To Infinity and Beyond…..?
Driven by ever increasing and eye watering levels of investment, the film industry in China is flexing its muscles and looking to break Hollywood’s hegemony
Article by Andrew Threlfall
As China rubber-stamped legislation to approve constitutional changes abolishing term limits for the presidency – annointing Xi Jingping as it’s de facto emperor for life, many observing wondered if the fairly recent past of Mao was now, again, the future.
And what of the ever expanding cultural impact of the world’s most populous nation? Chinese cinema is at a significant crossroads. An important decision has to be made by the money men and the country’s leading directors and screenwriters. International success seems at hand, just as it has in all other areas of commerce. But there are two problems: the language barrier and, perhaps of a greater inner struggle for the national psyche: a dilemma as to whether to stay within the boundaries of traditional Chinese story telling or to go all out, in other words, imitating Hollywood blockbusters.
Bollywood (India’s fast paced, knock ’em out in weeks film industry) never really made a big dent on foreign sales after making the classic error of simply re-making Hollywood hits like Something About Mary, er, Jaws and even Pretty Woman (they called that one Julie). Though Bollywood’s stars regularly attended the world’s glamorous film festivals a significant smash, that big breakthrough smash hit never came.
So now it’s China’s turn. To try and do a better job than India frankly. And to get the mix right. Some high culture here interwoven with magical story Chinese telling and over there a few action movies emulating both the budgets and ambitions of a Bond/Bourne film with all the explosions and incredibly expensive CGI budgets one might expect.
‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ released in 2000, was in retrospect, something of a false dawn for the clarion call of ‘The Chinese Are Coming’ though it propelled Taiwanese born director Ang Lee to international stardom and both lucrative and acclaimed work within the Hollywood studio system. The film itself, part martial-arts epic, part fantasy dealt with traditional themes of love, loyalty and loss and importantly, made China look like a country you wanted to visit for a holiday, the way the Lord Of The Rings trilogy promoted New Zealand tourism. Significantly also it was classed as an American-Chinese-Hong Kong-Taiwanese co-production.
It swept to victory in the Oscar nominations, eventually winning Best Foreign Language Film, as well as Best Director at the Golden Globes, and went on to become the highest grossing foreign-language film ever released in America. The two female leads Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh became, if not exactly household names, go-to Chinese leads in Hollywood projects.
‘Hero’, followed ‘Crouching Tiger’ in both it’s look and epic storytelling and was released in China in 2002, though not released until two whole years later by Miramax in the USA. Yes, Harvey Weinstein’s old company (so that risk taker can be crossed off the list). Box office takings worldwide were more than healthy but then, inexplicably projects stalled. Perhaps even critical Western disapproval that the film had been officially ‘approved’ by the government of The People’s Republic of China didn’t help. The West has long cherished and championed Making Movies as a non-partizan free speech catalyst for social change, as well as just pure entertainment. With Chinese cinema it seemed the old questions of control were being aired again.
So every mid-May, since 2012, the swanky Hotel Majestic in Cannes has hosted what feels like a perpetual coming out party for the, well let’s call them, the new breed of Chinese storytellers.
Film narratives are changing: There is a rise of more female central roles; films set in mountain villages in ethnic areas like the Yunnan Province, not just in the major cities. From small town China to metropolitan China the new stories getting multiplex (yes, the major screens) exposure fascinate. The clash between cultures, Chinese folk dance and Western modern dance, even between China and America, are all served up: just perfect for the global market. Right?
As the director and writer Wang Fan explained to me: “Modern Chinese film shows what the society in China is like from the small town to the big city. The evolutional convergence of Chinese folk dance and modern dance, the contrast between lives in the small village and the international city nowadays, is the life for us all now.”
I spoke recently to legendary actor and director Keanu Reeves recently. Part Chinese himself (his grandmother is Chinese and Hawaiian) he’d raised $25 million of Chinese and American money to make a Kung Fu movie featuring uniquely filmed separate parts with Mandarin, Cantonese and English language versions.
“I wouldn’t say I’m ‘obsessed’ with China but I have been a frequent visitor to the country these past 20 years. China has very big questions and needs to come up with big answers in the next few years and I think film can provide the answers with its openness if it is specific and authentic enough. There are great opportunities and challenges they face and they – the Chinese – have to get the answers right.”
Reeves is right. In essence China has the budgets and the desire to tell its history but unlike Hollywood which currently concentrates on prequel/sequel franchises and re-makes of TV shows, there is a strong desire to explain to the world how important cultural mindsets and mistakes are to modern day Chinese thinking. Yes, there are the enormous budgets for action movies often made for over $100 million – but in truth China will find its way by being China, telling its own stories its own unique way.
Two rising stars of Chinese cinema told me that foreign film festivals have become the most important dates in the diary for the Chinese movie machine. Shooting an untitled new animation about the Chinese love affair with cats, Tsai Jialin insists, “the process is slightly different in China from the west. Low-budget films are now being shot everywhere and uploaded to WeChat with huge audience potential. Whether this will broaden their international appeal will remain to be seen as YouTube is banned and is not available. But the technology is absolutely here. Our Chinese cats will look incredible!”
Zhang Lanxin, star of feature film Kung Fu Killer argues “For the Chinese film industry to spread its wings internationally it will have to get away from cliche. Even the title of a couple of the films I have been in have probably not helped spread the word. But I have been to Cannes and see how the word is definitely spreading year-on-year.”
Shanghai International Film Festival nowadays highlights the rennaisance in looking back into the old Communist film vaults, not just providing IMAX screenings of Hollywood classics like Tom Cruise in Top Gun for an audience who were banned from watching ‘high concept’ film-making/marketing (don’t just watch the movie, buy the aviator jacket, sunglasses and the CD) the first time around. So what now follows Tony Scott’s air duels are welcome restorations of Chinese classics like – Zheng Junli’s Crows and Sparrows (1949) and Chen Liting’s Three Women. More and more restored films from the China Film Archive re-activated by SIFF since 2011 will be shown at Festivals countrywide.
So once again, this year at Cannes The China Movie Channel will hold it’s latest extravagant party. Tens of thousands of dollars will be spent on the fireworks that light up the night sky as hundreds of executives mingle with the world’s media over a similarly expensive buffet.
It’s become a regular staple of the Cannes fortnight. A highlight in every sense that says China is committed to becoming a major player in the film world. “We are coming to a multiplex near you,” is the clear message from the ever-polite messengers of Chinese film. But underneath lies a steely determination to unseat the American domination. Again.