Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Korea's Super Junior Invades Taiwan Chart

Korean boy band Super Junior - or at least their sub-group/Chinese franchise Super Junior-M - launched a foray on the Taiwan charts, going straight to the top for the week 18 to 24 September with their new EP Super Girl. (See the latest G-Music album chart here, but in Chinese).

Super Junior-M (the M is for Mandarin) were created, or manufactured might be the better word, last year to cash in on Super Junior's popularity in the Chinese-speaking world. The band has seven members, made up of five original Super Junior members including the group's only Chinese member Han Geng. Another two newcomers were then added to the mix: a Chinese-Canadian who goes by the name of Henry, and Wuhan-born Zhou Mi.

Super Junior-M's debut album titled Me (迷) featured mainly covers of Super Junior's Korean hits but sung in Mandarin. The musical arrangements were also tailored to suit Chinese audiences. The result: a kind of hybrid K-Pop "with Chinese characteristics". The new mini-album Super Girl in contrast contains some original material, though the title track and first single was written by the same man who composed the similar-sounding Sorry Sorry, Super Junior's latest hit.

Super Junior the original are part of a recent fad for boy (and girl) bands the size of football teams - Super Junior for example has 13 members. And like a musical amoeba, the group has regularly subdivided to fill particular niche markets. Super Junior has sporned at least four sub-groups: as well as Super Junior-M there's Super Junior-K.R.Y (which specialises in slow, sorrowful ballads), Super Junior-T (T standing for "trot music", a style of dance music dating back to the 1930s), and Super Junior-Happy whose music style is, well, happy. Super Junior-T recently morphed into Super Junior-T X Moeyan, joining forces with a Japanese girl act in an attempt to conquer the Japanese market.

Super Junior itself is a carefully planned and manufactured product, just one in a long line of pop groups created by the Korean record company and talent agency, SM Entertainment. The group were unleashed on the Korean public after massive fanfare and publicity back in 2005. Members are known for their versatility: as well as singing, they are expected to be dancers, actors and presenters. Of course good looks are also an essential selection criteria.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Founding of a Republic Breaking Box Office Records

A new film commemorating the founding of the People's Republic of China is drawing in large audiences, many of them attracted by the star-studded cast. The Founding of a Republic (建国大业, pinyin: Jiàn Guό Dàyè) tells the story of the civil war between Communists and Nationalist between 1945 and 1949, culminating in the Communist Party's coming to power. Its release is timed to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the foundation of New China, or the People's Republic.

A cast of 175 or so actors, including over 80 A-list stars and directors, make appearances in the film, most of them small cameos with just a line or two to deliver. The big names include Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat, Zhang Ziyi, Vicky Zhao and Andy Lau, although noticeably absent are any Taiwanese stars. Most cast members provided their services for free in what has been described as a patriotic gesture.

Amidst all the big names is an actor relatively unknown outside of China, Tang Guoqiang (唐国强), who plays the film's central character, Mao Zedong. Tall and handsome, Tang was something of a matinee idol in his heyday back in the 70s and early 80s. He was also well respected for his acting abilities, and his resemblance to Mao has seen him play the Great Helmsman at least a dozen times. (Ironically he has also played several of China's best-known emperors, the regal bearing he brings to his characters apparently serving him in good stead for both imperial and communist leaders). Expect his performance in this latest high-profile film to further revitalise his career.

On the back of a large-scale publicity campaign The Founding of a Republic has chalked up impressive box office earnings in its opening week. It boasts the best half-day sales ever for its premiere - RMB14 million, or about US$1.9 million. This compares favourably with China's best-ever opening day box office takings, the RMB25 million earned by Red Cliff, which was over a full day.

Takings for the first week (actually just four and a half days) were 124 million, the highest first week box office haul for a mainland movie. The film's producers, the State-owned China Film Group, are hopeful that The Founding of a Republic will eventually go on to be China's highest grossing film ever, an honour currently held by the Hollywood blockbuster, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

Planning is also well underway for a prequel, to focus on the founding of the Communist Party itself. The Founding of a Republic's co-director, Han Sanping - who is also the chairman of China Film Group - is promising that the prequel will also feature a cast of well-known names.

For an interesting outlook on the film see this post at CNReviews. And NPR deconstructs the film in this semi-review.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Summer Fever by Sodaspring Heats Up the Album Charts

This week's best-selling album in Taiwan, according to the G Music charts, is the latest release by indie band Sodagreen (苏打绿, pinyin: Sūdá lǜ). Summer Fever (夏/狂热) is the band's sixth studio album and their second release of 2009.

