Cinespect Presents: “Letters from Beijing” – January, 2011
Published on January 4th, 2011 | by China Aperture0
Cinespect Presents: “Letters from Beijing,” a new feature that focuses on notable trends and news in film from China. “Letters” is part of a planned series that looks at trends and news in established and emerging film capitals.
In this first part of a two part series our industry insider looks at films already released in some fashion in the U.S. (e.g. an international co-production, a disaster film) as well as films yet to be released in the U.S. in order to find social, cultural and economic points of interest amongst the most significant films made in China in 2010.
For those who like to keep a lookout at potential theatrical and festival releases or for the extra curious viewer that aims to be in the know on all things film around the world, this is a must read.
In what industry observers have recently come to expect at the end of every year, China last week once again reported predictably astounding growth in annual box office revenue. Rising from 6.21 billion RMB in 2009, 2010’s total box office take will cross the 10 billion RMB mark. Already one of the top international markets for films, there seems to be nothing in the way to slow the boom. Cinema screens are being built at breakneck pace and funds continue to float in abundance for the many film projects poised to take advantage of the Chinese audience’s insatiable appetite. However, putting the film scene under a microscope reveals that all is not just a homogenous expanse of profit and numbers. There was a diverse range of films made this year and many different trends percolating, each influenced by myriad social and cultural factors. Ranked in no particular order, this snapshot of the 10 most notable films to change the face of Chinese films last year is neither a box office survey of the top grossing films nor is it necessarily a list of the most artistically accomplished. Instead, it aims to unpack some of the emerging movements surrounding the current film renaissance and to capture China during a phase that will be looked back in history as a pivotal juncture in the development of this film giant.
The Chinese share with their counterparts in other countries a love of disaster movies. From “Independence Day” to ”2012,” the sight of monuments collapsing and humanity under siege seems to strike a universal chord of escapism that crosses all cultural boundaries. One of the undisputed box office champions in China this year with a monster gross of $97.8M is “Aftershock,” about the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. While the effects are top-rate and many audiences took in the destruction on giant IMAX screens, this is not just another disaster movie but one that delicately approaches two of the most poignant tragedies in recent Chinese memory – the 1976 earthquake at the center of the story and the more recent and still painful 2008 Sichuan earthquake that is also featured in the film. Structured as an unabashed melodrama about sacrifice and healing, the great impact of the film commercially and in the conversations of everyday people demonstrates that even a form of entertainment has the power to unite people. More so than any other film this year, if weighed by shared public sentiment expressed, this is the most quintessentially Chinese film. Its director, the current golden boy of Chinese cinema (he also has a more light-hearted film released this year, a sequel to the box-office smash romantic comedy “If You Are the One”), box-office sure bet Feng Xiaogang, has declared that the film was made for his people and does not believe that foreigners would appreciate the feelings expressed. This is a sharp contrast from some years back when there was frustration in some quarters that his high-minded imperial drama “The Banquet” did not elevate him to the ranks of internationally known, film festival-feted Chinese directors such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige.
It seems that contemporary Chinese film is growing in maturity, and like any other great film-producing nation, has realized that it makes movies for its own people first and foremost, and not for the validation of international awards. Feng, for instance, has publicly stated that this film has little chance in the Foreign Film Category of the Academy Awards where it has been submitted, because foreign voters simply would not identify with the film. However, judging from the success of films in its category that played on the same melodramatic elements, Feng may perhaps get a pleasant surprise when the nominations are announced.
Go Lala Go
The explosion in the purchasing power of China’s middle class has consumer brands around the world salivating, and breezy “Go Lala Go,” a buffet spread of upwardly mobile ideals, will whet those appetites even further. Featuring a parade of product placements including automobiles, computers, chocolate, and even a tropical holiday destination, the film is a yuppie fantasy based on a huge bestseller which shares the film’s original Chinese title, “A Diary of Du Lala’s (the story’s perky heroine) Professional Advancement.”
