Coffee or Tea?: If You Want to Achieve Something, You Must First Believe In It

To celebrate Coffee or Tea? hitting 100 million RMB at the box office, wanted to dedicate a post specifically to this movie, that’s simultaneously garnered a lot of attention amidst the industry and has also flown a little under the radar with the general public due to being David in a sea of Goliaths (purely size-wise).

The circumstances surrounding this movie is unique in a lot of ways, which is why it’s received a lot of media coverage (including big press platforms like CCTV6 and The People’s Daily, which is China’s largest newspaper) and attention despite being being the “smallest” film amidst the National Day movies.

So this will essentially serve as a FAQ for the movie, a collection of translations from the director and cast’s interviews on how the movie came to be (because unfortunately I will never be able to get around subbing it all), how the cast got involved, the filming process, a summary on the box office circumstances and how it’s been tracking, etc. There have been several questions on this in CC, so thought I’d just consolidate it all here, especially since I’ve finally straightened it all out and gone through the interviews.

And also, because it’s Haoran’s birthday tomorrow.

What does the title of the film mean?

A: There have been a lot of puns being used in regards to this film, so wanted to explain a little. There are two literal translations of the Chinese title (一点就到家 yi dian jiu dao jia) – “home at one o’clock” and “one click to home” (the second is the meaning the film is going for given the e-commerce themes).

The first two words in the Chinese title (“yi dian”) also means “a little” – and given the scale of Coffee or Tea? compared to its competitors in the National Day slot, many have started using this as a nickname for the movie, including film bloggers, industry insiders who track box office, fans, and even the official Weibo itself. It’s become “the little engine that could”.

(Since it just hit 100 million RMB at the box office, there’s a new pun that everyone’s using as a nickname for the film – “小 亿 点”, which replaces the “一” in the original title with “亿”, hundred million, also pronounced “yi”).

You may wonder why the English title is Coffee or Tea? – it’s a reference to the past vs future, rural vs city, tradition vs youth, themes in the movie. Yunnan is largely known for its pu’er tea, but the movie focuses on a business, and a future, centered around pu’er coffee, which goes against traditions.

How did the project come to be?

A: This was an “assignment” from the China Film Administration that came to Peter Chan and his team last year. Poverty alleviation in the rural areas of China has been a topic of great interest and priority (Haoran’s section of My People My Country last year was on this, and it’s one of the main themes in My People My Homeland as well), and the China Film Administration wanted a film for this National Day that would primarily focus on this (you might ask, what about My People My Homeland? That was a project that came about later – the China Film Administration wanted a big, star-studded movie that could help revive the box office and the movie industry after the huge damages of COVID-19. That’s why these two films were announced together back in May, before either started filming).

This is why there were three things that could not be changed about Coffee or Tea?: its title, the poverty alleviation and e-commerce themes, and when it would air (had to be National Day 2020) – director Derek Hui has directly addressed this in interviews. This was always meant to be a small scale film for National Day, but he wanted to put a spin on it as well.

Derek Hui said he was first asked by Peter Chan and scriptwriter Zhang Ji to direct this film in September 2019. He had no interest in the movie at the time, and turned it down, partly because he didn’t want to be restricted by the fact that this is a CFA assignment. In March/April of 2020, Peter Chan and Zhang Ji sent him another version of the story outline, and with everyone being under lockdown at the time due to COVID-19, Derek Hui was inspired by the themes of “coming home” and had a new interest in telling the story, but his condition was he wanted to do it his way.

Peng Peng (Peng Yuchang) was the first cast member to be brought onboard, because of the team’s familiarity with him after working on Leap (also by Peter Chan’s team) together (this is why networking and connections are so important in the film industry – Peng Peng said he got the Leap opportunity through a recommendation by Zhang Yibai, the director who he’s closest with).

Haoran was brought in next, (in Derek Hui’s words, they needed someone “intelligent, youthful, and good-looking” – he’s been repeatedly emphasizing the importance of Haoran’s visuals for this particular film, and said both he and Peter Chan thought of Haoran first). For Haoran, this is a team that he’s never worked with before, much like Moses On the Plains (Diao Yinan and the Northeast China group), and that’s one of the major benefits for him with this project – it’s allowing him to continue to broaden his network, to be seen by more people in the industry. Although Derek Hui is a new up-and-coming director, this film is by Peter Chan’s team, and that’s why it’s a valuable resource (but more on this later).

