Love, Love You You, Love On Credit, Love in Space, Love Never Dies, and Love is Not Blind are the English titles of some of the films released in China in 2011. They indicate the direction the popular cinema in China is taking. Going to the cinema in 2011 was like listening to a lecture about the subject of love. The films had increasingly absurd narratives which, in the majority of cases, told stories about a China that doesn’t exist for anyone apart from the lucky few. Set in the big cities, and using photographic trickery, they have an almost science-fiction-like appearance. The films mainly tell the tales of young yuppies and heirs to great fortunes who drift from home to work and from restaurants to clubs. They all feature an excessive display of prosperity -- ostentation has become a genuine obsession in China, if you take into account the fact that in the past year the sale of luxury items has increased by 28 per cent.
It seems that a gradual increase in financial and technological know-how goes hand-in-hand with a drying up of the creative juices. As professor Gary Xu, a Chinese culture and art academic, has commented: “You note a change of style which is aiming straight for Hollywood, with a faster pace and a greater number of scenes. But the movement is fragmented, with characterisation losing out. The characters are hollow from start to finish because there is no chance to flesh them out. They are characters without a face, recognisable only because they are played by stars.” With a chronic lack of theatres destined for auteur films, it is increasingly difficult to resolve the contradiction between the needs of the market and art films. Commercial films are, on average, better on a technical level than they used to be. But they are inadequate in terms of narrative and stylistic innovation. Until recently, only a few films were selected by international festivals because the majority of films produced within the system were propaganda, or rudimentary on a technical and narrative level. Only underground films – shot independently by talented young filmmakers – could qualify for festivals. Censorship saw to it that they were never seen in their homeland. The current situation with popular cinema is the opposite, although it’s equally difficult for festival programmers and serious film fans. Propaganda films have become a minority and the films distributed on the theatre circuit are technically acceptable. But the superficiality and repetitiveness of the narratives removes all individuality, and renders them just as unsuitable for festivals. Despite this general lack of originality, the film industry has grown. That follows the trend of the past few years. 791 films were produced last year, covering a range of genres. Around a third of the films produced received theatre distribution. One of the funniest films of the year was the romantic The Pretending Lovers by Liu Fengdou, which starred the irresistible Huang Bo. The demented No Liar No Cry by Xu Chuanghai, and My Own Swordsman by Shang Jing, with Yao Chen, the only genuine Chinese comedienne, were also very funny. The thriller/horror genre has grown in popularity, too, despite limits imposed by the censors – supernatural elements are still frownwd upon, for instance, in a hangover from Maoist attempts to modernise Chinese thought. Mysterious Island, by Chung Kai-cheung, was one of the year’s box-office smashes. It was made on a budget of 5 million rmb and took 90 million rmb at the box office. The Man Behind the Courtyard House by Fei Xing was acclaimed by the critics.
A standout action film was He-Man by Ding Shen, the sequel to his The Underdog Knight. Both star Liu Ye in the tough role of a young man who loses his mental stability in the wake of an accident, but is firmly set on restoring order to society nonetheless. Costume/martial arts films included My Kingdom by Gao Xiaosong. Its big-screen release was delayed for a few months following the arrest of the director who was involved in a drink-driving car accident. The film gave a sheen of glamour to the eternal subject of friendship and fidelity. It was set in the world of Beijing opera at the start of the 20th century. As for films with an ethnic setting, The Sun Beaten Path (by Tibetan director Sonthar Gyal), and Kora by Du Jiayi, have proved that spectacular settings can help drive a film’s narrative rather than simply act as ornaments.
Box-office takings exceeded 13 billion rmb (2 billion US dollars), with home-grown productions representing 54 per cent of that total. Chinese films distributed abroad brought in 2 billion rmb. The highest grossing Chinese film of the year was The Flowers of War, the new epic by Zhang Yimou, which is based on the Nanjing massacre of 1937. At the time of writing, the film is still being screened. It has so far taken more than 500 million rmb at the box office. On 31 December 2011, there were eighteen films that had registered takings over 100 million rmb. Of the 50 highest grossers, twenty-two are Hong Kong productions or co-productions, a noteworthy fact which reflects the growing integration of the film industry in continental China and the former British colony. A similar process of integration is taking place with Taiwan. The boom in co-productions with continental China is breathing new life into the island’s film industry, if you take into consideration the enormous success in the continental market of co-productions such as Starry Starry Night by Tom Lin, and Kora and Love by Doze Niu. Small to medium budget pictures played a positive role in the overall box office results. Some were huge, unexpected hits. While a film like The Flowers of War has so far only recouped its production costs – at 600 million rmb, it had the biggest budget in the history of Chinese cinema – other films have earned ten times their budgets, signalling the entry of a new generation of auteurs into the celluloid empyrean. This is an important fact, considering the progressive “Hollywoodisation” of the film industry, where financing comes from financial institutions which, having no specific expertise in the field of films, will only entrust their money to already established filmmakers. This had led to a lack of opportunity for young filmmakers.
