Art can't shine when box office gold lines the silver screens

Updated: 2012-05-18 09:49

By Liu Wei (China Daily)

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Taiwan director Wei Te-Sheng recently brought Seediq Bale, a film about a Taiwan tribe's fight against Japanese oppression in 1930, to mainland theaters.

The tribe lost their battle in the film, and Wei will likely lose at the box office, too.

The film has grossed only 3 million yuan ($476,100) since its May 10 premiere, while Disney's The Avengers - released five days earlier - has raked in more than 300 million yuan.

It centers on the Seediq, an aboriginal tribe in Taiwan's inner mountains, who rise up against their Japanese rulers. Japan took charge of the island after the Chinese government ceded it after an 1894 war.

Although suffering from a feeble storyline and excessive directorial sentimentalism, the film deserves accolades for the magnificent action scenes and touching performances. It lives up to some critics' conclusion that it qualifies as an epic.

But why is it that such a quality film now faces a lose-lose situation - viewers miss it in theaters studded with Hollywood blockbusters, such as Battleship and The Avengers, while the director misses the chance to prove he can win over a wider audience than Taiwan's?

Some blame the theaters for saving limited screens for the film, saying they should support good domestic films.

But theater managers need to be realistic. They have to give the priority of screening time and capacity to films that perform well.

Based on their own reviews of the film, of viewer inquiries and of the market, they decide the first-round screens and go with one or two days' testing time. If the film attracts enough viewers, they will surely increase the number of screens.

Unfortunately, Seediq Bale is competing with The Avengers, which boasts familiar characters, an easy storyline, a stellar cast and the powerful marketing of Disney.

What The Avengers offers comprises the reasons Seediq Bale could hardly perform well in Chinese theaters, the overwhelming majority of which are commercial cinemas.

The long film has no star and a difficult title to understand, while its story of a small Taiwan aboriginal tribe is difficult for mainland audiences to relate to.

No matter how avidly insiders and critics call for theaters and audiences to give it a second chance, the decision making power is in the purse of those who buy tickets.

When tickets cost 50 yuan, and often 100 yuan for 3D films, an ordinary urban Chinese viewer earning about 5,000 yuan a month usually pays only two or three visits to cinemas a month.

China imports 20 foreign films to theaters a year - mostly such Hollywood blockbusters as Avatar and Transformers. It's quite reasonable to expect viewers to spend their money on titles they have a clear understanding of , and studios that disappoint them much less frequently.

Seediq Bale has achieved artistic refinement.

By revealing a little-known period of history, it raises questions about important issues, such as civilization and savagery, and freedom and slavery. Although some critics may have gone a bit too far in calling it China's Braveheart, it deserves respect.

But it's simply not the typical flick commercial theaters would pick.

Actually, the fact that Seediq Bale and The Avengers compete in the same kind of theaters is a big problem.

Art films are often edgy, avant-garde and critical, which means they could be neglected, misunderstood and even avoided by mass audiences.

But, in the long term, they inspire people to look at the world and themselves in different ways. They may not make money, but making money - from the beginning - is not their main purpose or the criterion that determines their value.

Entertaining blockbusters are made for the market. And the market will decide their fate.

But quality art films need more government assistance, because their creation is never purely business.