The exact timeline of when they were both first approached is a bit fuzzy. It almost sounds like they were in talks already for the film before Derek Hui finally agreed to direct, because Haoran mentioned getting the first version of the script while he was stuck at home, and also that he paid attention to a Peng Peng trending topic during Chinese New Year’s, but then said in another interview that he talked to the director and producer in June before being called in to film in July (PYC said it was the same for him).

Both of them also said the story outline they got in July before heading to Yunnan was quite different from the one they had seen earlier, and we know that the movie had already applied for permission to film in February 2020. Yin Fang was brought in last (Yin Fang is signed to Peter Chan’s J.Q. Pictures, so the team is also familiar with him).

How long did it take to finish the movie from start of filming to premiere?

A little under three months.

Per Derek Hui, this was the timeline:

Mid May: Part of the team went to Yunnan to set things up, director Derek Hui was still in mandatory self-isolation in Hong Kong.

End of June: Derek Hui talks to the three leads via video call – he described it as an “interview”, but likely casting negotiations had already taken place and this was a final round of confirmations.

July 7: Derek Hui ends his self-isolation in Shanghai and flies to Yunnan

July 9: Filming officially starts (without a complete script, so Derek Hui and the three main actors were improvising as they went)

Mid August: Filming wraps up (it isn’t specified, but believe this meant wrapped up in Shanghai later on. Haoran left Yunnan at the end of July and went straight to the set of 1921 at Hengdian, and Peng Yuchang also immediately started filming another movie. but both of them mention filming parts in Shanghai as well)

Mid September: Post-production is complete, editing was also being worked on as they were filming given the short time frame

Sept 24: Premiere at the Hundred Flower Awards

Who are the major people involved in this film?

Coffee or Tea? is a movie co-produced by J.Q. Pictures, which is essentially Peter Chan’s company, and most of the team are the people who he frequently collaborates with. For those who might not know, Peter Chan is the Hong Kong director who has probably found the most success in the mainland film industry, and he’s considered one of the biggest names in the field. He’s officially the executive producer for Coffee or Tea?.

Director Derek Hui is 37 years old, a film editor who has worked his way up on several well known big projects and has won nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards, the Golden Horse, and the Golden Roosters for his work. He got his start with Peter Chan’s The Warlords, and was taken under the wing of the famous director, becoming one of his two students (the other is Derek Tsang, director of Better Days and SoulMate – Derek Hui was actually the film editor for SoulMate).

His first full feature film was This Is Not What I Expected, a rom-com starring Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhou Dongyu, which was a pretty successful romcom, but he wouldn’t emerge again as a director until the e-sports drama CrossFire this year, which won a lot of praise, particularly among male audiences who loved the way the drama was filmed. That’s why going into Coffee or Tea? promotions, there was already a lot of anticipation from the young director. (He said the reason why he put movies down for a while after his debut film was because he felt a little lost on his direction afterwards.)

After the premiere of Coffee or Tea?, his name and reputation has been taken to another level within the industry, as many have noted his ability to be innovative and inject something young and fresh for a film that has a pretty simple story. Haoran and Peng Yuchang said themselves that Derek Hui’s name is the one that pops up the most when they read reviews, and it’s for good reason – he has proven himself as an up and coming young director.

Zhang Ji’s name is listed on all the Coffee or Tea? promotional material next to Peter Chan and Derek Hui’s, as the overseeing scriptwriter – he’s probably one of the most well known scriptwriters in the world of Chinese film, and a big reason why Peter Chan’s films are known for having solid storylines (Peter Chan himself is also a master at storytelling). Though the Coffee or Tea? script was not completed before filming began (due to huge changes they made in a short span of time), Derek Hui mentioned that centering the story around Yunnan coffee was Zhang Ji’s idea.

There are only about five professional actors in the film – three of which are the main leads: Liu Haoran, Peng Yuchang, and Yin Fang. Haoran has continued his streak this year of “working with his closest friends” as he and Peng Yuchang go way back, to 2015/2016 when they were both on Day Day Up. That’s also one of the reasons why this film also caught attention; aside from a young, new-ish director, it also features two of the prominent faces in the new generation of Chinese film actors. Peng Peng has often been dubbed the next Huang Bo (and coincidentally, has played the younger version of Huang Bo in two films now), and is known for his film work with An Elephant Sitting Still, Go Brother, Leap, and more. Like Haoran, he was in more than one National Day movie this year.

