An end to costume epics?

Feng Xiaogang's The Banquet and Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower were shut out of the foreign language Oscar shortlist this week. At roughly the same time as that announcement, Guangming Daily ran a report from SARFT that aims to discourage the copycat costume epics that, in SARFT's language, "gain audiences but not applause":

A SARFT representative explained that domestic blockbusters should be mainstream blockbusters; they should give prominence to a mainstream ideology, pursue top-level production, enter the mainstream market, gain the approval of the mases, and create good results and profits. Domestic blockbusters should not solely seek to enlarge the scale of production and size of investment, nor should they one-sidely pursue homogeneity in subject matter and genre. The spirit of advanced culture and harmonious culture needs to be unified into a single entity with artistic pursuit and commercialized operation. For this reason, there must be a concerted effort to bring an end to the problem of individual commercial blockbusters overlooking human emotions and cultural content - the problem of gaining audiences but not applause...add more emotion toward relatives, friends, hometown, and loved ones, and reduce the amount of mutual slaughter, the flashing of knives and spraying of blood; do more blockbusters on modern subject matter and everyday life to attract audiences at home and abroad, and less on ancient palace strife.

The same article said that over the next two years SARFT will fund films by young directors to help them expand their influence in the market.

Today's The Beijing News has an essay by the critic Bo Ming called "Why send 'the same movie' to the Oscars?" that agrees in part with SARFT's assessment of the current crop of blockbusters (is there anyone who thinks another year of palace dramas would be a good thing?), but offers up a reason for their selection as award candidates. Over a year ago, Bo wrote a similar piece for the Southern Metropolis Daily called "The meaning of an 'Oscar Campaign' isn't the Oscar." Nothing has changed, it seems - just a replacement of The Promise by The Banquet and Curse of the Golden Flower:

Why send "the same movie" to the Oscars?

On 17 January, Beijing time, the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the shortlist of films in consideration for nomination for the Best Film in a Foreign Language at the 79th annual Academy Awards. Nine films were named. Played up most by the Chinese media was, of course, the fact that Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower and Feng Xiaogang's The Banquet were left out. Before I accepted the editor's invitation to write this article, I read a very comical news report online under the headline "Banquet and Golden Flower out of Oscars, both directors unfazed." I was astounded - this counts as news? For the two directors to be unfazed is incredibly normal; if they were to think that the Oscars had no taste then that'd be news. Most laughable was the fact that this piece of news had no interview with either director at all. Of course, this demonstrates that our reporter comrade understands reasoning and empathy and must feel that were this to happen to him (or her), he (or she) would definitely be "unfazed."

I bring up this example because I want to say that Banquet and Golden Flower missing the Oscars is not actually big news at all. What's worth mentioning about this event is not their failure, but rather, to wonder at why China has sent "the same film" to the Oscars and Golden Globes these past few years.

To say that very few people believed that Banquet and Golden Flower would make the Oscars list is self-awareness rather than self-abasement, for the so-called "Oscar campaign" in the movie world is from head to tail a commercial show. The goal is nothing more than hyping up a movie; the momentary aim is conversation and promotion, and the ultimate target is box-office: money! This is not a function of the movie's own strengths. The competition over selecting which movie to put up for the Foreign Film Oscar has no quantifiable measurement of strength or skill. Anyone who wants to play can apply. But only blockbusters that represent the economic force and technical levels of Chinese cinema are able to play the game and be sent onward. What blockbusters care about in their Oscar campaigns is buzz, and they aim make gains at the box-office through their reputation. However, there are some things that when you believe them to be important will actually become important. So people in the movie business "fish for votes" and describe the advantages of their movie's Oscar campaign. In actuality, this misses the target entirely. Even if we truly believed you, our enthusiasm doesn't translate into action, since we cannot cast votes!

And precisely because the movies that can play the game are all blockbusters - in the last few years in particular, historical blockbusters - the following joke about Chinese movies' Oscar campaigns circulates in the movie business: once, a Chinese person asked an Oscar judge why Chinese movies have failed to be selected over the last few years despite being submitted every time. The judge responded, you submit the same movie every year, only you change the name! Though this is a joke, it's a fact the Chinese movies submitted to the Oscars in the past few years have all been historical blockbusters. Indeed, each year those one or two blockbusters have made up half of the Chinese box-office and represent Chinese moviemaking at its highest technical level. But is it normal to have one or two of the same sort of movie dominate the domestic box-office every year - doesn't this indicate that China's commercial movies are homogenous, short of creativity, and enamored with size?

Looking over the selections for this year's Foreign Film Oscar: they all are grounded art films that stress the warmth and embrace of humanity on top of a foundation that diverges from mainstream Hollywood commercial film; one-note displays of foreignness do not play a decisive role. Compared to movies like The Lives of Others and Volver that made the short list this year, it is not hard to spot the critical flaw of the Chinese-style blockbuster - lack of human emotion. Fortunately, more and more people are coming to realize that this unending recycling is nothing good, and even the leadership has said: do not one-sidedly chase after a single form and genre!

So in a way, it seems the Americans aren't as coldly calculating as they could be! If every year they gave a Best Foreign Film award to one of our historical blockbusters, then within five years Chinese cinema would be awash in big costume dramas - once audiences became tired of that aesthetic, the Chinese film market would be snatched up by Hollywood - what a cruel stroke! Think about it - we should actually be grateful that the Americans haven't given us tickets to the Academy Awards! Thank you, Oscar!

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There are currently 3 Comments for An end to costume epics?.

Comments on An end to costume epics?

what's that movie called that was out earlier this year? one leg standing? now that should have been china's oscar entry - would have been shortlisted imho.

The awards committee has finally seen these movies as copycat "5000 years of glorious history" hot air.

Funny that "cell phone" or "world without thieves" hasn't been released to international audiences.

But costume dramas are still the best way to get around censors for moviemakers to make comments about today's government or crime.

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