Trends in Chinese Cinema, Part IV

April 14, 2010

Trend Three: Period Drama and Co-production

"Bodyguards and Assassins" (Shí Yuè Wéi Chéng, 2009), directed by Teddy Chen, a co-production between mainland China and Hong Kong.

One bright spot in Chinese commercial cinema is co-production, particularly films co-produced by mainland China and Hong Kong. One reason as to why co-productions are gaining the momentum is because mainland China’s box-office is going up and co-productions are usually considered as “domestic” works, therefore not subject to the import quotas. To meet the censorship requirement in mainland China, most co-productions have to play it safe with subjects that revel in the distant and are heavily driven by actions. John Woo’s Red Cliff (Part I & II, 2008, 2009), Peter Chan’s The Warlords (2007), Teddy Chen’s Bodyguards and Assassins (2009), Qunshu Gao & Kuo-fu Chen’s The Message (2009), and Jackie Chan produced Little Big Soldier (2010) are only a few most visible examples of this trend. To some, this trend is quite worrisome: is Hong Kong cinema gradually losing its identity, or mainland Chinese cinema becoming more Hong Kong-nized? No matter what the answer might be, the integration of the film industries of mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan is destined to transform the landscape of Chinese-language cinema.


Trends in Chinese Cinema, Part III

April 6, 2010

A Woman, A Gun and A Noodle Shop (2009), Zhang Yimou's take on Coen Brothers' debut "Blood Simple" (1984)

Trend Two: Laugh at All Costs

While the “main melody” film highlights the fact that it is still too early to speak about a government/Party-free film industry and an open/free film market in China, Chinese commercial cinema has increasingly relied on comedy to recoup its investment. Partly due to the shift of popular taste and partly due to the restriction on the serious exploration of contemporary social and political issues, comedy becomes the dominant genre in Chinese commercial cinema. From Feng Xiaogang’s If You Are the One (2008) to Ning Hao’s “crazy series” (Crazy Stone, 2006; Crazy Racer, 2009) and Jin Yimeng’s directorial debut Sophie’s Revenge (2009, starring Zhang Ziyi), Chinese screens in recent years have seen the surge of pretentious slickers, clumsy good fellows, street-smart crooks, and narcissistic beauties. Even Zhang Yimou, whose seriousness and social critique are evidenced in such works as Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, and Hero, ventured into the comedy genre and made his Coen Brothers-inspired parody A Woman, A Gun and A Noodle Shop (2009). Despite being condemned by many as a commercial sellout, Zhang’s A Woman, A Gun and A Noodle Shop performed quite well at the box-office, raking in more than 256 million yuan, far exceeding its production figure.

Trends in Chinese Cinema, Part II

April 1, 2010

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.