Yin Fang is an extremely talented ballet/contemporary dancer turned actor who has worked his way up through supporting roles in big film projects, and was most recently seen in Better Days and a lead role in the drama New World alongside veteran actors Sun Honglei and Zhang Luyi. (This was also his first time in a comedy, as compared to Haoran and Peng Yuchang, who have quite a bit of experience with the genre.)

As Haoran mentioned, the main creative team (as the 3 actors played a big part in the development of the script and characters) behind the film has an average age of 30 and features 2 post-80ers, 2 post-90ers. CCTV6 had an article that called it the “youngest movie of the National Day films”, both in terms of spirit, and literally. This isn’t a combination you see very often in the mainstream Chinese film industry, which is reigned largely by veterans (of course, they were also helped by Peter Chan’s very experienced team).

What was the filming process like? How big was the budget?

There is no official word on what the budget was, but it’s presumed to be quite low because it is pretty small in scale (and the cinema managers on Weibo have said the film doesn’t have extra money for marketing/promotions). Filming in Yunnan only took about 20 days. Rather than building a village and set to use, they actually used an existing remote, historical village and lived there during the course of filming – the only thing they built was a small cottage.

As mentioned previously, the movie only uses about five professional actors: Liu Haoran, Peng Yuchang, Yin Fang, Tan Zhuo, and Zhang Qi (+ Li Jiaqi guest appearance). The rest of the roles were filled by local villagers who served as extras – Derek Hui talked about how every day at noon, all of the extras would suddenly disappear, which he soon learned was because they needed to go home to feed their pigs. Because this is also a China Flim Administration assignment film, the actors are presumably not making much from this either (much like how the My People My Homeland/My People My Country actors did it for no or little pay)

The two things the cast and crew battled with constantly was weather and bugs – Yunnan has a subtropical climate and they would often be caught in sudden weather changes, and dealing with lack of natural light.

Because they had such a short amount of time to film, the script was incomplete when filming began (in Derek Hui’s words, when asked if there was a script, he said, “It was between having a script and not having a script. We definitely had one when we wrapped filming!”). As such, a lot of the lines (or how they were expressed) and specific scenes were improvised on the go between the three main actors and the director, hence why Haoran has said this is a film that was a joint creation, not just a simple director-actors dynamic.

The actors took full advantage of Derek Hui’s film editing background and put a lot of faith in his ability to be able to piece things together, so they gave him a lot of material to work with. Derek Hui said he sometimes had the cameras running even when the three were just messing around and having fun, because they had such good chemistry and rapport together, and he actually did end up using some of the clips in the film.

For Haoran specifically, Derek Hui mentioned that because they didn’t have enough assistant directors at times, he would help with the extras and show them how to act in particular scenes. Some of Wei Jinbei’s memorable one-liners were also improvised by Haoran in the moment.

How has the reception been towards Coffee or Tea?

It currently has a 9.2-9.2-7.2 rating on Taopiaopiao/Maoyan/Douban, which is very good (aside from being a place of fans/antis, Douban users also tend to be harsher on comedies). Specifically for films, Taopiaopiao and Maoyan ratings matter more as they’re a direct reflection of the audience’s opinion (for those who may not know, Taopiaopiao and Maoyan are the largest movie ticketing platforms in China) – only those who have actually bought a ticket through the platforms can rate. It’s also the rating that people see when they go online to buy tickets.

The general way to read Maoyan & Taopiaopiao scores is 9+ means great word of mouth (among the National Day films, Coffee or Tea? ranks second behind My People My Homeland in score).

The bulk of the reviews have been that the film is a lot of fun, an easy watch that really displays the spirit of young people, fast-paced with great editing, anime-like as it gets your blood pumping (which Haoran also commented on). What was particularly interesting was that much of the early industry hype actually came from film critics and cinema managers, several of whom have been promoting the film for free.

Chen Sicheng summed up the majority of the positive reviews nicely in his own review, “Light and spirited, full of vitality, those were my direct feelings upon watching. The refreshing feeling of the entire movie is like just like the Pu’er coffee in the film, a clear breeze blowing past from the woods. It’s not easy for an “assigned composition” to be completed like this, a good film like this shouldn’t be buried!”

What were the box office expectations for this film? How has it done relative to expectations?

When Coffee or Tea? was officially announced back in May, the only other film that had announced plans for National Day premiere was My People My Homeland. At the time, there was hope that theaters could open during mid-summer, and it was expected if that was the case, some of the Chinese New Year films, like Jiang Ziya, would be moving there. However, theaters continued to remain closed until July 20.