The romantic comedy Love Is Not Blind by Teng Huatao, produced on a budget of 8.9 million rmb, earned 350 million rmb, the drama Buddha Mountain by Li Yu (FEFF 2011) grossed 70 million, and the thriller Mysterious Island totalled 90 million. The unexpected success of these films will certainly lead to new opportunities for their filmmakers. But it remains to be seen if they will be able to their maintain creative autonomy. Overall, the film industry grew by 29 per cent on the previous year. Even if the percentage rise is notably lower than the previous year’s (+64 per cent) – due in part to the absence of a film like Avatar, a massive box-office hit in China – the country is still the third in the world in terms of takings. It has multiplied its market value six fold in only five years. Some predict that in 2012, China will be second only to the USA, with the possibility of overtaking it in seven or eight years. Participation by Western stars in Chinese productions or co-productions is a sign of the globalisation of the film industry. There was Kevin Spacey Inseparable (directed by Dayyan Eng}, Sam Neill in The Dragon Pearl, Hugh Jackman in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and Christian Bale in The Flowers of War. Actors of the calibre of Adrien Brody, Tim Robbins and Keanu Reeves are also appearing in films being made in China. There are also some English-language films intended for the global market. In the first half of 2011, there was great fanfare over the founding of a joint venture between Huayi Brothers and Legendary Pictures LLD specifically for the production of films in the English language. The project quickly faded away. But the other major Chinese film group, Bona Film Group, signed up for two English-language co-productions with Hollywood in 2012. Another new feature is the tendency to use foreign settings in Chinese films. This is noticeable in features such as A Big Deal (directed by Ma Liwen), The Pretending Lovers and Dear Enemy, directed by Xu Jinglei. This trend appeals to new the Chinese middle class’s growing desire for exoticism. It’s a sign of China’s gradual integration with the rest of the world. Returning to market growth, the habit of concentrating the most spectacular new releases into the so-called “harvest period” – the end of year festivities – has stopped working. Indeed, it creates what some have defined as “aesthetic overdrive”. The simultaneous presence of films such as The Flowers of War and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate by Tsui Hark, released a few hours apart, was advantageous to neither and most certainly adversely affected other mid-budget films released during the same festive period. The success of The Flowers of War – which had already been shown on the sly in a 22-seater theatre for a week in September so that it would be eligible to represent China at the Oscars as Best Foreign Film, even though it was not selected – risked being compromised by the “diplomatic” incident involving Christian Bale who, during his promotional tour for the film in China, clashed with the police during his visit to a noted human rights activist on house arrest.
The film was also at the centre of another controversy before its release, due to the producer insisting that the minimum ticket price be increased because of the film’s quality. But following this, the Film Bureau announced a probable reduction in cinema ticket prices in general. These have reached levels beyond the reach of the average Chinese worker’s salary. Indeed, the average price of a ticket is 35 rmb, equivalent to around 2 per cent of the average national income pro-capita, a cost which can even triplicate in major cities. This encourages the spread of pirate DVDs and downloads.
It is opportune to mention the growing popularity of filmmakers whose videos – normally shorts – are so far only available on the web. It is mainly non-professional directors, such as the Chopstick Brothers, whose films about serious, real life issues win widespread acclaim from internet users. The popularity of their films – viewed tens of millions of times on the web – emphasises the chasm between the repetitive colossi set in the past and films that deal with real issues of modern day society. Young people’s know-how with audio-visual products on the internet is perfectly matched with the creative flexibility, sincerity and originality of these young filmmakers. Confirming the popularity of this new type of film, the Chopstick Brothers’ most famous video Old Boys – a nostalgic picture on the delusions of youth and the reality of adult life – is soon to be adapted for the big screen.
