The “Yin-Yang Contracts,” viewed as a common practice in Chinese economy, has turned into a hot topic in the ever-growing film industry of China in recent days, thanks to the “whistleblower” Cui Yongyuan, an outspoken former TV presenter and adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Communication. The whole story was well covered by the LA Times reporter Don Lee on July 9, 2018 in an article titled “China Targeting its Movie Stars’ Sky-High Salaries” (A1 and A9). My former advisor Stanley Rosen of USC and I were interviewed and quoted in the article. For the complete article, please download the paper HERE.
With Wang Jianlin’s Wanda Empire in question and Jia Yueting’s LeVision in financial and political trouble, China’s ambitious, or even aggressive, “takeover” of Hollywood has suddenly subsided. No one knows whether this symbolizes the Communist Party’s intolerance toward private capital or the ultimate showdown of political struggles on the top. Suffice it to say that doing business or making money in China always requires close connections with the government and ultimately with the Party. But this connection with the top may also backfire, because power always shifts and changes hands. Not a single “red capitalist” in China can forever expand his/her empire and influence under the Party, who is always wary of everything that is beyond its control.
Alibaba at this moment seems to be able to shield itself from this round of storm. Unlike Wanda’s somewhat flamboyant style, Alibaba’s US headquarters, located in Pasadena, California, is relatively low-key, which echoes its cautious film “adventure” in Hollywood: only investing in some reliable Hollywood productions, such as the Mission Impossible and Ninjia Turtles franchises. Is Jack Ma going to be the second Wang Jianlin? I hope not.
A typical Chinese-style gathering, the symposium of the founding of the Center for Shanghai Film Industry Studies, held on May 30, 2015, saw a mixed group of people, including representatives from the film industry, film scholars and critics, and government officials (even people from the Party propaganda department), coming together to discuss issues related to the Shanghai film industry, especially the ever-present theme of reviving Shanghai cinema and restoring its pre-1949 status as China’s film center. Attendees spoke from different positions and diverse backgound, with film scholars and critics most critical about the role the government/Party is playing.
It is a little odd that such a center is initiated and physically located at the Institute of Literature, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, from which I obtained my MA degree in modern Chinese literature. One justification is that the Academy, under the pressure of the government/Party, is aiming to transform itself from a research entity into a Chinese-style “think-tank,” and what a literary department could do in this transition is to divert its scholarly attention to supposedly more “practical issues” like the area of the “cultural industry” or “creative industry.”
I was recently interviewed by Los Angeles-based Chinese TV program “LA Living” hosted by Juliette Zhuo, during which we talked about the trends in Chinese cinema of 2014, including the “usual” but still dramatic growth of the Chinese film industry in the past year: box office reaching almost 5 billion US$ (North America: 10 billion US$), number of theater screens reaching 23,600 (North America: close to 40,000), and the largest international market for U.S. films, etc.
For the convenience of non-Chinese speakers, four trends were delineated during the interview: 1) the sustained popularity of romantic comedies/youth films/chic films, as evidenced by Tiny Times IV and The Continent, and many similar “so bad it’s almost good” films; 2) Socially engaged and cinematically daring independent films such as A Touch of Sin and Lou Ye’s Blind Massage; 3) Big-name directors such as Zhang Yimou, John Woo, and Tsui Hark falling in love with historical dramas, with Tsui Hark most successful at the box-office; 4) Hard to categorized filmmaker Jiang Wen releasing his controversial, half-musical-and-half-thriller satire Gone with the Bullets, sequel of his box-office miracle Let the Bullet Fly. It became the most-talked-about work among Chinese movie buffs as the year of sheep draws near.
Part I of the interview was originally aired on LA Channel 18, January 26, 2015 (above, first You Tube link), and Part II (above, second You Tube link) was first aired on January 30, 2015.
BFI: The 10 best modern directors from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan
1. Ann Hui
Essential films: Boat People (1982), The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (2006), A Simple Life (2011)
What’s special about her?
Ann Hui has amassed a considerable body of work despite often going against the popular tide of her local film industry. A prominent member of the Hong Kong New Wave, with an interest in familial strife, national identity and social issues, Hui explored cultural displacement with her Vietnam trilogy, consisting of the television episode Boy from Vietnam (1978) and the features The Story of Woo Viet (1981) and Boat People.