The album is part two in Sodagreen's ambitious plan to release four albums over the two years. Known as the Vivaldi Project, the band will record in four different cities with the four seasons providing the theme for each album. The first record in the project, Spring Daylight (春/日光), was recorded in Taiwan earlier this year. Sodapop then travelled to London to put down their second record, and critics have noted the new album's distinctive Brit-pop style as a result. And as you might expect from an album with a summery theme, the tracks tend to be bright and upbeat. The first single from the album is the title track, Fever (狂热).

The next two albums, representing autumn and winter, will be recording in Beijing and Berlin respectively. Inside reports are that they will have a correspondingly darker, more sombre tone.

Sodagreen were formed way back in 2001, and their current six-member lineup dates from 2003. However they didn't release their self-titled debut album until 2005. Definitely unique in the Taiwanese music scene, it has only been in the last few years that have started to reach a mainstream audience, culminating in successive Best Band prizes at the Golden Melody Awards in 2007 and 2008.

The band's central figure is lead singer and songwriter, Wu Qing Feng (吳青峰, or "Greeny"). He's known for his distinctive feminine-sounding vocals, and many people hearing him for the first time have mistaken him for a female singer.He also attracts attention with his out-there haircuts: to coincide with the Spring Daylight album he died his hair pink, and now it's bright green for Summer Fever.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Overheard: Hong Kong's Biggest Summer Hit

Crime thriller Overheard (窃听风云, pinyin: Qiè Tīng Fēng Yún) from the makers of Infernal Affairs, and the Shaw Brothers comeback film Turning Point (also known as Laughing Gor's Defection or Laughing Gor 之变节) fought a two-way battle for the honour of Hong Kong's biggest grossing local production this summer. It was Overhead that came out tops, earning HK$15.3 million for the two peak months of July and August. Turning Point earned HK$14.7 million over the same period, though it was disadvantaged by opening two and a half weeks after Overheard.

The box office figures were provided earlier this month by Hong Kong's Motion Picture Industry Association. Although the list of films was dominated by Hollywood blockbusters like Transformers 2 and the latest Harry Potter, which were the number 1 and number 2 grossing films of the summer respectively, four Hong Kong-produced films managed to make the top ten. The other two were Murderer, a thriller starring Aaron Kwok which grossed HK$11.7 million, and the period comedy On His Majesty's Secret Service ($HK8.8 million).

Overhead, written and directed by Alan Mak and Felix Chong, stars the versatile Lau Ching-Wan - last seen in Mad Detective - as well as Louise Koo and Danny Wu, and is about a surveillance operation investigating insider trading on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. The film also features Mainland actress Zhang Jingchu (张静初).

Turning Point marks the return to movie-making after a lengthy absence of the legendary Shaw Brothers studio - 22 years away from film-making according to some reports such as this Hollywood Reporter article, though Shaw Brothers were listed as producers for Drunken Monkey (2002), so in fact only a seven-year absence. The film is a prequel to this year's hit TVB series E.U (see my earlier blog article), and cashes in on the popularity of the supporting character "Laughing Gor" played by Michael Tse. It also stars prominent Hong Kong acting identities Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang and Francis Ng. Direction is by prolific Hong Kong movie-maker Herman Yau.

Despite the good box office returns, are the films actually any good? My favourite source for Hong Kong film reviews, Love HK Film.com, gives both Overheard and Turning Point positive reviews albeit with some reservations.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"You're Hired" Recruits Large Audience Numbers

You're Hired (絕代商嬌) - no, not a Hong Kong version of The Apprentice but TVB's new comedy-drama series - rated consistently well in its short four-week season. The final week in particular drew in big audiences, averaging 36 points and a peak of 40.

You're Hired has a business setting and stars Dayo Wong (黃子華, pinyin: Huáng Zǐhuá) as an unorthodox entrepreneur who sets himself up as a "business doctor". His path crosses that of the daughter of one of his clients, played by Charmaine Sheh (佘诗曼, pinyin: Shé Shīmàn) in possibly her first comedy role. Sheh's character develops an immediate distrust of him but, as is the way of all good romantic comedies, the bickering pair eventually fall in love.

Dayo Wong is best known as a stand-up comic and has been a fixture of the Hong Kong entertainment industry for over two decades. Sometimes very funny, sometimes annoying, the 49 year-old has appeared in dozens of movies, many of them forgettable. His TV career has been more successful, especially the hit series War of Genders (2000) and Men Don't Cry in 2007. The latter series gained him the Best Actor prize at the TVB Anniversary Awards. He also has an on on-again, off-again singing career, and in fact sings You're Hired's theme song.

Charmaine Sheh got her start in showbusiness when she was a Runner Up at the Miss Hong Kong pageant in 1997. Over a ten-year acting career she has developed into a respected actress, culminating in a TVB Anniversary Awards Best Actress prize for her performance in Maidens' Vow (2006).

