When William Monahan accepted his best adapted screenplay Oscar for The Departed, he thanked Felix Chong and Alan Mak, the writers of its source material, Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs. But he could have also paid homage to Media Asia's chairman Peter Lam who greenlit the high-concept thriller.
Infernal Affairs single-handedly revitalised local cinema in 2002, raising audience expectations and making the territory's films cool once again. It grossed $7m in Hong Kong, with a rapid-fire prequel and sequel doubling that figure.
The impact of Infernal Affairs can be seen in this year's regional Lunar New Year box-office results, a time when families traditionally flock to cinemas. Protege (Moon To), a graphic thriller produced by Peter Chan about the international drug trade, is the most successful Chinese-language film in theatres across the region. It took the top spot in mainland China with a seven-day gross of $3.9m ($6.8m to date) for local distributor Polybona, against stiff competition from Fox's Night At The Museum ($2.6m over seven days; $5.2 to date). In Hong Kong, Protege ($2.9m to date) was second to Night At The Museum ($4.2m), and trailed Ghost Rider in Singapore and Malaysia. Other Hong Kong productions more typical of New Year fare disappointed.
Hard-hitting Protege represents a turning point for Chinese-language New Year releases in the region. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the season was dominated by light-hearted movies starring Jackie Chan, Stephen Chow and Chow Yun-fat.
That era ended in 2000 when Pixar's Toy Story 2 grossed $4.5m in Hong Kong, ahead of local actioners Tokyo Raiders ($3.6m) and 2000AD ($1.75m). With $3.3m, Pixar's follow-up Monsters Inc. beat every local comedy thrown at it by Hong Kong producers, widening the gap in 2005 with The Incredibles' $4.3m gross against Indian-themed Himalaya Singh's $2m. Animations could be transparently dubbed in local languages with local stars to give them a local flavour.
While Night At The Museum's father-and-son fable is an obvious shoo-in for family audiences in Hong Kong and China, Ghost Rider's tale of a man who strikes a deal with the underworld does not seem such an obvious selection, especially when Sony has The Pursuit Of Happyness waiting in the wings. Ghost Rider, however, follows in the footsteps of the similarly themed Constantine which scored big in Hong Kong ($2.7m), Singapore ($1.8m) and Taipei ($2.6m) during Lunar New Year 2005. As Hollywood rewrites the rule book for New Year releases, Protege plays the same game backed with local star power in the form of Andy Lau, Daniel Wu and mainland China's Zhang Jingchu, soon to be seen in Jackie Chan's Rush Hour 3.
But there is a looming problem with the Hong Kong industry's dependence on high-concept star-powered movies such as Protege, Infernal Affairs and Fearless, last year's Chinese New Year success story. Just a few producers have the power to realise their directors' big-budget visions - notably Media Asia's Peter Lam, Applause Pictures' Peter Chan and Edko's Bill Kong - and all are dependent on the China market. Meanwhile, other territories may be weaning themselves off dependence on Hong Kong product. In Singapore, local comedy Just Follow Law ($420,000 over four days) narrowly beat Protege ($390,000), while in Taiwan Curse Of The Golden Flower star Jay Chou is shooting basketball film Slam Dunk with plans for an Asia-wide release in Chinese New Year 2008.