a scene painter with an army theatrical troupe, he found a job in the art department of a TV station.
In 1991 Feng adapted a novel about contemporary Chinese immigrants' lives in the United States and went to New York to direct it, resulting in the highly popular television series, "Beijinger in New York."
It was a turning point in Feng's career. From then on, he gradually distinguished himself as one of the most celebrated directors and filmmakers in China.
"Feng demonstrates his sensitivity to people's ever-changing lifestyles in modern times, an important reason for his success," says Manfred Wong, chairman of the board of directors of the Hong Kong Film Awards Association. "Chinese films should not ignore the market and the common people."
Last July, as a tribute to his popularity in China and for his movie achievements, Feng was named as one of the "Asian Stars of 2004" by the American magazine, Business Week. Beginning in 1998, only 25 Asian celebrities have been awarded this accolade.
Unlike directors such as Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, who are also award-winning filmmakers, Feng has never concealed his commercial goals and admits that his movies are meant simply to entertain the biggest audience he can reach.
"A film is like a cup of wine," Feng says, beaming. "I'm trying to ensure that the audience gets the most fun and inspiration from the screen. But I would never make a movie to win an award."
Feng is also busy preparing to make the new movie, Night Feast, which is expected to start shooting early next year.
Regarded as a Chinese version of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the movie focuses on a furious battle for revenge underneath a deceptively placid surface. It will be the first swordsman film he has directed.
"But that doesn't mean I have gone away from making comedies," Feng says. "I love comedy. But if I keep on making them one after another, there must be some weariness. Now I'm also conceiving a fabulous storyline for a comedy to be entitled 'Aristocrat.' I bet this movie will be one of my funniest works."
A World without Thieves
(eastday.com December 9, 2004)