An eye on the big picture

Updated: 2011-08-05 11:04

By Julian Ward (China Daily European Weekly)

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Categories are becoming blurred, but the future of Chinese films is bright


An eye on the big picture

Last month, the renowned Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung was awarded an honorary degree at the University of Edinburgh. While the award was largely in recognition of her stellar international film career, as well as her recent work as UNICEF Ambassador in China, the local dimension also played an important part: In 2007 she was the guest of honor at Edinburgh's Cinema China Festival, giving a rapturously received masterclass at the Filmhouse, the city's premier arthouse cinema.

Long before she came to the attention of European audiences with her role in Irma Vep (1996), Cheung had already enjoyed a lengthy career in Hong Kong, working for such directors as Tsui Hark, Johnny To and Stanley Kwan, for whom she gave a masterful performance in the title role of his stunning 1992 biopic about the 1930s Shanghai actress Ruan Lingyu.

Cheung subsequently moved into the top ranks of international movie fame with two highly praised leading roles, as Mrs Chan in Wong Kar-wai's sumptuous In the Mood for Love (2000), and Flying Swan in Zhang Yimou's Hero (2002).

Hero was one of a number of lavishly produced martial arts epics made in the wake of the unexpected global success of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Buoyed by Hero's successful American release when it became the first film from China to top the US box office, Zhang Yimou subsequently made House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006). Other leading lights of the Chinese filmmaking scene joined in, Chen Kaige with The Promise (2005) and Feng Xiaogang with The Banquet (2006), loosely based on Hamlet.

At the same time, films made by the so-called Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers were gaining favor with the international arthouse audience. The gritty, semi-documentary style of low budget works such as Jia Zhangke's Still Life (2006) and Li Yang's Blind Shaft (2007), which addressed the many social problems of the reform period, was in contrast to the flamboyance of Zhang Yimou's films. Western filmgoers were accustomed to and attracted by more than one genre of Chinese filmmaking.

However, in the years since Cheung's visit to Edinburgh in 2007, the state of play has changed dramatically. The interest of British cinemagoers in lavish martial arts productions eventually waned, while arthouse cinema viewers turned their attentions away from the social realism of the Sixth Generation films. Today, very few Chinese language films are released in Britain, with an even smaller number ever given a cinematic release outside London.

Furthermore, as Professor Chris Berry pointed out at the conference on New Generation Chinese Cinema held at Kings College London at the end of May, no Chinese language films were shown at this year's Cannes Film festival, the first time this had happened for around 20 years. There was much discussion at the conference, which drew on some of the best-known scholars in the field, about the way forward.

What emerged was a general acceptance that the old categories are becoming increasingly blurred and that the Chinese film world incorporates a plurality of film genres. Looking at the case of the prolific Zhang Yimou is instructive here. In the midst of his exuberant martial arts epics, as well as the preparations for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games he found time to make Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005), a contemplative piece about a Japanese man visiting Southwest China's Yunnan province in an attempt to repair his relationship with his estranged son. More recently, in Under the Hawthorn Tree (2010), he has returned to the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976) period, producing not a political tract but a love story.

An important part of the filmmaking industry in China today are the so-called main melody films, productions that are released to coincide with celebrations of the anniversaries of major moments in Chinese history. Greater budgets of the products allow for the use of the most bankable stars from both the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong.

At the same time, as the old studio system has largely collapsed, many of the filmmakers of the reform period have become involved in mainstream films. Thus Hu Mei, China's best-known female director, who made Army Nurse and Far from War in the 1980s for the army-run August First Studio, went on in 2010 to produce a biopic about Confucius with Hong Kong legend Chow Yun-fat portraying the venerable philosopher.

Similarly, Huang Jianxin, who in 1986 shot The Black Cannon Incident, a quirky satire about the teething problems experienced on both sides during the early days of joint economic ventures, went on to make The Founding of a Republic in 2009. Huang's film, marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, was bolstered by cameos from just about anyone in the Chinese film world, including not just leading actors such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li but also renowned directors Stephen Chow and Chen Kaige.

Huang followed this in 2011 with Beginning of the Great Revival, this time in honor of the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China. Both films are co-directed by Han Sanping, who, as chairman of China Film Group, is involved in the production of the biggest mainstream blockbusters and is probably the most powerful player in Chinese cinema today. This involvement of the very best directors in the films has resulted in an undoubted improvement in artistic and entertainment quality.

Overall, the future for film viewing in China seems positive. In 2010, despite piracy and illegal downloading of films, box-office receipts, at $1.57 billion, were up a staggering 64 percent from the previous year and more than 300 new cinemas opened. This is despite a quota of just 20 foreign movies a year allowed onto the screens in the Chinese mainland. Those that are given a cinema release in China are usually successful, Kung Fu Panda 2, for example, taking 125 million yuan on its opening weekend in the spring of 2011.

However, such success brings its own complications. Kong Qingdong, a professor at Peking University, described the film as "cultural invasion", while avant-garde artist Zhao Bandi called for a boycott of the film, claiming, "The panda is not only a symbol for China but also for the people. Making the panda's father a duck is nothing but an insult to Chinese people. I am afraid that Chinese youth in years to come will think Donald Duck was their ancestor."

In a way, the muted response to such a call can be seen as a reflection of a new maturity in the Chinese film world, where people like Zhao can be tolerated with amusement.

Where does all this leave British fans of Chinese cinema? One possible answer emerged in December 2010 with the release in China of Jiang Wen's Let the Bullets Fly, a surreal comedy about a bandit who poses as the new mayor of a city in Sichuan province during the warlord era of the 1920s. Jiang first came to prominence as an actor in the 1980s with his storming performances in Hibiscus Town and Red Sorghum. Like main melody films, Let the Bullets Fly is full of A-list stars.

However, at a time when many Chinese productions have struggled to match the appeal of the small number of Hollywood productions shown in Chinese cinemas, Let the Bullets Fly was hugely popular, ending up as the second highest grossing film shown in China, surpassed only by James Cameron's all-conquering Avatar. Thanks to a strong storyline, ebullient performances from Chow Yun-fat, Ge You and Jiang Wen himself and the avoidance of the various stereotypes that had become associated with many of the best-known Chinese films of the last 20 years, Let the Bullets Fly is simply great entertainment.

Moreover, Jiang garnered much praise for making a film in which he is considered to have upheld his artistic integrity. There has been some talk of a 2012 American release, conjuring up the enticing possibility of the film also reaching London, and perhaps even making it across the border to Edinburgh.

The author teaches at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. The opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.


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