Because no one knew what to expect from the box office, and how much of the public would be willing to visit theaters again, none of the big films set premiere dates until Guan Hu’s The Eight Hundred made the gamble to premiere August 21 (pre-screenings started August 14). It made close to 300 million RMB in pre-screenings alone, and is currently sitting at 3+ billion (still in theaters too). And this was what gave the film industry a renewed confidence, and Chinese New Year films Jiang Ziya, Vanguard, and Leap went ahead with their decisions to move to National Day (it’s likely they were already considering National Day since there aren’t many good time slots left – CNY 2021 will already be packed as it is).

To back up a little, National Day has historically been one of the top three movie screening slots of the year, because most Chinese residents will get 7 to 8 days off (only time people get more time off is Chinese New Year’s), so it’s viewed to have good box office potential. There was a lot of uncertainty around this year though due to COVID-19 – it’s why the China Film Administration made plans for two films to definitely screen during that slot as early as May.

With Jiang Ziya, Leap, and Vanguard announcing the decision to head to National Day, it really shook things up. Not so much for My People My Homeland, which had a lot of confidence due to the success of My People My Country last year and because of how star studded (both in terms of directors and actors) it is, but Coffee or Tea? suddenly really became “a little bit” surrounded by giants. All four of the other films are big budget films featuring either big directors or big stars, who had already gone through a whole cycle of promotions so they’re titles the public is very familiar with (and in Jiang Ziya’s case, a highly anticipated sorta-but-not-sequel to 2019 megahit Nezha).

Another added obstacle came when it became clear that Leap was quite a bit behind My People My Homeland and Jiang Ziya in terms of buzz. Due to the pre-screenings they did in early 2020, it was already known the movie would probably have good word of mouth, but it was falling behind the other two films in discussion and pre-sales, and hence J.Q. Studios made the decision to move the film up to a Sept 25 premiere (you could still argue whether this was the right decision or not).

This affected Coffee or Tea? because it’s from the same company as Leap – by default, Coffee or Tea? was going to be ranked last among the five films for buzz, and because it was considerably “smaller”, it also would have a better chance of breaking even or making a profit, so Leap took priority. The early leaks from secret screenings Taopiaopiao held for Coffee was that word of mouth was going to be good, so JQ Studios made the decision to take it out of the direct competition with the top 2 films.

Because they had already moved Leap up, they could only push Coffee or Tea? back, and that’s why the premiere date was changed from the original October 1 to October 4. (There’s another element to this – industry insiders were already hinting that from what they heard, at least one of the CNY films was going to disappoint in terms of word of mouth. If this was the case, it would give Leap and Coffee or Tea, who were both pretty confident in their quality, a chance to emerge, even a little. This part, at least, turned out to be quite accurate.) This though, meant they lost 3 to 4 days of the National Day holiday.

Coffee or Tea?, which only wrapped filming in August and post-production in September, had barely any time to promote and get its name out there, so it was at a huge disadvantage going into premiere day (even putting aside it’s a young director + young cast).

Because it’s a low-budget, smaller film, it also didn’t really have the money for mass marketing/promotions (cinema managers commented on this too) – even the few pre-screenings they held were in smaller cities. So going into premiere day, early reviews were good but much of the public simply didn’t know about it. This is also why both Taopiaopiao and Douban ratings were released so early – Coffee was going to have to use word of mouth as its main weapon.

However, even though initial word of mouth is good (as mentioned, a 9-9-7 is quite strong), the problem is My People My Homeland and Leap are also both 9-9-7s, and have much greater hype, so it didn’t do much for Coffee in terms of screen distributions the first couple of days (they also got the short stick in terms of screentimes – a lot of it was matinee and late night screenings.

Starting October 6 (Day 3) though, this really has become “the little engine that could”. Word of mouth finally started taking effect, especially as two of the other National Day films began to falter due to unfavorable reviews. As of October 10, it has been second in attendance %, and following closely behind Leap and Jiang ZIya in daily box office despite having the least number of screens among the top four films. It’s predicted that at some point in the next few days, it might surge to third among National Day films.

t’s not going to be a box office dark horse, because it simply has too many big competitors, but the trend it’s been on is really quite encouraging as it matches the themes of the movie quite well. Word of mouth will help it pull in more consistent day to day box office, like we’re seeing with Leap, just at a smaller scale, and now that 100 million RMB has been crossed, Haoran has officially secured his first achievement as first billing (though of course the success of the film is due to the collaborative effort between Derek Hui, Peng Yuchang, Yin Fang, Haoran and the rest of the team).