As well as the two leads, You're Hired features Michael Tse who is already enjoying one of his best years in 2009 after his popular performance in E.U, and another former Miss Hong Kong Runner Up, Theresa Lee.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Faith Map Compilation Album Returns to Number One

This week, for the second week in a row, the compilation album Faith Map (信心地圖) by a collective of singers calling themselves New Artist Family (新藝人家族), holds the top position in the G-Music album charts. (The chart for September 4 to 10 is here, but in Chinese).

The album returns to the top spot - it also held that position last month (see this earlier post). Clearly many people are buying the album as a gesture of support for the victims of the recent typhoon in Taiwan. Album sale proceeds will go to help reconstruction efforts in the affected areas. Various benefit concerts by singers connected with the New Family of Artists are also helping boost sales.

Also notable in this week's charts - Jolin and Butterfly are STILL in the top ten. The album has now being charting a phenomenal 24 weeks- that's almost 6 months. Clearly when the 2009 music awards circuit starts up Jolin is going to be very hard to beat.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Jiang Yingrong Wins Super Girls 2009

After a three year hiatus, Hunan TV's popular Super Girls talent show returned to the small screen this (northern) summer. The 2009 version of the show was re-badged as 快乐女声, which translates as Happy Girls. This just sounds like Chinglish so, thankfully, the producers kept the original English title.

Billed as the largest talent competition in the world, Super Girls 2009 had its grand finale last Friday evening. In a three-way play-off, 21 year old Sichuan native, Jiang Yingrong (江映蓉), was crowned the winner, beating second-place getter Li Xiaoyun (李霄云), while sentimental favourite, Huang Ying (黃英), finished third.

Jiang Yingrong won despite being well behind some of the other contestants in the public polls on the Baidu and QQ web portals. Although Jiang failed to gain the enthusiastic public followings of singers like Zeng Yike and Sara Liu, she won over the judges with her more accomplished and versatile performances.

The final night required each of the singers to perform six songs. Huang Ying was the first to be eliminated, despite her unique high-pitched voice and a heartwarming background story of an impoverished upbringing. The original field of tens of thousands of contest hopefuls had been reduced to just two standing. Li Xiaoyun, who composes some of her own songs and is fluent in English, had a big following amongst teenage girls. But in the end her less than perfect vocal skills swung the balance in Jiang Yingrong's favour. Wikipedia of all places has some pretty thorough tables showing the voting process for this year's competition.

Super Girls 2009 was, predictably, a big ratings success for Hunan TV. No doubt the most popular contestants, all of whom are signed to EE Media - a branch of Hunan TV - will generate lucrative record sales. However, like the earlier seasons, not everyone approves of the concept. One National Congress politician infamously denounced the earlier series for "contaminating our youth" while other critics compared it to Western junk food.

Another criticism was that the democratic process was more of a popularity contest than a fair reward of the most talented singers. Perhaps as a result, this season the public voting component was dramatically scaled back and viewers could no longer text their votes. The only concession to a public vote was a panel of audience members who cast votes along with the judges and industry executives. Of course another factor may have been the concern that if people get the idea they can vote for singers they like, who knows - they might want to apply it to politics too!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Huabiao Awards: And the Multiple Winners Are...

Shu Qi holds her Huabiao Award for Best Overseas Actress

On 29th August the 13th Huabiao Awards (华表奖) were held in Beijing. Named after the ceremonial columns that grace the palaces and tombs of imperial China, the Huabiaos are regarded as one of the three major film awards given out on the mainland. (The other two are the Golden Rooster Awards and the Hundred Flowers Awards). The Huabiaos have been held biennially since 1959, and unlike many other award ceremonies there are often multiple prizes given out in the same category. This year for example, awards were shared in all the major individual categories - Excellent Director, Excellent Actor and Excellent Actress - while a perhaps over-generous ten films were awarded the status of "Excellent Film".

The two Excellent Actor awards went to Zhang Hanyu for his role as a platoon captain in the gritty war film Assembly, and Guo Jinglin who played the title role in Yuan Longping, the biopic on the life of China's "Father of Hybrid Rice".

In the female category, international superstar Zhang Ziyi was one of the winners for her portrayal of opera singer Meng Xiaodong in Forever Enthralled. The other Excellent Actress award was given to Fan Zhibo, a specialist in "strong female" roles who played a dedicated deputy mayor in Emergency. The drama tells the story of two high-minded government officials who in response to a food contamination scare, "with a high sense of responsibility, and delicate and sincere feelings resolve the problem and win the support of the people!" - according to one publicity blurb. Coming soon to a megaplex near you...or maybe not.
The Excellent Director award was shared between Chen Kaige for Forever Enthralled and Feng Xiaogang for Assembly.

