The grave side

Updated: 2012-11-23 09:29

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

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Yearning for recognition

The grave side

The movie features Oscar winners Adrien Brody (left) and Tim Robbins.

In terms of return on investment, Feng is indisputably the most profitable filmmaker in China. Some of his comedies even made the invested money back without selling a single ticket because he was so inundated with product placement offers he had to turn most of them down.

Despite his popular appeal, Feng is lacking in critical approval, especially from Euro-centric jurors and their Chinese followers. He is considered too lightweight in both subject matter and style. Winning the AIC Award for best cinematography and the Golden Butterfly Award at the Rome Film Festival, where Back to 1942 had its international premiere, has not really dispelled that perception.

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Feng once bitterly joked that foreign critics complain they cannot understand his movies while Chinese movies even he has difficulty deciphering are happily embraced outside China. The wild popularity of almost all his movies with the Chinese audience, coupled with a cold shoulder from the Western cineaste circle, is partly caused by his use of melodrama and partly by the culture-specific undertones that fail to translate to those unfamiliar with a country in a whirlpool of change.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Feng evolves - and in what I see as the right direction. In Cellphone (2003), he delivers more sociological substance in a comedy than most message movies offer. He is palpably scaling up to artistic heights, bringing his audience with him instead of stooping to pander to them.

While uneven, his body of work, at its best, aspires to Jane Austen-level sophistication, especially in the comedy of mannerism. His effort to branch out into weightier genres, except for The Banquet (2006), which I see as a Zhang Yimou imitation, has been largely successful. But will his vast audience follow him to a tale of consequence totally devoid of entertainment value?

Back to 1942 is nothing like Aftershock. It is not a three-handkerchief tearjerker; rather, it asks tough questions many filmgoers are either too young or too blase to face. But, for Feng, it is a project with which he can finally prove himself. With this movie, he will likely get the respect he has long deserved.

For more coverage by Raymond Zhou, click here

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