This concern also permeates more commercial works such as the crime thriller Zodiac Killers (1991), in which a Chinese student living in Tokyo is sucked into the dangerous world of the yakuza. Hui’s humanistic melodramas often address the ageing process: The Postmodern Life of My Aunt features a retiree who is swindled out of her savings, while A Simple Life beautifully details the relationship between a film producer and his elderly servant when the latter falls ill.
2. Tsui Hark
Essential films: Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), Peking Opera Blues (1986), The Blade (1995)
What’s special about him?
A wild fantasist often referred to as ‘the Steven Spielberg of Asia’, Tsui Hark would become a leading purveyor of escapist fare with Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, which mixed local ghost legend with Hollywood-style special effects. Hark is a master of mining Chinese history for crowd-pleasing storytelling: the hectic action-comedy Peking Opera Blues takes place during the democratic revolution of the 1910s while Once upon a Time in China (1991) follows the adventures of folk hero Wong Fei-hung, and the martial arts epic Seven Swords (2005) is set after the founding of the Qing dynasty.
But his stylistic masterpiece is The Blade, a near-psychedelic reimagining of One-armed Swordsman (1967). Following a run of disappointments in the 2000s, Hark has returned to form with the mainland co-productions Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010) and The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011).
3. Tian Zhuangzhuang
Essential films: The Horse Thief (1986), The Blue Kite (1993), Springtime in a Small Town (2002)
What’s special about him?
Tian Zhuangzhuang graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982 alongside Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou. His early work evidenced a fascination with ethnic minorities: On the Hunting Ground (1985) is a documentary-style account of life in inner Mongolia and The Horse Thief (1986) explores the rugged landscape of Tibet.
One of Tian’s most acclaimed works in the west would also stall his career as the The Blue Kite ran afoul of the local censors for illustrating the impact of the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution on a Beijing family. Banned from directing until 1996, Tian mentored Sixth Generation filmmakers, eventually returning to the director’s chair for the contemplative drama Springtime in a Small Town. Since then, Tian has applied his consummate craftsmanship to the handsome biopic The Go Master (2004) and the ambitious historical adventure The Warrior and the Wolf (2009).
4. Hou Hsiao-hsien
Essential films: A City of Sadness (1989), Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996), Flowers of Shanghai (1998)
What’s special about him?
Exquisite compositions, long takes and languid moods are characteristics of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s work, even when dealing with tragic ruptures. Many of Hou’s films take place at times of turbulent social-political transition: The Time to Live and the Time to Die (1985) follows a boy’s coming of age after his family leaves the mainland for Taiwan in 1947; A City of Sadness chronicles the post-Second World War impact of the Chinese Nationalist government on a Taiwanese family; and The Puppetmaster (1993) finds a master puppeteer being forced to use his craft as a propaganda tool under the Japanese occupation.
Hou’s recreation of the past reached a feverish peak with Flowers of Shanghai, which takes place in the brothels of the English concession in 1884. His meditations on contemporary Taiwanese society include the deceptively lackadaisical small-time crime study Goodbye, South Goodbye and the hypnotic nightlife odyssey Millennium Mambo (2001).
5. Edward Yang
Essential films: The Terrorisers (1986), A Brighter Summer Day (1991), Yi Yi (2000)
What’s special about him?
The films of Edward Yang were sadly little seen in the west during his lifetime because the director was not concerned with selling his work for profit. Often utilising the multi-stranded narrative format, Yang took the urbanisation of Taiwan as his subject: The Terrorisers is a mystery concerning the connections between an assortment of amoral strangers; A Brighter Summer Day follows the activities of 1960s street gangs; A Confucian Confusion (1994) critiques materialistic young professionals; Mahjong (1996) takes place in the modern underworld; and Yi Yi examines the life of a middle-class family over the course of a year.
Yang came to wider international attention when he was awarded the best director prize at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival for Yi Yi, but a lengthy battle with colon cancer meant he was unable to make another feature before his untimely passing in 2007 at the age of 59.
6. Zhang Yimou
Essential films: Raise the Red Lantern (1991), To Live (1994), Hero (2002)
What’s special about him?
Zhang Yimou’s enduring associations with ravishing rural landscapes and iconic leading lady Gong Li would begin with his debut feature Red Sorghum (1987) after which he collaborated with Gong on a run of celebrated period dramas. Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern and To Live were sometimes seen as pandering to the foreign gaze with their sumptuous visuals, but very much foregrounded the struggles of the individual while criticising state policies from a historical distance.
