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HONG KONG - 6 years since Macau beat Las Vegas at its own game and took over as the gambling capital of the world, the cashed-up southern Chinese enclave is now aiming to emulate the US city's role in film.
Boasting annual casino takings of US$33.5-B — around 5 times those of Las Vegas — Macau is looking to establish itself as a set for major film and television productions.
In doing so, officials hope it will become as much a character in films as Las Vegas has been through the years.
"We hope that coverage of movies and TV series, magazines and newspapers, as well as other TV programs will help to generate more interest in Macau," said Lew Hwan Kyu of the Macau Government Tourist Office (MGTO) in South Korea.
"It is an indirect but effective approach in promoting the city."
Macau served as the backdrop for the recent big-budget blockbuster "The Thieves," the second most successful South Korean film in history after 2006's "The Host." The enclave hopes to attract more productions in the film's wake.
Watched by more than 12.9 million people in its homeland, "The Thieves" follows the trail of Korean and Chinese gangs as they plot a diamond theft.
The US$9-M budget film has so far taken an estimated US$82.6-M at the box office.
Directed by Choi Dong Hun, the film has been dubbed "Korea's Ocean's 11" after the 1960 Hollywood hit starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin that triggered a slew of Las Vegas productions including its 2001 remake starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt.
For the people behind "The Thieves," the bright lights and massive casino resorts of Macau offered an extra touch of realism to a caper boasting a line-up of Asian stars including Korean heartthrobs Lee Jung Jae ("The Housemaid"), Jeon Ji Hyun ("My Sassy Girl") and veteran Hong Kong star Simon Yam ("Election").
"Macau was chosen for its cinematic and exotic atmosphere," said producer Ahn Soo Hyun, adding that the contrasts between its newly-built casinos and the city's dim-lit and outdated buildings added to the film's tone.
She added that the geography helped drive the script. "It was nice to have a natural path, where Korean and Chinese thieves gather up in Hong Kong, go to Macau for the job and, after the failed attempt, come to Korea for revenge."
Surging visitor numbers
More than 28 million people visited Macau last year, a record for the city that is home to just 600,000 people.
This year, visitor numbers are set to eclipse that figure, reaching beyond 30 million, as casino resort developments continue to expand to meet demand.
Last month saw the opening of the 4,000-room Sheraton Macau, which was followed by news that developer Sands China would add a further 2,000 rooms to the "Cotai Strip" area of the city by 2016.
Macau now boasts more than 30 casino resorts, among them the 3,000-room Venetian Macau Resort Hotel and the City of Dreams complex that offers a combined 1,400 rooms across 3 hotels.
While the majority of visitors to Macau are drawn from "Greater China" — mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan accounted for 89.1% of last year's total — it is increasingly looking to draw more international tourists.
Last year, visitors from South Korea were up 20.2% (to 398,807), while "the Americas" accounted for 310,608 visitors, a rise of 4.5%, according to MGTO.
"South Korea has strong cultural influences across the world nowadays," said Lew, adding that the Macau government has promoted the enclave through Korean TV dramas such as "Princess Hours" (2006) and "East of Eden" (2008).
In the past month, "The Thieves" has opened across Indonesia, Hong Kong and Singapore with other Asian territories to follow.
Last week, North American rights for the film were picked up by the Well Go USA company, which will release the film in that market on October 12, while there are hopes for a wider international release after the film screens this week at Asia's largest film event, the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea.
Domestic support lacking
One problem facing international filmmakers is that Macau has little in the way of a domestic film industry to support visiting productions.
The former Portuguese-administered city has recently been the focus of a series of films from that country, including director Joao Pedro Rodrigues' "The Last Time I Saw Macau" (2012).
Hong Kong veteran Johnnie To has used the city to great effect in his critically-acclaimed thrillers "Exiled" (2006) and "Vengeance" (2009), but when it comes to other international productions, the city has had a somewhat chequered past.
Hollywood first came calling back in 1952, shooting stock scenes for the Robert Mitchum-Jane Russell vehicle "Macau," while the visit of future Oscar-winner Sean Penn in the early 1980s for the shooting of "Shanghai Surprise" (1986) — alongside then-wife Madonna — became infamous in the movie world.
Penn later claimed he was arrested for the attempted murder of a photographer while in the city, saying he had dangled the man off the balcony of his hotel, but had escaped custody and jumped on a jet foil to Hong Kong.
The actor said in interviews for his biography "Sean Penn: His Life and Times" that he was later pardoned by the then-ruling Portuguese administration.
Management at the massive City of Dreams casino-resort complex that features prominently in "The Thieves" said allowing the filmmakers to use their property was part of a concerted effort to increase its international exposure.
"The enormous success of the movie helps promote City of Dreams to a wider international audience," said Sunny Yu, senior vice president, Entertainment and Projects, Melco Crown Entertainment Limited.
Korean producer Ahn said she expects more international filmmakers to follow suit.
"Macau definitely has its unique colors, and filmmakers who are looking for that sort of uniqueness will continue to head to the city," she said. - Mathew Scott, Agence France-Presse