With regards to the narrowing gap between cinema and new media – accessible thanks to ever faster internet connections in one of the nations with the most internet users in the world, as well as the wider use of computers, televisions connected to the web and smart phones – the inclusion of a competition for short films produced on mobile phones at the Shanghai International Film Festival 2011 is noteworthy. (The new Beijing Film Festival, announced at the start of the year to great fanfare, turned out to be – probably due to the organisers’ inexperience – a mainly self-celebratory event, too orientated towards sector bureaucracy.)
The government has recently announced measures regarding the building of multi-screen cinemas, which are increasing all over the country in an excessive and chaotic manner. They are a source of sure-fire and immediate returns. In 2011, an average of eight screens were inaugurated each day. The nation is now served by over 9,000 screens which, compared to 6,200 in 2010, is an increase of 45 per cent. But the growth potential is still enormous when you bear in mind how many provincial towns still don’t have a multiplex. In particular, the growth of 3D screens is justified if you consider that of the ten biggest box-office takers, six were distributed in 3D. Overall, 30 films were released in this format in 2011, earning 5 billion rmb, or 40 per cent of the total box-office takings.
The director Feng Xiaogang did not contribute to the 2011 end-of-year bonanza this time. He is busy on the production of 1942, a melodrama about the drought that struck the province of Henan that year. Feng failed to release his traditional “hesuipian” (end-of-year comedy). Many predict that his new film, based on the novel Remembering 1942 and on the production line for many years, will be one of the most important works in his career. He is still one of the best-loved by the Chinese public. In the meantime, the Huayi Brothers – the company that has produced all of Feng Xiaogang’s films – has announced the production of various television series based on the director’s films. It will start with If You Are the One - starring Huang Bo in the role played by Ge You on the big screen - and Aftershock, with the actress Chen Xiaoyi in the role previously portrayed by Xu Fan.
2011 signalled the 90th anniversary of the foundation of the Communist Party of China (CPC). This predictably led to a series of films celebrating the event. The first was Beginning of the Great Revival, directed by Han Sanping and Huang Jianxin, as was the previous The Founding of a Republic, which was produced for the 60th anniversary of the PRC. It featured the top level of the Chinese star system, and included a surprise appearance by the actress Tang Wei, who was “re-embraced” by the film industry after being boycotted due to her taking part in the controversial Ang Lee film Lust, Caution. (Tang Wei’s scene in Beginning was eventually cut in the editing phase, having been viewed as unnecessary.) The film was an extraordinary success at the box office – 412 million rmb – but it didn’t equal its predecessor in terms of critical approval and appreciation by the general public. Viewers are probably already weary of the propaganda/entertainment formula. As for imported films, Kung-fu Panda II – defined by some in the Chinese media as “ a love letter from Hollywood to China” – was a huge hit (608 million rmb). Just like the preceding Kung-fu Panda I, it was denounced to the cultural authorities by the artist Xiao Bandi, who accused it of using Chinese symbols to promote America values. The controversy once again raised the question of why China, the world leader in the production of animated films – in 2010 it produced 220,000 minutes of animation – is unable to create a blockbuster in the Kung-fu Panda mould. In recent years, only the animated series The Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf has received adequate national distribution. The experts believe that the animation industry does not dedicate sufficient time and energy to training professional screenwriters and directors. Some clamour for the return of the techniques which made cartoons from the 1950s and 1960s famous. They were hand-drawn using traditional Chinese ink printing.
Indeed, a 3D remake of The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven, the famous animated film made in the 1960s by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, is about to be released. Special effects and Western symphonic music have been added to complement the original soundtrack of traditional Chinese music. To underline the potential of the market for animated pictures in China, it appears that Dreamworks Animation, which made Kung-fu Panda, is about to open a studio in Shanghai for the co-production of animated films. A small but significant piece of news during the year was the announcement made by the Bona Film Group. In order to remedy the persistent flaws in the film classification system – the famous censorship law under discussion for years has yet to be approved, although this hasn’t hindered a progressive loosening of the censorial grip – it has decided to apply its own three category classification system, similar to the one used on Hong Kong. The system, which will only be applied to films which have already received distribution approval by the Film Bureau, will have no legal value, but it will begin to get the public accustomed to being more aware about choosing films suitable for various age groups.
To conclude the summary of popular cinema in China in 2011, it is opportune to look at film production within the wider prospective of the country’s growing importance on the world stage. Also, one should note another comment by Gary Xu on the growing relevance of the cultural industry as part of the strategy for China to open itself up to the world. “The films you see about China, from China and in China are not merely Chinese films, but are always part of the global “performance” by China,” Xu says.