Web series director Dong Chengpeng wanted to make a feature film, but he only got a budget of 3.9 million USD that he tried hard to secure.
He made the film anyway – a blinding troop of stars made a cameo appearance.
Earning over 180 million USD in China, Dong’s first feature Jian Bing Man has crowned him the 6th member in the billion-yuan directors’ club. The other five are: Xu Zheng (Lost in Thailand), Stephen Chow (Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons), Cheang Pou-Soi (The Monkey King 3D), Ning Hao (Breakup Buddies) and Raman Hui (Monster Hunt). Half are 3D films, the other half are 2D comedy films. Born in 1982, Da Peng is the youngest in this club.
Jian Bing Man is not an overnight success.
It is important to have a memorable nickname in the Show Biz. Dong’s nickname is Da Peng – one made popular by his college friends, during the days he led a rock band as the guitarist and vocalist.
Recently, he recalled the top three moments since he joined the Internet company Sohu (NASDAQ: SOHU) 11 years ago.
- On January 22, 2007, Da Peng Show went online. He made efforts to name the show after himself and it has been running until this day.
- On April 5, 2010, he became an apprentice of China’s top comedian Zhao Benshan.
- On September 10, 2014, Jian Bing Man started the first day of shooting.
Da Peng Show is a talk show, via which he built his own brand image. The audiences began to know about him through his comments on everyday sensations and interviews with celebrities from all walks of life. A simple reference would be the Late Show With David Letterman.
Da Peng is Zhao Benshan’s 53rd apprentice, and probably the most successful one. He confessed in his book that this affiliation meant a great deal to him and totally boosted his confidence. In a way, he started to expand his territory from the Internet to more television channels – a parallel universe with traditional viewers outside the subculture web zone.
Still, Da Peng had made a monumental work before the film was envisioned.
Started in October 2012, Diors Man, a parody of Martina Hill’s Knaller Frauen, was tailored for China. Da Peng invited an array of punsters from Weibo (a local Twitter) and gave them specific contexts like “Diors in the office” and “Diors pursuing a dreamy girl”. The punsters would offer him dozens of plots to select from. He also has a writer named Su Biao.
Diors is a person who is not aspiring or useful. A cynical nobody who talks more than he does, with no money or social status, always daydreaming. Basically a loser. Often used as a self-deprecation.
In a society that is quite trapped in materialism, where marriage becomes very difficult if the groom-to-be doesn’t own an apartment or a car, where rich men having mistresses is no longer a secret, where those born under the one-child policy come to be breadwinners yet with not much influence to change the society, a large number of Chinese netizens would mock themselves as Diors.
The opposite image would be Gao Fu Shuai: A tall, rich and handsome guy with luxury cars and big houses, while Bai Fu Mei is a beautiful rich girl with fair skin. Both groups are too high above self-mockery, but are heavily teased by Diors.
The society is invisibly classified, so the netizens are quite identified with Diors Man – displaying common embarrassments of contemporary life, in an extremely dramatic way.
Da Peng would play different roles in each episode – doctor, fortune-teller, office boy, security guard, etc. He danced in these roles with dexterity. Lust, greed, gluttony, sloth are some of his characters’ desires. Ordinarily, his characters would also have some eccentricities.
He managed to invite over 100 stars to join him in the show. From 2012 to 2014, the first three seasons received hundreds of thousands of viewings.
Da Peng did become a household name, his first book a best seller, remaining No. 1 for several weeks.
In Season 4 that opened in 2015, he even persuaded Martina Hill to act with him.
As a matter of fact, after Diors Man, a variety of web series mushroomed in China.
In between the years, several film companies asked him to make a film out of Diors Man. For once or twice, he was moderately tempted, but remained calm: if he’d make a film, it had to be Da Peng-specific.
With a plain budget of 25 million RMB, Da Peng thought of “a frame within a frame”, a fiction about the famous Diors Man director.
Alienation – a story partially based on his own experience, but casting on the precarious side of life. It can be a pendulum swinging between zero and hero.
He made an audacious assumption: What if this director is sunk into a scandal due to unsubstantial media buzz, and thus estranged by his loved ones, his audiences and even lost his job at Sohu? What if this character wants to rise above the wounds? He could make a movie to prove his artistic inclination and proficiency, so that the audience will stop equaling his characters in Diors Man to himself.
In this film, the wronged director wants to make a film called Jian Bing Man to regain due respect. But when he turns to his celebrity friends, each says no in a theatrical way. So he can only “cast” these stars in his movie using candid camera.