In the 2000s, Zhang brought his painterly touch to China’s burgeoning blockbuster market with the resplendent wuxia epics Hero, House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006). Although he is synonymous with stately drama and stirring spectacle, a more eccentric side to Zhang’s talents can be found in his frenetic urban comedy Keep Cool (1997) and slapstick farce A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (2009).
7. Wong Kar-wai
Essential films: Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express (1994), In the Mood for Love (2000)
What’s special about him?
Wong Kar-wai became an arthouse favorite in the 1990s with such aesthetically invigorating cinematic love letters to Hong Kong as Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels (1995). Famed for his protracted production process – both In the Mood for Love and 2046 (2004) would take more than a year to shoot as footage was scrapped, plot strands were dropped, and locations were changed – Wong has kept his company Jet Tone afloat by taking on various advertising assignments alongside his dream projects.
Wong’s vivid style was pioneered in partnership with the Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle with their collaboration on the melancholic romance Happy Together (1997) transforming Buenos Aires into a hyper-saturated space for unfulfilled longing. Such charismatic local stars as Tony Leung, Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung and pop diva Faye Wong have thrived under Wong’s idiosyncratic direction to create the memorably lovesick protagonists who populate his intoxicating universe.
8. Tsai Ming-liang
Essential films: Vive l’amour (1994), What Time Is It There? (2001), The Wayward Cloud (2005)
What’s special about him?
Reflecting the fact that he was born in Malaysia of Chinese ethnic background and later relocated to Taipei, the films of Tsai Ming-Liang are often concerned with dislocation as his lonely characters lack a sense of belonging. Vive l’amour follows three alienated people who unknowingly share an apartment; What Time Is It There? alternates between the life of a Taipei street vendor and a woman who is visiting Paris, with the two people linked across time by the sale of a watch; and I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006) concerns a homeless man who is cared for by a Bangladeshi migrant worker after being beaten by a street mob.
A master of stillness and silence – Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003) features only a dozen lines of dialogue – Tsai also has a fondness for neo-surrealist musical numbers, as seen in The Hole (1998) and The Wayward Cloud.
9. Jia Zhangke
Essential films: Platform (2000), Unknown Pleasures (2002), Still Life (2006)
What’s special about him?
A fierce critic of China’s transformative society, Jia Zhangke’s studies of problems at grassroots levels have blurred the line between fact and fiction due to his integration of documentary elements. Jia was an early convert to digital video who extended the postmodern aesthetics of Xiao Wu (1997) and Platform when he switched formats to chronicle disenfranchised youth in Unknown Pleasures.
Since then, he has turned his attention to the encroaching effects of globalisation with The World (2004) and Still Life, the latter of which takes place against the backdrop of the transformative Three Gorge Dam project. Jia’s documentary works include Dong (2006), a portrait of the artist Liu Xiaodong that overlaps with Still Life by sharing the same setting, and I Wish I Knew (2010), a history of Shanghai that spans the 1930s to the present which was officially commissioned for the 2010 World Expo.
10. Lou Ye
Essential films: Suzhou River (2000), Summer Palace (2006), Spring Fever (2009)
What’s special about him?
Although his frequent clashes with China’s restrictive censorship board have cast the Sixth Generation filmmaker Lou Ye as a figure of controversy, his work is more defined by its sensuous quality. From his mesmerising noir Suzhou River to recent Bi Feiyu adaptation Blind Massage (2014), Lou has conflated sex and politics to emotionally devastating effect as alienated characters navigate eroticised urban landscapes.
Summer Palace follows the experiences of a hedonistic female student at a Beijing university in the late-1980s and the traumatic impact of the post-Tiananmen fallout on her social circle; Spring Fever concerns a gay Nanjing travel agent who casually flits between lovers to maintain his sexual freedom; and Mystery (2012) follows an upwardly mobile businessman who is leading a dangerous double life. Such films never fail to linger in the memory due to the manner in which Lou filters bold social provocation through uniquely seductive atmospherics.