This year saw the introduction of three new categories, honouring the contribution of non-Mainland artists to the Chinese movie scene. The inaugural Best Overseas Actor award went to Hong Kong's Donnie Yen for his performance as kung fu legend Ip Man in the movie of the same name. Taiwan's Shu Qi completed her transformation from Category III eye-candy to respected actress. Her portrayal of the troubled romantic lead in the comedy If You Are The One won her Best Overseas Actress. Best Overseas Director went to John Woo for the historical epics Red Cliff Parts 1 and 2.

The full list of the ten Excellent Films, a few of which are unlikely to see the light of day outside mainland China, are:
Emergency (突发事件)
Iron Man (铁人) - not the Robert Downey Jnr blockbuster but a biopic of model oil-field worker and socialist hero Wang Jinxi
Women in War - Six Sisters of Yimeng Mountains (战争中的女人-沂蒙六姐妹)
Assembly (集结号)
Forever Enthralled ( 梅兰芳)
The River (大河)
Yuan Longping (袁隆平)
My Left Hand (我的左手)
The First of August (八月一日)
College Entrance Examination 1977 (高考1977)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Flavour of the Month for August - Miss Hong Kong Sandy Lau

The annual Miss Hong Kong Pageant always manages to generate a lot of publicity, perhaps not surprisingly when heavyweight TV network TVB is behind the show's organisation. A good showing in the contest can often lead to a lucrative Hong Kong TV career. Or maybe Hong Kong citizens just like their beauty pageants. This year's winner, Sandy Lau (刘倩婷, pinyin: Liu Qianting), a 23 year old securities analyst, immediately found herself thrust into the glare of the publicity spotlight.

Dubbed the "Brokeback Miss Hong Kong", Lau has had to fend off suggestions that she is a lesbian, the media scutinising her relationships with a couple of "very close female friends" including a fellow competitor. At a media conference, Lau set the record straight by saying "I like the opposite sex". Not satisfied, the press asked if she would consider a gay relationship in the future, to which she responded "No way, I will never fancy a girl".

Then photos from her past emerged on the internet, which seemed to show a dramatic change in her appearance. Gone were the small eyes and dark skin of her younger days, features which are not considered as aesthetically pleasing. Defending herself again she denied undertaking any plastic surgery with the remark, "I'm not Michael Jackson". Unfortunately this only got easily offended netizens further offside, as they felt she was being disrespectful of the recently dead. As if no one has been making jokes about Michael Jackson since his demise. Nevertheless, Lau felt compelled to publicly apologise to the Jackson family.

Sandy Lau was considered a surprise winner, and when the favourite, Esther Lam failed to make the top five, there were familiar cries that the ceremony was rigged. It seems that people in Hong Kong, only too aware of how important your connections can be in getting ahead or getting things done, assume the same code applies when beauty pageant winners are selected.

Already there were grumblings about the quality of the field of contestants, one Chinese language website deriding it as the lowest quality in the contest's history. Lau was probably not the most attractive of the contestants, an admission the judges seemed to confirm by saying that she was selected because she was the most articulate. At least Lau hasn't been subjected to the derision that Kayi Cheung 2007's winner endured. Described as "pie faced", poor Cheung was infamously booed by some audience members when her name was announced.

Recently the Miss Hong Kong crown has been more like a cross that it has winner has had to bear. Last year's champion, Edelweiss Cheung, has earned herself the title of the "laziest" Miss Hong Kong ever because of her failure on so many occasions to fulfill her Miss Hong Kong duties. The media have claimed that she took "sickies" instead of making her required public appearances. As punishment, she was not invited to present the 2009 crown to this year's winner as is the usual practice. Instead, that honour went to Lolette Chu, winner of the crown back in 1977, a time now fondly looked back upon as a golden age for the Miss Hong Kong Pageant.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A-Mei Returns to Number 1

A-Mei (阿妹) returned to the number one spot on the G-Music charts with her album AMIT (阿密特). She displaced Khalil Fong who had held the top spot for the previous two weeks with his album of covers, Timeless. A-Mei originally debuted at the number one spot back in early July.

A-Mei's latest success on the album charts was, however, unfortunately borne out of tragedy. When Typhoon Morakot hit Taiwan last month, amongst the 460 lives it claimed were two of A-Mei's relatives. Since then, like many Chinese musicians, A-Mei has thrown herself into charity work supporting the victims of the disaster. As part of this charity work, AMIT has been re-released with a bonus track, 夢中作憨人. A limited edition of the album comes with a T-shirt and proceeds will go towards the typhoon relief effort, as part of the "Seed Project" (種籽計劃).
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