HBO Asia co-produces martial arts films with Chinese channel

Actor Sun Haoran, 28, stars in Master Of The Shadowless Kick: Wong Kei-Ying.
Actor Sun Haoran, 28, stars in Master Of The Shadowless Kick: Wong Kei-Ying.PHOTO: HBO ASIA

Asian arm of AmericanTV channel partners Chinese producer on two martial arts series to be broadcast regionally

It is a sweltering day in Hengdian, China, where dozens of Chinese television crew members and gongfu artists are gathered in a bamboo grove to set up a scene for an upcoming martial arts flick.

A props artist is putting the final touches to a mannequin corpse lying atop a row of fake spikes, splashing red paint across the body to make it appear as realistic as possible.

It looks like just another day in Hengdian World Studios, China’s largest TV and film production base, where hundreds of lavish TV series and movies are shot and produced every year.

But this project, titled Master Of The Shadowless Kick: Wong Kei-Ying, is set out to be very different from the typical Chinese project, whose target audience is limited to the domestic market.

The co-producer behind the film is HBO Asia, the Asian arm of the American premium TV channel – which naturally opens the door for it to go international.

Besides China – where the made-for-TV film will air on co-producer China Movie Channel’s platforms – it is scheduled for broadcast across the 23 Asian territories that carry the HBO TV channel, such as South Korea and Thailand. Should the film do well, it may eventually be taken out of Asia.

Mr Jonathan Spink, chief executive of HBO Asia, says: “The Internet has helped people to connect with the world and, in the past few years, audiences are more receptive to stories from different cultures and countries.

“We want to bring diverse content to our audiences, which is why HBO Asia started producing Asian original series and films in Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and, now, China.”

Master Of The Shadowless Kick: Wong Kei-Ying, which premieres on HBO on Boxing Day, is one of two Chinese movie co-productions that HBO Asia is involved in. The other, titled Master Of The Drunken Fist: Beggar So, premieres a day earlier, on Christmas Day.

As the names suggest, the two period martial arts flicks are related, although their storylines stand on their own. They act as HBO Asia’s tests for what could potentially be an entire anthology series of Chinese martial arts flicks for the channel in the future.

Given that HBO is an American company, there are concerns that the gongfu or other Chinese culture elements may be altered to pander to a global audience..

Viewers have previously frowned upon Netflix’s martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword Of Destiny (2016) and ongoing period TV series Marco Polo, which were both shot in English despite being stories about people in China.

But Chinese film-maker Guo Jianyong, who is helming both Master films, assures that this will not be the case.

“We have the endorsement of the HBO brand, but it’s important that these films still be authentically Chinese. It cannot be half-Western, half-Chinese. People will get confused,” he says.

The films are shot in Mandarin and will air on HBO in Mandarin – a first for the channel.

Guo also insisted on casting real gongfu experts, instead of the usual studio tactic of employing big names to boost star power.

Master Of The Shadowless Kick stars Sun Haoran, 28, an actor who started as a martial arts coach, while Master Of The Drunken Fist stars Cao Jun, 28, who has been practicing gongfu since he was seven years old.

Both films are about real people in Chinese history.

Shadowless Kick’s Wong Kei Ying was the father of legendary martial artist and folk hero Wong Fei Hung, while Drunken Fist’s So Chan was a Guangdong native known for inventing the famous drunken fist fighting style.

Famed Hong Kong action director Corey Yuen serves as the film’s executive producer.

Guo says: “If we keep the action real and exciting, I think audiences of all cultures can understand and appreciate it.

“I’m just excited that these co-productions with HBO will serve as great platforms to take Chinese culture to the rest of the world.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2016, with the headline 'HBO Asia gives Chinese gongfu a leg-up'. Print Edition | Subscribe