As Derek Hui said, “I don’t dare to have any expectations (for box office), We’re such a small (scale) film. They’re the ‘big Leap’, ‘the great Homeland’, we’re just ‘a little bit’, so we’ll just roll with it.”

Given what it was facing, the positive word of mouth, buzz within the industry for Derek Hui, positive exposure for the young leads, and promising trends in box office for a “small” film, has made this a success for the creators. Quite frankly, it’s been pretty cool to follow it – it’s encouraging to see good quality does get rewarded.

What does this movie mean for Haoran? Was it a good resource for him?

It probably doesn’t need to be said, but you can tell this film is very important to Haoran, and that it means a lot to him not only because he acted in it, but because he played a big role in its creation, along with his costars and Derek Hui. Young actors simply don’t get a lot of chances for creative freedom, to be able to have a direct input into a final product, and that’s why this film will probably always mean a lot to him (so it’s quite a relief to see the good feedback).

As he said in a recent sit down interview with The People’s Daily, “Most of my work has been with seniors and laoshis, but I believe that as young people mature, they need to experience what it’s like leaving their seniors’ protection and embrace, to independently create. Coffee or Tea’s main creators are mostly young people, and we worked hard to make a film that represents young people. That’s what moved me the most.”

At this stage of Haoran’s career, especially as he focuses on film, it’s all about continuing to prove himself as an actor and also expanding his networks (because he has the DC franchise, box office is more of a bonus – I am also firmly in the camp that no one can carry box office alone, unless maybe if you’re Wu Jing or Shen Teng). Coffee or Tea? has successfully added another quality movie to his filmography, one that’s been seen by the industry, and box office is doing surprisingly well considering where it started.

This year alone, we’ve seen a huge stride in that direction – Moses on the Plains with Diao Yinan’s team, Coffee or Tea? with Peter Chan’s team (secret hope is that Haoran will have the opportunity to work with Derek Hui again), and two more commemoration films. The first two are teams he’s never worked with before, and not only does it mean he’s increasing his network, he’s also increasing his exposure to the industry.

These two projects in particular are also interesting because it marks Haoran’s transition into more young adult roles, rather than youths, which he has always been known the most for. Wei Jinbei is a role that’s in his 30s, and Zhuang Shu will go through a decade of growth, from teen to adulthood.

If 2018 was a turning point in Haoran’s career, in terms of both his popularity and “status”, 2020 feels like a year where Haoran has really stepped into the film circle and cemented himself as one of the faces of the new generation there. Aside from becoming the Hundred Flowers Awards’ image ambassador and becoming the first post-95er to hit 10 billion in total box office gross, this was a year where he’s basically been working nonstop and has really been committing himself to not just acting in films, but doing his part in promoting the growth of Chinese cinema, especially as the uncertainty around the industry was lingering.

It’s the way he did so many Detective Chinatown 3 road shows completely on his own early in the year, how he flew to Jilin in March without knowing if they’d even be able to start filming and then continuing to work amidst so much uncertainty and pressure, how he filmed four movies back to back to back to back because he wanted to give audiences something good and relaxing to watch when theaters finally reopened. It’s really been a year where we’ve witnessed Haoran’s growth, and it’s somehow fitting that it was capped by him taking the stage at the opening ceremony of the Hundred Flowers Awards.

There are still several films he has coming to look forward to (in fact, Moses on the Plains just dropped a teaser at the 4th Pingyao International Film Festival, officially announcing it’ll be coming in 2021; there’s a rumor it might be released in HQ tomorrow for his birthday), so with one day to go before Haoran turns 23 (can’t believe only just turning 23), just wanted to say, as a fan, I’m really looking forward to seeing what 2021 holds for him, and also just wanted to say, thank you for continuing to follow Haoran and this account (and read my ramblings).

Here’s to Coffee or Tea? continuing to make it’s way up, a “little bit” at a time (and that us international viewers will be able to see it in the near future)!

One thought on “Coffee or Tea?: If You Want to Achieve Something, You Must First Believe In It

  1. This is a long read but I enjoyed reading it. I’ve learned a lot about Liu Haoran and his projects through this blog and your updates in twitter. Thank you!

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