If the label of ‘the Chinese Spielberg’ can in some ways only refer to one of his films (Assembly [Jijie Hao], a sort of Saving Private Ryan set between the civil war and the Korean one), the journey taken by Feng Xiaogang has so far been one of an artist of commercial cinema, but one who has walked somewhat off the beaten path, all the time respecting genres and trends, but differentiating himself from the crowd even when (after a brief period as an ‘independent’ auteur) he chose to adhere to the dominant methods of production. The inventor of the classic New Year’s releases (known as hesuipian) and of the new wave of rom-coms, he has managed to nail a series of major grossers – beginning with his unusual second film The Dream Factory (Jiafang Yifang), a success story which he immediately replicated with Be There or Be Square (Bujian Busan), shot entirely in the USA, as proof of how two hemispheres can contaminate each other in ways that are not only positive; following the triumph of the astounding action satire A World Without Thieves (Tianxia Wuzei), his cinematic ode to St.Valentine’s If You Are the One (Feicheng Wurao) beat all records in 2008; in 2010 his sincere, heart-felt spectacular disaster movie in 3D Aftershock (Tangshan Da Dizhen) was one of the top earners at the box office; last year, his new outing as an auteur, I Am Not Madame Bovary (Wo Bu Shi Pan Jin Lian), was crowned a success even by the spectators. Even when he has managed to garner impressive figures at the box-office, Feng has never abandoned the idea of holding up a critical mirror to national customs, despite having to become an expert at circumventing the censors and winning the relative approval of both the State and the rival groups of distributors and film theatre owners. A notable actor and one of the most prolific and inventive director-producer-screenwriters, Feng is able to structure the phrasing of his scenes, keeping the vitality of the biting and original spirit, even when pandering to the tastes of the masses for many of his works; his cinema is light-hearted, ironic, eclectic and spectacular, a pinch of Hollywood, with a huge dose of traditional Chinese aesthetics. He has been behind films that have skillfully dissected the tangled web of the emerging middle-classes, as well as those that delve into history (such as the sumptuous The Banquet [Yeyan], a tortured, complex piece that stoked a lot of controversy and which cemented his status as an auteur) to decipher the political confusion of the most recent period in contemporary China. Feng Xiaogang made his first feature film in 1994 (following a long stint cutting his teeth in TV), and his second already caused a stir, making a great impact. He worked with a group of his regular actors, but also with some of the biggest stars of the time: the fact that Feng has never stopped acting for other directors has meant that he is instilled with that talent required to explore and capture the physicality of stars who, through artistic hunger, express all the contradictions and conflicts of existence. He has maintained an ongoing working relationship with two important writers, Wang Shuo (who contributed in elaborating the caustic style of Feng’s early comedies, and was also his partner in his first outings in independent productions) and Liu Zhenyun (based on his own works, he scripted two very personal films – both major hits – Cell Phone [Shouji], a satire on sexism, and I Am Not Madame Bovary [Wo Bu Shi Pan Jin Lian], a splendid portrait of a female character not at peace with the world around her, as well as the ambitious, audacious and successful Back to 1942 [Yijiusier], a moral take on the painful events of famine and the rural exodus, a blend of a war film, an unequivocal melodrama and an arthouse film); it is partly thanks to these collaborators that Feng’s form and style have progressively become richer, more complex, offering the spectator critical notations, often directly aimed at them, mitigating the didactic goal with a lightness of touch and sensitivity to the poetry of gestures and emotions. Every time he has experimented with new technologies, he has bent them to the whims of his unparalleled linguistic solutions. Throughout sixteen feature films, some TV series and made-for-TV films (all in less than twenty-five years), Feng has become a sensational example, in the history of ‘popular’ Chinese cinema, of a director who has managed to connect in an intense and lasting manner to very different categories of spectators. Feng Xiaogang’s style, which within the same film can be both ironic and airy as well as emotional and engrossing, has developed coherently though a mise-en-scene as precise as it is immediate, making the best of the contribution of actors who react, clash, move, live in the most natural of ways on the big screen. His directorial outings in the past few years have provided proof positive of this filmic identity, which goes way beyond the visual strategies of cookie-cutter cinema, and even in his most ‘patriotic’ feature films, he has distanced himself from the rigidity of the codes and rules of official cinema. No other contemporary Chinese director has managed to craft such authentically popular films which, at the same time, reveal a surprisingly unique identity. His influence on Chinese cinema is significant – and not only on the new forms of comedy in all its guises, or on fantasy and action movies; Feng Xiaogang’s oeuvre is not easy to pigeon- hole, due to his films’ ability to swing between contrasting conventional categories: classic crowd-pleasers/auteur films, comedy/melodramas, Hollywood legends/ Chinese tales. This knack of evading classification means he will undoubtedly continue to pull more than a few surprises out of his hat in the years to come.
Marco Mueller