Microfilms come up shortly

Updated: 2012-05-21 07:55

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

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Fast track to success

Old Boy clicked with the public mainly because the story epitomizes the dashed dreams of many who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s and are now the mainstay of China's online demographic. The fact that the two filmmakers were aspiring, struggling artists helped cement the perception that microfilms, like televised singing contests, are the poor man's fast track to success.

Microfilms come up shortly

Huo Siyan leads in Father, the Chopsticks Brothers' follow-up to Old Boy, which became an Internet sensation in early 2010, and kick-started a cultural phenomenon known as "microfilms". Apple for China Daily

Xiao Yang, 32, graduated from the famed Beijing Film Academy, but he majored in advertising and has been in that business ever since. Wang Taili, 42, tried to break into the music business. Calling themselves the "Chopsticks Brothers", they started making microfilms in 2007. Old Boy was originally conceived as a music video for an end-credit song, but they fleshed out the plot and made music-making the climax of the story. The duo also starred in the film.

Given their backgrounds, it's not surprising that Old Boy has high production values, with fluid and dexterous editing and direction. Sadly, most of the 50,000-plus microfilms uploaded in China in 2010 (a figure provided by Weng Jie, a Tudou executive), don't match this level of professionalism.

An increasing number of people have realized that we are entering a golden age of video creation: The wide availability of home camcorders and the ease with which editing software can be used means that non-professionals can now express themselves with video almost as easily as with words. The democratizing technology is breeding a new generation of filmmakers.

"In the old times, filmmaking was the privilege of the elite. But digital technology has blurred the line between the elite and the grassroots. Now, those at the bottom can also participate in film creation, with no strict requirements for aesthetic or technological demands," commented Shi Chuan, a professor of film and television at Shanghai University.

Like shorts in Western countries, microfilms are seen as a training ground for aspiring feature filmmakers. The program that funded Old Boy was sponsored by Youku, a video website that recently merged with its biggest competitor Tudou, and China Film Group, which uses the platform to scout for new talent.

However, the pros soon took over. Shortly after Old Boy became a hit, the online media company Sina sponsored a quartet of works produced by the Hong Kong-based filmmaker Ho-Cheung Pang and starring big name actors such as Zhou Xun and Shawn Yue. Sina's rival Sohu launched a project that gave seven film stars their directorial debuts. Last year, Youku launched another series called 59 cm of Happiness, in which six celebrities from non-film backgrounds were given the opportunity to display their potential.

Meanwhile, microfilm competitions and awards have been cropping up faster than bamboo shoots after a spring shower. "There are more than a dozen such events already," said Hou Zhihui, creative director for Funshion, a film website that claims a global audience of 120 million. "Many name directors like Feng Xiaogang serve as presidents for these events. Access to such celebrities has become the raison d'etre, rather than the means of discovering talent." (Full disclosure: I sit on the juries of the Tudou Festival and FIRST Youth Film Festival, among others.)

The least commercial of these programs may be that run by Cui Yongyuan, which selected 10 people to participate as assistants in upcoming productions by renowned filmmakers. The program is made possible by donations from Cui's friends. Cui, an eminent television personality with a zeal for chronicling and preserving China's film history, wants to discover and train the next crop of "Chinese film masters". Each applicant had to submit a five-minute microfilm entitled New Year. "They interpreted it (the title) in whichever way they saw fit," he explained.

"Cui's program could be the purest," says Funshion's Hou, who produced Father, the Chopsticks Brothers' follow-up to Old Boy. "Microfilms should belong to those with potential."