JB Man, however, has nothing to do with James Bond, Jason Bourne, or Jack Bower. Jian Bing, as Da Peng explains, is his favorite food. It is like a Chinese sandwich made by flour, egg, chopped green onion and spicy sauce, whose colors are reflected in his superhero costume.
When an evil gang finds out that JB Man has fallen in love with a girl who sells Jian Bing, they turn the girl into Red Rose, a cold-blooded killer, so as to destroy JB Man. JB Man needs to defeat the evil guys, to save the love of his life.
In the film, a no-budget superhero film is thus realized, against all odds. The wronged protagonist is then back with a movie. Along the way, he manages to realize his own dream as well as that of his dedicated crew.
To promote this film, Da Peng and his team went to 31 cities and over 200 roadshows. In each roadshow, the cinema was packed with people and laughter. He also had its theme song sung by 5 different musicians and bands, each in his or her own style – something that has never been done before in the local market, where music tie-in has become essential in film marketing.
Fans laugh so happily that after 3 years, they finally can watch Da Peng on the big screen, and the film is just so funny; genuine film critics, who are always very harsh towards local films, praise the film’s story design, acting and production; film studios Sohu Video, New Classic Media and Wanda Media are glad that they made the right investment, and will be investing in more new directors; however, some realize that this is a real goodbye – after the film, the Diors Man series will no longer be updated.
With Jian Bing Man, Da Peng has not only established himself as a blockbuster director, but also presented a train of young actors from his team – these people will join him to refresh China’s comedy films. Da Peng uses his intelligence and diligence to show us that comedy can be a serious business.
With Jian Bing Man, few would still refer to him as “that Diors”.
I believe in all things bright and beautiful. Despite the naked cruel reality that we are faced with, I choose to believe in all things bright and beautiful. I think it can empower us with hope and energy to always go for a better future,” said Da Peng.
The Chinese Film Market: What is film to you?
Da Peng: A toy. Film is a toy that the whole crew could play with together. I do respect the film industry and the precursors, but I think film should be a more easy-going existence, a reachable being.
CFM: In your opinion, what are people most anxious about in China?
DP: I think at present, people are unhappy mostly due to the economic issues. People will have spiritual pursuits only when they are not short of basic needs.
CFM: What is JIAN BING MAN to you?
DP: With JIAN BING MAN, I now have a new career option. My past decade of work experience helped to create Da Peng, my alter ego, which then became a character in my first film. So in a way, this film is hard to copy. To be honest, the show biz is very realistic: I now have 8 scripts at hand from different top-notch directors. I have more job opportunities than before. I now have the right to choose.
CFM: Are you a natural comedian?
DP: I didn’t know I could act in comedy before making Diors Man. Dapeng Show was generally an entertaining talk show – I needed to learn different skills. I didn’t think I was that edgy – I was neither very smart nor super good-looking, so I accumulate credits by watching tons of programs and taking notes. In short, I am still learning.
CFM: What would be the future of your team?
Maybe in the next few years, I could make films and act in other people’s films, and that’s it – I could have an easy life. But I have a team of twenty youngsters, who are like me ten years ago: aspiring and proactive. I will continue to lead them to improve, for instance, I will send them to study different fields in my film crew, or I can take some to meet the best in the industry, to enrich their mind and broaden their view. I am who I am partly due to our teamwork in the past few years, so I hope to offer them space to develop their own speciality. I am actually like a brother to them and hope each of them can find his own position, no matter here with me, or move on to a new platform.
CFM: Who is your favorite director?
DP: Stephen Chow. All his works are my compass, showing me the way to comedy. Thanks to him, the popular cinematic comedy universe is as it is today.
CFM: You seem to be an all-round person, but is there anything else you’d like to learn?
DP: Live and learn. I am learning 3D film production: the structure of the camera, the creation of 3D images and how to maximize the 3D visual effects in cinema – the whole workflow. In fact, I am now acting in a 3D film. I can participate in the making of a 3D film – that is the main reason why I join this film project.
CFM: What is your next movie?
DP: I’ll work with a few great directors, hopefully to act in 2 or 3 films. To watch how they director films is a rewarding learning experience. I’ll start making my next movie when I feel I am ready. It won’t be that soon, though I have already had an outline.
CFM: What advice will you give to the young Chinese with a director’s dream?
DP: I’d say: Don’t wait for your luck. Don’t just count on the so-called shortcuts of a certain theme or chance. Create your own luck by improving your filmmaking proficiency. I really know how to make a film.
This article was published in the THE CHINESE FILM MARKET, the TIFF 2015 issue.