Back in the 80s and early 90s, when Hong Kong cinema,–running on the kinetic energy of action and slapstick comedy films by the likes of John Woo, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Stephen Chow–was the second largest film industry in the world (behind Hollywood, obviously), fans of these quirky alternative films in the US–whether they be Asian immigrants or aspiring filmmakers like Quentin Taratino–had two options for getting their fix: They could go to Chinatown in various parts of the country and catch the films–undubbed in its original format and released months after Hong Kong–in Chinese cinemas, or they could rent bad VHS copies at certain video stores–at an even later date.
With the decline of Hong Kong’s film industry (film output has dropped from 300 plus per year in the 90s to less than 50 in recent years) by the late 90s and the emergence of internet piracy, these Chinese theaters were forced out of business one by one.
And when The Music Palace , the last remaining Chinese theater in New York, shut down in 2000, that left New York fans of the genre no big screen to enjoy Hong Kong films.
The decade-plus drought ended last year when China Lion, a New Zealand-based company specializing in distribution of Chinese-language films outside Asia, brokered a deal with AMC Theaters to release its films on the big screen in major North American cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Vancouver, and Toronto.
While the films released so far have been of the “shallow popcorn flick” variety, including, among others, a 3D soft porn , a fluffy romantic comedy, and a Chinese communist propaganda, theaters in New York are about to get a pair of critically acclaimed, festival award-winning films in the next few weeks–with English subtitles!
The first, Love in the Buff, sequel to the popular Love in the Puff and opener of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, opens March 30. Then on April 13, acclaimed director Ann Hui’s A Simple Life, whose lead actress, Deanie Ip, won the Best Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival last fall, hits the big screen as well.
Runnin’ Scared spoke to Robert Lundberg, China Lion’s Manager of Western Media & Relations, about the films and the strategy for releasing Chinese-language films in New York.
How do you guys decide which films to bring over to the US? What’s the selection process?
Obviously, we love [to release] films with big stars attached, so we could advertise them in the marquee, but we also aim to release a great story, so we try to mix it up.
The films have been releasing here in the US almost day and date with its local release, that’s a first for Asian film release in the US.
Yes, we try very hard to stick to a day-and-date release strategy.
Is that to combat piracy?
Haha, yes that is one of the factors.
Hong Kong films used to get released here in the 90s and then there was a drought for over a decade, what made China Lion decide to get into the business to bring these films back to the big screen?
Our CEO, Milt Barlow, has been distributing Chinese-language films in Australia and New Zealand for a while, and there’s obviously a market in the US for Chinese cinema.
How’s the business been for these films?
Naturally, the action adventure films–which is what Hong Kong films are sort of known for–have been doing very well, such as The Viral Factor. But I’m proud to say that, since January, we’ve had at least one Chinese-language film showing at select AMC theaters in the US at all times.
Will you guys release other foreign films?
We are open to other languages, but our wheelhouse is primarily in Asia.
China Lion’s films can be seen at AMC Empire 25 and AMC Loews Village 7.