Boom times for Chinese film, but what comes next?

Film moguls look to the future.

Two men in black stare out from the cover of the 25 February issue of Sanlian Life Week. On the right is Han Sanping, CEO of the China Film Group, the state-owned media giant that backed last winter's blockbuster The Warlords. Next to him is Wang Zhongjun, head of Huayi Brothers, a fast-rising, Li Ka-shing backed media company that produced The Assembly, which beat The Warlords at the domestic box-office.

The cover feature, "Chinese Cinema Recovers Lost Ground" is a lengthy investigation of the current state of the Chinese film industry. Domestic films have topped foreign films at the mainland box office for five years running, and annual revenue has been increasing by 25% per year. The small coverline reads "3,527 screens worth 5.1 billion RMB." Yet industry professionals are divided about the future direction of Chinese cinema.

Here's an analysis by Jiang Wei, general manager of EDKO Film Distribution, in which he talks about the importance of finding an audience, and states: "the vast majority of movies should not be filmed":

I believe that when you're developing the script during production, you ought to be very clearly positioned. I am filming this for an audience: what sort of films do ordinary audiences like? There are only three emotions that you can convey to ordinary audiences: you can make them happy, you can make them sad, or you can make them angry when you tell them the truth. When you lock up an audience in a theater for an hour or two, you are providing a sort of liberation to their mind and their soul. If the audience can let out their feelings through your movie, then I'd call it a good movie. But if there is a strong self-awareness in the creative process, then the film has problems. The biggest failure in distribution in 2007, I believe, was The Sun Also Rises. I think it's a good movie, but I didn't understand it.

When a film is put in front of you, you must first assess whether it's for the general public. Perhaps it's only for a particular audience. If you don't even accomplish this basic step, then the movies you shoot won't be appropriate for the marketplace. What I mean by "appropriate for the marketplace" is not a commercial or artistic differentiation; rather, it's whether or not a film is well-suited to the public. It is still possible for good movies, movies that set a high artistic standard, to be appropriate for the general public. Many filmmakers can't fit their brains around this 2007, Secret (不能说的·秘密), Flash Point (导火线), and Invisible Target (男儿本色) were worth looking at. They were not big-budget films, but they still performed well at the box office....

...Hollywood is always producer-centered; a director is only a general manager, not the top boss. There are very few Hollywood directors who have say over the final edit: this shows how commercialized things are. The rules of the market do not permit anyone to go outside the lines. Hollywood production has limited tolerance for deviation. For example, passing deadlines, going over-budget—under normal circumstances, these are absolutely not permitted. It is a strict system in which everyone plays according to the rules of the game.

Over here, writing and production is director-centered, to the point that the screenwriter, director, and producer are sometimes a single person. You cannot deny that some individuals may be all-around geniuses, but this speaks to the fact that things are not professional and detailed enough. For us, film production is stuck at a relatively early stage; for true commercial-oriented operation, we must break the director-centered system. If we wish to move in the direction of the market, then we need to give support to all areas of professional experience, and this is not doable if we rely solely on the ideas and abilities of a single individual. I think that the vast majority of movies should not be filmed. Before they are filmed, did anyone think about what the movie was being shot for? Everyone says, I'm shooting this for the marketplace, but have they truly worked out who it is that they are showing it to? The Sun Also Rises, for example, is a probing, personal film. I am able to accept and appreciate it, but can ordinary audiences accept and enjoy it? All of its problems came as a result of its mistaken initial positioning.

Elsewhere in the feature, Sanlian interviews directors Ning Hao (director of Crazy Stone) and Golden Lion award-winner Wang Xiaoshuai, as well as China Film Group head Han Sanping, who talks about the soft power of Chinese film, and how the industry is currently losing out to a more agile Hollywood:

What have we been doing the past few years? We have been transitioning China's film industry from the planned economy to become part of a market with Chinese characteristics. We've spent years preparing ideas, the market, policy, and production, we have finally been successful. This is one area of industry in one country that is being developed, and we are about to enter that industry. But we must pay careful attention to the questions of national identity and national characteristics that exist in that industry. In other words, how do we imbue works with Chinese characteristics, with Chinese-language characteristics? This is a big issue. It's a source of pressure and a challenge.