In a sharp turn from her more personal and arthouse-flavored work as director (her adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s “Letter from an Unknown Woman” – source material last tackled by Max Ophuls – won the directing prize at San Sebastian), actress-director Xu Jinglei casts herself as Lala, an open-hearted and hardworking entry level worker bee in the Beijing office of a U.S. multinational. The tone is aggressively modern, with constantly bright and sleek scenes of the modern Beijing dream that Lala aspires towards rendered in quick cuts and split screens. The plot proper is a version of the time-tested concept that has worked for films ranging from “Working Girl” to “The Devil Wears Prada” – through wit and industry, the new girl rises to the top of the food chain despite having to deal with an imperious boss and the inconvenience of romancing a professional associate. There is no question once the first scene unfolds that Lala’s story is headed for a Hollywood happy ending while making the predictably requisite plot turns along the way. It’s not necessarily a trend-starter of this genre in China either – the Chinese remake of “Ugly Betty,” a similar rags-to-riches story, took off like wildfire a few years ago. The film nonetheless coincides with a post-Olympics, new decade zeitgeist of China’s indisputable prominence in this century. Taking a step back, one has to consider that the original novel itself is not simply a book that sold very well; instead, it’s almost a bible for girls who want to achieve Lala’s dreams, and has spawned endless talk show topics and newspaper editorials. Although set within the framework of a novel, it really is a how-to guide to better the competition and rise to new heights. Following that, China’s economic miracle has transcended eye-catching GDP numbers and trickled down to the widespread filmic representation of everyday people realizing the “white collar” dream (other similarly themed films this year include Alexi Tan’s “Color Me Love,” with a Cinderella storyline that revolves around not one but two glamorous industries – art and magazine publishing). Factories may have propelled economic growth in earlier years, but sitting in a cushy office before an Apple computer has become the most desired situation of college graduates across the country.
The Karate Kid
Following recent trends in Chinese cinema, this year again featured prominent East-West co-productions, with the remake of “The Karate Kid” presenting an interesting jumping off point for analysis. The cultural context for this ostensibly simple Hollywood popcorn fare is actually loaded and complex. The original 1984 film took place during a time of growing curiosity about the dominant Asian economic superpower of that decade, Japan. At a time when that terribly exotic food, sushi, was making its way to an increasing number of American malls, that film offered if not insights than at least superficial peeks into the concepts of sensei, dojo, and well, karate. Cut to 2010, China has become the Asian power to be contended with, and along comes a mainstream movie that condenses a culture still faraway and mysterious to many Westerners into digestible, unchallenging feature-length form. The international box-office success of the film guarantees that the travelogue-style shots of Chinese scenery will have more people researching China vacations – in a modest way, as an accessible piece of entertainment, it might influence younger minds to be more receptive to the culture, at least in this polished and whitewashed form. Jackie Chan, the most well-known Asian star in the West, and Jaden Smith, offspring of the Western film world’s Everyman Will Smith, were perfectly suited to be the guides into this new world.
The film’s reception in China examines the other side of the coin. The animated “Kung Fu Panda” was a wild success in China two years ago, but it also unleashed debate about whether a team of foreign writers and animators were qualified to mold elements of Chinese culture into a movie. At the time, there were loud lamentations that the Chinese themselves were a long way off from shaping their culture into one that could reach mass audiences around the globe. “The Karate Kid,” as a co-production between U.S. and Chinese companies, necessarily involved a larger amount of Chinese input, and the consensus here is that the Chinese have made great leaps in taking charge of their own narratives that are presented before Western eyes. The beats and rhythm of the film may be pure Hollywood, but Chinese critics praised the themes of honor and determination littered throughout. And yet, audience numbers were not as great as one would expect considering the setting and how well the film performed in other territories. Some placed the blame on the timing of the film’s release in the midst of the World Cup, but a probable factor might also have been the material itself, which some saw as bending over backwards to feature China without the warts. It’ll be a long journey before East and West can be perfectly harmonized in a film, but “The Karate Kid” is at least a move in a direction towards presenting an agreeable picture of contemporary China while handling its more hokey and exotic elements with self-awareness . This stands in contrast to the underwhelming reception to another co-production, the elaborate period thriller “Shanghai,” which while artfully photographed, set designed, and cast with big stars Gong Li, Chow Yun-Fat and John Cusack, seemed like a throwback to a time when movies about the sensual and unknowable East were made without irony.
The non-existent reaction in China to Li Hongqi’s “Winter Vacation,” the only Chinese film to win Best Film at a top-tier film festival this year (Locarno), demonstrates the continued gulf between local reception and the international acclaim of festival films. To a larger extent, the situation also highlights the lack of even a modest audience for arthouse cinema, especially in relation to the size of the population and how this population has contributed to the robust state of mainstream cinema. Putting quality aside – indeed there are seasoned arthouse audience members that considered Li’s film, about an idle group of friends passing time in a lonely town during the holidays, intolerably dull – the lack of interest in putting a film like this out in public and opening a discourse among audiences points to a dangerous homogenization of tastes. Granted, a film dominated by static camera set-ups and long shots is a tough sell in any country, but even the smallest theatrical release would have helped get a conversation going about what Chinese audiences think about the state of the country’s artistic identity in the global sphere. While the film has popped up at screenings run by arts centers, one of the biggest obstacles in reaching more audiences is the lack of available screens for even a week-long theatrical run. Even as the number of screens increases by the day, attention paid to the bottomline means that a limited number of commercially strong films are packed into the schedule. Only occasionally, would an exhibitor make space on a small number of screens to show an art house film, such as the case of “Vegetate,” a drama set in the world of fake pharmaceuticals that made little money at the box-office but was at least given a shot.
