Trend One: Playing the “Main Melody”
Despite the fact that it has been almost 10 years since the market-oriented reform in the film industry started in the early years of the new century, the Chinese government/Party does not seem to have loosened up its grip on cinema. This is manifested in a variety of old and new phenomena: the persistence of the censorship process, the re-energized power and dominance of the state-owned film groups (China Film Group in particular), the state monopoly of distributions of international films, and the concerted effort by the industry and the authorities to boost China’s “soft power” through film. Most of all, the strong masculine presence of the government/Party in the film industry can be easily felt in the flourishing of the “uniquely Chinese” genre/freak in recent years, namely, the “main melody” film.
The “main melody” film (or leitmotif film, zhu xuan lv in Chinese) refers to the government/Party sanctioned productions that are propagandist in nature, usually re-affirming the official narrative of modern Chinese history and sugarcoating communist revolutionary heroes. First introduced in the late 1980s to promote patriotism and nationalism, the “main melody” film has undergone certain changes in recent years. If earlier “main melody” films were financially sponsored by the state/Party and usually shown to an organized audience, then recent “main melody” films seem to have learned the lessons from the success of Chinese commercial cinema: financed with big money, played by all A-list stars, targeted at a younger audience, and distributed/marketed with nationwide synergetic campaigns.
In 2009, we saw the emergence of the best example of this “main melody” trend: the release of the all-time domestic box-office winner, The Founding of a Republic, in commemorating the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China founded by Mao and his Communist Party. It is reported that the film boasts more than 200 Chinese movie stars, including Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Andy Lau, and Zhang Ziyi. Some domestic A-list actors and actresses only play walk-on parts, and some stars only have one shot or one line in the film. Directed by the once socially satirical fifth-generation filmmaker Huang Jianxin and Han Sanping, the all-powerful boss of the state-owned China Film Group, The Founding of a Republic grossed more than 420 million RMB (over 60 million US dollars) domestically. As a matter of fact, before The Founding of a Republic, a new group of filmmakers had already been “lured” into making “main melody” films. Chief among them is Beijing Film Academy graduate Yin Li, whose The Knot (2006) and Zhang Side (2004) uplifted the “genre” with more multi-dimensional characters and more sophisticated cinematic techniques.
There are two special cases in this trend, namely, Feng Xiaogang’s Assembly (2007) and Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death (2009). Feng’s Assembly is largely a commercial production, but the subject it features, the civil war between the Communist Party and the Nationalist Party, invites suspicion that the film may have a propagandist agenda. However, it partially avoided this accusation by questioning the Party’s unfair treatment of its war heroes. Lu’s City of Life and Death is funded by state-owned China Film Group, but its predetermined “main melody” tune, patriotism and nationalism against the dark background of the Nanking Massacre, is partially toned down with the director’s intentional choice of looking at the war crime from a Japanese sergeant’s point of view. This controversial choice prompted veteran film critic Tony Rayns to defend the film that “the hostility to City of Life and Death in China after its initial enormous success with the public might have something to do with its refusal to bow to [the] neo-nationalist
tide” in mainland China.