Sanlian: Why is it such a big issue?
Han Sanping: Movies are too universal. Film has a much stronger sense of universality than art forms like music, dance, fiction, culture, or visual arts. If they aren't handled well, then even though they might be Chinese in content, they will belong to another country's culture. Mulan, for example: Disney's Mulan won't necessarily satisfy Chinese people. Movies today need to be high-tech, but our science and technology lags behind. America's film industry is crossing national borders to obtain material without regard to the source or the culture. If we do not work hard, then everything could be completely appropriated by Hollywood.

Sanlian: When I interviewed Ang Lee, he mentioned the same issue. He believes that modernization means westernization, because the language of film was established by westerners.
Han Sanping: Ang Lee was talking about form; I am talking about content. I've read a screenplay written by an American about the Generals of the Yang Clan. How would you assess Mu Guiying and Yang Zongbao? That would involve aspects of culture: it has taken shape out of traditional morality. In this American's script, Mu Guiying kills Yang Zongbao for the interests of the country and of the people. This judgment obviously comes as a result of their particular standpoint, but why shouldn't we have them accept our value system instead of us always accepting theirs? Of course, they're the powerful ones now, but our efforts will eventually allow us to reach that point. Differences exist between the values and morals of China and the west. Good and bad, and right and wrong, are hard to distinguish, so we've got to work hard so that they'll have to accept us. Therefore, I believe that this value system should be expressed through film. This is an expression of China's soft power.

Han brushes aside questions about the censorship system, saying only, "The party is calling on us to open up our thinking further, but of course things will still move step by step."

Oriental Outlook, 2008.02.28

That statement was made in response to the Sanlian journalist's observation that in terms of subject matter and performance, things were freer in 2007 than they had ever been. Coincidentally, the same idea appears in the current issue of Oriental Outlook magazine. "Film censorship is more relaxed now than ever," reads the coverline underneath an image clipped from the poster for Lost in Beijing (which reportedly was still playing in theaters several weeks after being banned).

Oriental Outlook talked to Zheng Dongtian (郑洞天), a professor at the Beijing Film Academy who is also on SARFT's review committee. Much of the article is a retread of the wide-ranging cuts demanded of Lost in Beijing before it was released, but the magazine elicits a number of interesting anecdotes concerning the review process.

Wang Renyin (王人殷), the former editor of Film Art magazine who serves on the review committee as an "outside expert," uses Fragrant Vows (芬芳誓言, 2000) as an example when discussing Lost in Beijing's cuts:

After the first review of Lost in Beijing, the committee listed fifteen areas that needed to be cut or revised. One demanded that "all scenes in the film of political symbols such as Tian'anmen, statues of Chairman Mao, sales of Cultural Revolution era posters, and flag-raising ceremonies must be deleted."

Wan Renyin explained that special care must be taken in handling things like the statues of Chairman Mao, which could easily cause problems. "For example, the movie Fragrant Vows had a scene like this: two people are having sex on a bed. The next image is of a bust of Chairman Mao. Right afterward, they can't perform. What sort of impression does this give? Films are created by editing, and one plus one is not two - things get drawn out. That sort of scene is one we'd consider deleting."

Zheng reveals some behind-the-scenes information on why a ratings system is not likely to be implemented in the near future:

Actually, everyone on the review committee is hoping for a ratings system, but there's a sense that now is not the time—people feel that once movies are rated, there will be ambiguity, that the rating system is so that people can do sex and violence, Cat III films...I participated in two drafting discussions, and something was written out five or six years ago. At first there were three grades, but then it was cut down to two because they felt that the designation "Category III" wasn't appropriate for China. Now, no one is willing to start anything for fear of future problems.

And he discusses the question of homosexuality:

Zheng Dongtian told Oriental Outlook that there aren't any formal, detailed rules on this issue, but his judgment is, "the entire movie, from start to finish, cannot be a single homosexual love story." That is why films like Happy Together, Lan Yu, and Brokeback Mountain could not be shown in mainland theaters. And the Spring Comes, although it shows a homosexual relationship, does not "simply tell a homosexual love story from start to finish," so it passed the censors.

So why was 2007 the most permissive year for film? Zheng Dongtian justifies that judgment by pointing to the fact that the board is rejecting fewer movies. In his four-year tenure he only recalls rejecting Summer Palace and a Hong Kong triad film (possibly Jiang Hu, which was rejected in 2004). He also points to Li Yang's Blind Mountain as a good example of the censors' leniency. That film was given the go-ahead, unlike the director's earlier effort, Blind Shaft.

