The Heavenly Kings Arriving on the Red Carpet
CALL THEM THE HOMECOMING KINGS, the stars of the movie The Heavenly Kings, on the red carpet in front of the San Francisco Castro Theatre. From left to right, Cal grad Andrew Lin, Berkeley native and director Daniel Wu, Aussie-raised Hong Kong supermodel Conroy Chan, and the only real singer in the group, Hong Kong heartthrob Terence Yin.

Q: What do you get when you mix the Village People with the Backstreet Boys and add some Chinese four-spice?

A: Alive – the Hong Kong Boy Band.

The Heavenly Kings, the title of the movie that we saw on Friday night at the Castro Theatre, was our first of 12 scheduled movies – and I have to say, the evening was a home run. Having an excuse the schlep over to the gorgeous Castro Theatre is always a treat, but when you get the “full film festival experience” in addition…well, let’s just I’ll enthusiastically jump over a few more crack bums on the way. (C’est la vie en San Francisco!)

By “full film festival experience” and why we just love, love, love the SF Film Fest: Filmmakers often show up for their films and stay around to discuss the films after, either formally, on stage, in front of the audience, or can be found just milling about the lobby and informally chatting it up with movie-going peeps afterwards. Two years ago, we sat about 10 feet away from Metallica—aw yeah!, and three years ago, we were about 20 feet from Kevin Spacey. (So I just name dropped–so what?)

For the red carpet entrance, the Daily Nug photog (Nugget) said there were at least 20 or 30 women in the front who were screaming at the arrival of the film’s stars. Daniel Wu, who acted in several hit Hong Kong movies before making his directorial debut is a familiar face, as were the film’s other main characters in the film. Conroy Chan, a former Hong Kong male “supermodel”, Andrew Lin, a Hong Kong B-level actor and Cal grad, and Terence Yin, also a famous actor who had previously recorded an album. By the way, Daniel Wu, a Berkeley native, just won a Hong Kong academy award for this film for Best First Time Director.

Here’s the movie premise in short: Four semi-famous Hong Kong actors decide to form a super-group boy band, dubbed “Alive”, and film a documentary about it. Well, a mockumentary really, since some parts were scripted while others weren’t.

Alive on Hong Kong Streets

Rather than just make a “movie” about the idea, they decide to actually form a real band, and film themselves going through the process of what entertainment artists in Hong Kong go through, as part of the movie. It’s method acting to the max. Interspersed between shots of the band doing what they do to get to be national stars like negotiating a record deal and dealing with stylists, there are interviews with famous Hong Kong singers and songwriters talking about bad experiences in the Hong Kong entertainment industry, and why being an artist in Hong Kong is so tough. If you think the music here in the US is formulaic – it’s even more so in Hong Kong. The highest compliment for a song in Hong Kong: the song is “karaoke” worthy.

The film follows the Band alive through all of the stages of creating a band. First, the band needs to record a demo. But the band members are kinda like four Jennifer Lopezes – they’re gorgeous, but can’t sing for shit. Auto-Tune, the voice tuning software behind Paris Hilton and Jennifer Lopez, saves the day.

Finally, they’ve recorded an actual hit-worthy song, a very likable tune called “Adam’s Choice,” now they’ve got to find a record deal. The band experienced the some of the same realities that vignettes with actual famous singers describe. When Alive goes to a record company office to sign the deal, they are handed a contract with terms completely different than the record company had said they sign beforehand. Instead of a 3-year term, it’s now 10 years. Instead of the record company taking 20 percent, the record company now wants 50 percent of the profits. It’s enough for the band members to give up and walk out of the room and forget their singing altogether.

Thanks to their mostly American upbringing, the boys are savvy enough to work the media in some of the same ways that helped launch the careers of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. They “leaked” the song on to the Internet, and then they cried to every newspaper reporter that would listen, how bummed they were, and how much money there were losing because nobody would buy their song now that they could get it for free.

Alive Press Conference

Due to the fact that the boys were already famous, their calls were instantly answered by dozens of sympathetic Hong Kong journalists who immediately glommed on to the narrative that the band was putting out: Home town band hurt by piracy; now the boys will never make money on music they worked so hard on. Aw, so sad! (Oh, you Hong Kong press people – how naïve you are! I’m sure the Page Six editors at the New York Post wouldn’t have seen through the ruse in an instant.) The band even held press conferences, saying how upset they were, and how they were now forced to give the song to everyone for free. Within months, the band was booked on a national tour (something like a “Vans Warped Tour” for China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.) And the biggest success of all: their song makes it on the Karaoke charts – woo hoo!

It was only revealed when the movie, The Heavenly Kings, debuted in theaters in Hong Kong, that the entire band, its CDs and concerts and even Karaoke success, was a ruse just for the movie. There’s more backstory. If you care to read, this blog, LoveHKFilm, does a good job.

Yeah, you could call this the Hong Kong version of “This is Spinal Tap”… and, the movie was also interspersed with tangential animated clips, a la Monty Python … but we’re hard-pressed to knock a film that is so funny and charming.

MTV AS A BUSINESS TEACHING TOOL: In the Q&A after the movie, Director Daniel Wu recalled the tragic story of Milli Vanilli, and what he learned from that VH1/Behind the Music episode. He decided to be really smart with Alive – they never made any actual money on the fans. The EPs were given away for free; the concerts were free to the public, so the band never made any money on that. So in the end, when the ruse was revealed when the film hit screens, Daniel Wu said he hoped fans felt like they were part of a prank that was on a national scale, rather than feel duped and humiliated. Alive was spared the vicious fan backlash and band member suicide.

In a final act of altruism, the old Alive band website,, is now dedicated to promoting talented Hong Kong artists so that they don’t have to deal with the shady Hong Kong pop music industry.

If you care about Hong Kong culture, the music business in general, I would give this film four out of five stars, and recommend that you add it your Netflix que if you can’t making it to one of the two remaining screenings this week.

Additional Festival Screening Dates:

Sun April 29, 6pm (Kabuki)

May 4, 5pm (Kabuki)

To buy tickets:

1 Comment »

  1. I was there that night and was excited to see these guys in person…i agree the scene felt pretty electric even if people don’t realize how big stars these guys are in hk.

    #1 by jill — May 23, 2007 @ 12:23 am

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