(Source: BFI Official Site)
In a burgeoning wave of overseas spending and investing spree by Chinese media companies comes the $100 million China-targeted Media Fund backed largely by China’s Bona Film Group. Interestingly, this fund is not based in mainland China, also not in Hong Kong, but in Singapore. Rumors are circulating that most big Chinese private media companies are transferring their funds “legally” to a foreign country through investment or property purchasing. Considering unstable financial (currency depreciation expectation, for example) and political (selective “anti-corruption” campaign, for instance) situations in China, such rumors are not without a warrant. Here is the news about the announcement of this fund:
“The Singapore Media Festival today was the scene for the announcement of the latest China-focused media fund — and this one comes with a twist. Bona Film Group chairman Yu Dong, private equity firm Tembusu Partners and Singapore media entrepreneur Calvin Cheng have joined forces to launch a $100M fund aimed at China’s media and entertainment industry. The Media Entertainment Fund will be based in Singapore and is intended as the first such non-Reminbi dominated fund to invest in China’s media and entertainment sector. Bona, China’s largest private film distributor and vertically integrated film company, is expected to be one of the anchor investors along with Thailand’s Chia Tai Group. The five-year fund is closed-ended and will be formalized on March 31, with capital raising to begin shortly thereafter.
By domiciling in Singapore, the parties will leverage the country’s legal framework and status as a financial hub to attract investors from outside the region. Yu said, “Singapore is the perfect place to launch this fund as it is not only a financial capital of the world, but also as the place where East meets West. This fund will allow foreign investors to participate in the fastest growing media and entertainment market in the world. “
Cheng, the architect of the deal, noted that the existing film and TV co-production agreement between Singapore and China will open opportunities for the fund to invest in projects that involve Singapore-based media companies.”
(By Nancy Tartaglione; deadline.com, Dec. 10, 2014)
Big news keeps pouring out from China, this time involving the Spider-Man franchise producer Avi Arad creating a Chinese “global franchise,” themed after the legendary Mongolian hero Genghis Khan, with the backing of Chinese money and the state-owned China Film Group. Does this sound odd? Genghis Khan vs. Spider Man, and capitalist Hollywood vs. communist-controlled film group with a heavy agenda to promote the Party/state ideology? It is no wonder that, when reporting this news, deadline.com writer Nancy Tartaglione added one brilliant tagline: “It’s often said about China that the bigger the announcement, the less real the deal.”
I am not saying that this project wouldn’t go through. My hunch is that, the “strange baby,” conceived as a “global franchise” involving a private Chinese company (with good connection with the government), a state-owned and Party-controlled company, and a Hollywood producer who claimed he has “done my [his] research with China,” and to be helmed by Mongolian woman director Lisi Mai, whose track record is highlighted by Chinese patriotism and nationalism, is destined to fail or at least fall far short of its original ambition.
Here is the deadline.com‘s coverage of the announcement of the project:
In late 2011, Chinese media entrepreneur Bruno Wu’s Seven Stars Entertainment announced a joint venture with producer Avi Arad. The aim was wide-ranging: to develop superhero franchise properties across live-action tentpoles, animated TV series, merchandising, digital platforms, and mobile apps. All of the stories were to be inspired by Chinese history and mythology. In 2013 the venture morphed into a more formal agreement that created Dragon Entertainment.
It’s often said about China that the bigger the announcement, the less real the deal. Feeding that theory, there’s been no public-facing fruit from the Wu-Arad hookup since the jv was first unveiled. But a new project with an important stamp of approval from the China Film Group could change that.
Dragon Entertainment has entered into a multi-year co-development and co-production agreement with China Film Co, the distribution and production arm of the state-run CFG, which essentially controls distribution [of Hollywood films] in China and is also [one of] the biggest producer[s] of local films and co-productions. In other words, its involvement makes for a more real deal.
The new head of CFC, La Peikang, Arad, and Wu say the first project to be produced under the deal is Genghis Khan’s Treasure, a 3D adventure epic about the legendary conqueror. Mongolian filmmaker Lisi Mai is attached to direct. It is fully financed and set to go into production next year for a 2016 release. The English-language film is yet to cast, but will seek Chinese and American actors. CFG will release in China and Arad says it will have a Hollywood studio partner.
Wu says he sees the pic as a “global franchise,” and Arad tells me it’s “designed to be a worldwide tentpole.” The Spider-Man franchise producer has had a “total fascination” with factual stories of the world and Genghis Khan’s is one of them. He feels “it’s definitely a brand and an intellectual historical account of him that’s unbeknownst to a lot of people.” Sequels to the history – or continuations – are eyed.
It can’t be denied in today’s world that Hollywood and China are wannabe bed-partners. In the same heady breath it can’t be said that there’s a lot of foreplay that reaches climax. Arad tells me regarding his dance with Wu, “I am very cautious and only do what I really like. I’ve done my research with China.”
Driving the announcement home, La Peikang says, “We are very pleased to be working with such proven producing talent. Given Dragon Entertainment’s China focus and strong current development slate, we look forward to an extremely prolific co-production partnership.”