The fate of another high-profile Chinese film on the festival circuit this year, Wang Xiaoshuai’s “Chongqing Blues,” which played in Official Competition at Cannes, reinforces this difficulty in getting art and commerce to meet. First off, Wang’s film was designed to break him out of the art house category. Although it has the stylistic indicators of art house in its deliberate pacing, closely calibrated acting, and bleak tone, it nonetheless featured the famous actor Wang Xueqi (who appears in the highly commercial”Sacrifice”and “Reign of Assassins” this year alone) and reigning female star, Fan Bingbing. It also contains a semblance of conventional thriller elements, with its plot about a man who tries to find out how his wayward son was killed in a botched attempt to rob a store. However, although the film did secure theatrical distribution, it had to undergo a ghastly repositioning to even attempt to sell itself. Many beautiful images from the film were rejected for the poster in favor of an over-the-top image of the robber, eyes bulging, holding a knife to the neck of the film’s most commercial element, the actress Fan; the background is a huge, lurid splotch of blood that covers three-quarters of the poster. Even this concession to a condescending interpretation of mainstream taste and a decent amount of press failed to help move the film along at the box-office. Continued attempts to integrate the fish that is art cinema and the fowl that is commercial movies show that there is some ways to go before realizing a healthy film scene dedicated to film art for film art’s sake.
Under The Hawthorn Tree
Once a divisive figure in China due to the censorship of his films, Zhang Yimou, having orchestrated the spectacular Beijing Olympic ceremonies and thereby adding volumes to collective national pride, is now embraced as an artistic giant. Although the majority of his films have been set in the past, their themes often have an uncanny way of reflecting the current atmosphere of the years in which they were produced. In the 1990s, while there was still much push and pull about what direction the country would go in and what form the system would take as it crept towards more openness, his films wrestled with the plight of people constrained by tradition and authority, be it the airless hierarchical household in “Raise the Red Lantern,” or the years of turmoil suffered by the puppeteer at the center of “To Live.” As the economy hit its stride in the new millennium and social issues settled into a relative groove, his films turned to uncontroversial material – the colorful theatrics in “Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers,” “The Curse of the Golden Flower,” and of course, the Olympics ceremonies. His latest film, “Under the Hawthorn Tree,” is set on a much smaller scale than his recent martial arts epics. This in itself is not remarkable as Zhang has always juggled more intimate material with larger-than-life stories; the story, which tells of the chaste romance shared by a pair of young students during the Cultural Revolution, shares similarities with 1999’s “The Road Home.”
However, in the space of ten years since that film, Chinese society has developed at a fast clip and more than ever, the perennial issue of social values of the young in the face of modernization, especially in a freewheeling digital age, finds itself front and center. Whether due to business savvy or identification with the themes of “Under the Hawthorn Tree,” Zhang chose to adapt the widely sold novel and tagged the film, like the novel, history’s “cleanest” love story ever. This is almost certainly an inaccurate claim considering the depth and range of literature in the Chinese canon, but it reflects an observed need in the current climate to transport people back to simpler times. From the beginning, the narrative of the film’s production itself has revolved around this topic of lost innocence. Zhang is famous for casting unknown ingénues in the past, from Zhang Ziyi in “The Road Home” to Li Man in “The Curse of the Golden Flower,” and this time held an exhaustive search for the actress to play kind-hearted and innocent high school girl Jing Qiu. Before he decided on 18-year-old Zhou Dongyu, the press had made much about how, with the growing sophistication of even very young actresses and the influence of more cosmopolitan values, there was difficulty in finding someone that could be convincing as a “clean” girl. Closer to the film’s release, there was heavy media coverage on how the film is even “cleaner” than the novel, having cut down the three kissing scenes to just one, while modifying a sex scene with nudity to a fully-clothed conversation in bed – girl under a blanket, boy outside of the blanket. The message to audiences was clearly that the film provides an escape into a simpler past that modern China would have difficulty recapturing in reality. That there were debates among audiences about how the protagonists were more ignorant than they were innocent brings up the issue of how far along people’ perspectives have departed from the idealized form of love depicted in the story.