However, Blind Mountain reportedly had to alter its downer of an ending, in which a father goes on a murderous rampage when he is unable to recover his daughter who is being held against her will in a small village. The approved ending was more socially-responsible: with the help of the police, the father is able to rescue his daughter from the village where she is being held. Zheng points out that in a nod to social realities, the raid takes place at night, because the police are too underpowered to face the villagers during the daytime.

Wang Renyin concurs with Zheng's assessment, noting that many of the movies that have made it to screens in recent years would not have been approved in an earlier era. Crazy Stone is the example she uses (although that wasn't a 2007 film). She concludes, "So long as a film doesn't have any political problems," it will be approved.

Links and Sources
There are currently 6 Comments for Boom times for Chinese film, but what comes next?.

Comments on Boom times for Chinese film, but what comes next?

Blind Mountain's so-called 'downer of an ending' was not of the father on a murderous rampage, but of -- hey wait a minute --

Is Zheng giving away the END of the movie to can make a point?


Ah, the magic of movies, and those who nurture them along.

Blind Mountain's ending was, I thought, terrific. Yes, the downer version. Haven't seen the other version. Might be grateful for it, because the downer version is so very sad. Of course the power of the film derives is anchored in the last shot of the film.

"For us, film production is stuck at a relatively early stage; for true commercial-oriented operation, we must break the director-centered system."

Oh, dear God, please, no!

Nothing like patronising the (ordinary?!?) audience:
"There are only three emotions that you can convey to ordinary audiences: you can make them happy, you can make them sad, or you can make them angry when you tell them the truth."

I can name half a dozen more emotions without even thinking about it.

As someone once said about Hollywood: nobody knows anything

"Domestic films have topped foreign films at the mainland box office for five years running, and annual revenue has been increasing by 25% per year."

When you limit the number of foreign films playing in China,---only picking the "safe" general audience ones at that---and on top of that if counterfeit copies were taken into account foreign films would absolutely top the domestic nonsense. This statistic is pure hogwash!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The statistic is at best accurate-ish... It is a number derived by manipulating market forces. Regulation and practice are tipped heavily to favor Chinese films.

Even with handicap of 20 films a year, foreign films would still beat out Chinese films.

But they don't because:

1. Black-out periods shut out foreign films entirely, during peak seasons.

2. Shorter release windows of high-grossing foreign films vs longer release windows for Chinese films.

3. Favorable advertising practices for Chinese films. (Pretty sure about this, although I don't have a reg in front of me).

4. Possible tinkering with receipts reported. (Both ways: Chinese tweak up, foreign films distributors tweak down)

That said, the foreign releases still are allowed to do well. Whether that is a comfort or an outrage depends on your perspective.

Personally I want to see strong Chinese filmmakers. I am indifferent on the need for ANACONDA 3 or whatever to do great here. Making a film here is like navigating a mine field.

Having a little market protectionism that favors Chinese tentpoles doesn't seem so bad to me. Not like Hollywood doesn't have multiple tiers of protectionism built into their system.

And Chinese production values are improving -- in part because of the protectionism, one can argue, because they know they can make their money back. WARLORDS and THE ASSEMBLY, I thought, were very impressive. These are large scale, audience driven films. And we did see a lot of smaller and independent domestic films flow in to fill the gaps around the big ticket films, which I think is good.

Note that WARLORDS was actually a coproduction -- a joint-production with foreign finance and talent that is treated like a domestic film for distribution purposes. Most of the biggest films you see in China, are in fact, made with foreign partners.

The Chinese Producers are so bent on trying to compete with Hollywood and want to set up a more "commercial" product, yet they are concerned with "cultural" significance as if the two can actually mix well. I hate to say it, but the Chinese Producers sound more like the stereotypical as$h*le Hollywood Producer - I guess they are well on their way to becoming competitive with Hollywood.

China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
From 2008
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Culture and corporate propaganda in Soho Xiaobao (2007.11): Mid-2007 issues of Soho Xiaobao (SOHO小报), illustrating the complicated identity of in-house magazines run by real estate companies.
+ Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship (2010.03): Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship at an officially sanctioned meeting in Shenzhen.
+ Crowd-sourced cheating on the 2010 gaokao (2010.06): A student in Sichuan seeks help with the ancient Chinese section of this year's college entrance exam -- while the test is going on!
Danwei Archives