Enter the dragon: Asian film in Australian cinemas

Juanita Kwok

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

The Year of the Dragon was a very good year for Asian film around the globe. A long essay in the New York Times of January 14 on “the sudden ubiquity of films from the Far East in art and commercial theatres, both here and in Europe” dubbed the phenomenon the “Asian Invasion.” Asian films took many of the European Film Festival awards in 1999 and dominated the US in 2000. Edward Yang’s A One and a Two was named Best Foreign Language Film of the Year by the New York Circle of Critics and awarded Best Film of the Year by the National Society of Film Critics. Contesting this choice was Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which scooped LA Film Critics Best Film of the Year, Time Magazine Best Film for 2000, The Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Feature Film and is in hot competition with Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love to do the same at the Academy Awards.

Australia, though geographically much closer to the countries collectively referred to as Asia than either Europe or the USA, only saw the beginnings of the Asian cinema boom in 2000. Only 3 Asian films were released by major motion picture distributors in Australia in 1999, a sad decline from a high of 13 films 10 years earlier (Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia).

It was in this climate of thriving global interest but much slower local market for Asian film that Columbia Tristar in Australia packaged 5 Asian films together, launching them as Silk Screen. Suzanne Stretton-Brown, National Marketing Manager, told me how it came about. “We were seeing an increase in Asian product that was coming via our production office established in Hong Kong to produce and acquire local Asian films and also Sony Classics. Through the 2 avenues we were all of a sudden faced with a slate of Asian titles and that was obviously a challenge in thinking what was the best way to distribute these films, to do each one justice and ensure each one realised its box office potential. It was then we came up with an idea how to manage that release and that was how Silk Screen evolved. It was for the purpose of creating some continuity in the area of our distribution and sales but it was also a wonderful marketing concept where under one banner we could promote 5 films.”

The package was launched with considerable fanfare with the release of the first film, Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home on July 6. Shower, an audience favourite at Sydney Film Festival, was released on August 24, Chen Kaige’s Emperor and the Assassin on October 5, followed by Takeshi Kitano’s Kikujiro on November 16 and the jewel in the crown, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on January 4.

The films were released simultaneously on 11 screens nationwide—3 in Victoria, 3 in NSW, 2 in WA and 1 each in the ACT, QLD and SA. “It was always our strategy to go with the more arthouse cinemas, the houses that perform well with this style of film and already have a very loyal audience.” In return for taking a package of films, the cinemas were offered “exclusivity”, guaranteed up until 25 January, when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the film which carried the greatest expectations, was released on more than 40 screens nationwide.

Was Silk Screen a success? “Definitely, absolutely. It’s done particularly well in all markets. Interestingly, some films did better than others in different markets. Queensland is traditionally a difficult market for foreign language films. The program up there has been very very successful, in particular The Emperor and the Assassin. Perth also has had tremendous success. Two cinemas—the Windsor and Luna—shared the market and have done exceptionally well, so across the country it has been consistent.”

Two cinemas I spoke with were united in their support. Andrew Pike of Ronin Films, distributor of many of the Asian films released at independent cinemas during the 80s and early 90s, said Silk Screen had been very good for Electric Shadows, the Canberra cinema he manages. “I think it’s been a very important thing that Asian films have started attracting mainstream attention and Silk Screen has been a great achievement in the circulation of these films.” According to National Exhibitions Manager Michael Eldred, Dendy Cinemas was originally offered the Silk Screen package on more screens but declined. “Columbia were very much encouraging us to take it in other locations and have more exposure but it was a new concept and committing yourself to a year’s worth of film was highly irregular. In hindsight, we could probably have used it in the other theatres. Some films were stronger than others. I think Columbia were aware of this and that was part and parcel of why they were delivered to us in a package.” Eldred said the package concept worked in favour of the films. “The customers loved being able to know what films were coming up in a few months time and what to look forward to.”

The most anticipated film was the last in the programme, Taiwanese-born director Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Lee’s record establishes him as one of the most versatile directors anywhere, jumping genres from Sense and Sensibility to Ice Storm to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. What next, The Incredible Hulk? Well, yes, he has just been signed up. It is a mark of Lee’s standing that he could attract funding from Columbia Tristar to make his first Chinese language film since Eat Drink Man Woman. Three generations of Chinese actors—Cheng Pei Pei (the star of King Hu’s 1965 martial arts classic Come Drink With Me), Hong Kong star Chow Yun Fat, Malaysian born Michelle Yeoh and a new star from China, Zhang Ziyi—were united from across the Chinese- speaking world for this celebration of culture and tribute to China’s cinema history. Intertwining love stories along with the dynamism of the swordfighting scenes (choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping) has made the film a hit with audiences worldwide and a true crossover success. Michael Eldred commented: “It’s getting people who would never usually go to see a subtitled picture. I noticed the TV advertising doesn’t mention it being subtitled. So they’re coming, but they’re not disappointed because it’s delivering. It really is great from all angles.”

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has emerged as a phenomenon. It is the top grossing foreign language film in Australia, easily outperforming the Italian film Life is Beautiful. In its 3rd week of screening, it was earning over 4 times the screen average for the top 20 films (Urban Cinefile). Co-funded by Columbia-TriStar, hopefully its success will encourage greater investment in new talent and more risk taking in acquisition. The groundbreaking element to Silk Screen is the success of the series as a package not just in the selection of films. All of the directors but Zhang Yang are well-established, and Australian audiences have been familiar with Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige’s films since Ronin Films distributed a series of Fifth Generation Chinese films back in the 80s. While not disputing the quality of the Silk Screen films, there is far more to Asian film than “sweeping historical epics, blissful provincial fables and magnificent scenery and costumes.” The 3 films which best fit that description—Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Road Home and Emperor and the Assassin—were the films that performed best. Those about the newer realities of Asia—Shower, about the demise of community and tradition as it is bulldozed to make way for China’s new economics, and the one Japanese film, Takeshi Kitano’s Kikujiro—did not benefit from the branding of the package.

Silk Screen is not the only Asian cinema screening in Australia, though it had the financial muscle (and by consequence the ubiquity) to appear so. Actor Andy Lau’s 100th film, A Fighter’s Blues, was screening at Reading Cinemas, Market City in Sydney (before going to Canberra and Perth) at the same time it was number 1 at the box office in Hong Kong. Six films from Korea, currently considered the most exciting industry in Asia, have had short seasons at Reading Cinemas. (For regularly updated listings of Asian films screening across the country, check out www.heroic-cinema.com.)

Silk Screen’s success owed much to having Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as its trump card, but its overall impact may usher in a new era for Asian cinema in Australia. Early signs, such as Dendy Films’ slated release of In the Mood For Love in April and a retrospective of the films of the great screen actresses of 40s-60s Hong Kong cinema (planned for the second Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival in August) all point to the Year of the Snake as Australia’s year of Asian cinema. Suzanne Stretton-Brown hints that another Silk Screen may be in the offing: “That decision will be made in a few months. We would like to (do it…but) we won’t do Silk Screen this year unless we have the same level of product we had in 2000.” A second Silk Screen is likely to include Time and Tide, a new film by Tsui Hark (Chinese Ghost Story) produced by Columbia Tristar. As Michael Eldred said when I asked him if Dendy Cinemas would be willing to go with a second series—“Bring it on!”

RealTime issue #41 Feb-March 2001 pg. 13

© Juanita Kwok; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2001