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Stars attend 'Transformers' world premiere in Hong Kong, in sign of Hollywood's China focus

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HONG KONG - The stars of "Transformers: Age of Extinction," including Mark Wahlberg and good-guy robot Optimus Prime, were attending the film's worldwide premiere Thursday in Hong Kong, which was a key part of the blockbuster franchise's latest installment.

Wahlberg and other cast members including Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer and Nicola Peltz walked the red carpet to the screening as a giant statue of Autobot leader Optimus Prime overlooked the venue next to a waterfront promenade on famed Victoria Harbor.

The film's debut in the southern Chinese metropolis ahead of its launch in New York next week is the latest sign of Hollywood's increasing focus on China's booming film market.

On the red carpet, director Michael Bay said the four-film series is a worldwide franchise. After filming all over the U.S. and in Canada and Egypt previously, "I thought China would be a great place to place this movie."

The latest film is due in North American and Chinese cinemas June 27. While the films have been derided by critics as superficial, mindless action flicks overloaded with computer-generated effects, that hasn't hurt their global appeal. The third film, "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," earned $1.1 billion at the global box office, with $165 million from China, its second biggest market after North America.

The fourth film has a whole new cast including Wahlberg, an Oscar nominee for "The Departed," whom Bay praised as a "real leading man" with maturity and gravitas.

Nicola Peltz said the new film compares favourably to the earlier three. "The technology just gets better and better as the years go on, and the robots are amazing and you feel for them so much. There is so much heart in this film and I'm really excited for people to see it," she said at the premiere.

Wahlberg stars as a mechanic who finds a rundown truck that turns out to be Optimus Prime. While most of the film is set in the U.S., Hong Kong's skyscraper-studded skyline is the backdrop for the climactic battle sequence, in which the Transformers — giant, sentient robots that change into cars, jets and helicopters — trash the city onscreen.

The actor said the Hong Kong action sequence was challenging to film. "It's pretty scary stuff being on the top of that building running full speed with nothing but a little cable holding and supporting you," Wahlberg said.

The Autobots and their Decepticon enemies clash in the tenements of Kowloon and above the financial district's glittering towers. Spaceships hover above the city, tearing apart a waterfront convention centre and throwing the former British colony's iconic Star Ferry about like a toy.

Other nods to China including scenes featuring the Great Wall in Beijing and the southern factory hub of Guangzhou, where a nefarious tycoon played by Tucci collaborates with Chinese actress Li Bingbing's biotech CEO character to produce robots based on the metal Transformers are made of. Four other minor roles were filled through a talent search on Chinese TV.

Production in Hong Kong last year was disrupted by two extortion attempts, including an incident in which a man reportedly swung an air conditioner at Bay's head. One assailant in that incident was later sentenced to 30 months in prison.

The premiere "can be viewed as an indication of Asia's growing importance in the global industry — and that Hong Kong, as an extension of the China market was both convenient and meaningful for the venue," said Rance Pow, president of Shanghai-based film consultancy Artisan Gateway.

China is the world's second-biggest film market, with box-office revenues up by nearly a third in the first quarter after rising 27.5 per cent last year to $3.6 billion.

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AP writer Angela Chen contributed to this report.

Follow Kelvin Chan at twitter.com/chanman

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