Art house vs main­stream

China Daily (Canada) - - RAILWAY -

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The re­cent re­lease of Song of the Phoenix, a long de­layed art movie, in main­stream the­aters in China has turned into a phe­nom­e­nal so­cial event. It is a two-year-old swan song by the late film direc­tor Wu Tian­ming, dubbed the God­fa­ther of the Fifth Gen­er­a­tion by the Chi­nese press.

The ini­tial 1.88 per­cent screen­ing rate in the main­stream the­aters en­raged “half of film­dom” and forced a well-known film pro­ducer to en­act a “per­for­mance art” of kneel­ing and kow­tow­ing be­fore the cam­era to plead for more screen­ings. This had an ef­fect as a re­sult of sym­pa­thy from the the­ater own­ers. The box of­fice tak­ings zoomed from al­most nil to tens of mil­lion.

The fact that the film opened with Hol­ly­wood block­buster Cap­tain Amer­ica: Civil War on the same day, that it was the last movie by a vet­eran direc­tor who sud­denly died be­fore the film was even able to find a dis­trib­u­tor, and that the tragic sto­ry­line of the film is some­what iso­mor­phous with the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion of the Chi­nese film mar­ket added to the tragic solemn­ness of the event.

It also proves that the Chi­nese film mar­ket is still a mono­lithic whole, though there were a few break­throughs in 2015 with the re­leases of such art house movies as Jia Zhangke’s Moun­tains May Depart and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The As­sas­sin, which could be seen as a turn­ing point of the mar­ket trend.

This con­stituency does not come with his­tor­i­cal bag­gage, or his­tor­i­cal en­rich­ment for that mat­ter. As much as half of the one-bil­lion-yuan-plus hits are di­rec­to­rial de­buts whereas vet­eran film­mak­ers in­clud­ing Zhang Yi­mou, Chen Kaige, Jiang Wen and Feng Xiao­gang are play­ing catchup in box-of­fice fig­ures. This wave of in­ter­net-in­formed and in­ter­net-fa­cil­i­tated film­go­ing is com­ing on strong and bru­tal.

As it stands, Chi­nese movie­go­ers have very dif­fer­ent ex­pec­ta­tions from im­ports and do­mes­tic fare. For im­ports, es­pe­cially those from Hol­ly­wood, they want big spec­ta­cles with state-of-thearts spe­cial ef­fects. Fran­chises minted in the new cen­tury come with a built-in au­di­ence, but other than that, brand­ing of stars or gen­res has to be built from the ground up.

Home-grown hits have to be deeply rooted in the cul­tural soil of the day. Comedic el­e­ments are de rigueur as any Chi­nese-lan­guage film with a box-of­fice re­sult of 1 bil­lion yuan or above can­not do away with it. That has cre­ated a di­chotomy of high-fly­ing known quan­ti­ties from Hol­ly­wood and mod­estly bud­geted sleeper hits from un­known Chi­nese di­rec­tors shar­ing the strato­sphere of record-break­ing su­per­hits.

For­eign par­tic­i­pa­tion in Chi­nese prod­ucts may take many forms, but the track record for co-pro­duc­tions has been spo­radic at best. There has not been a sin­gle case of such an ef­fort con­quer­ing all four quad­rants that use both mar­kets across the Pa­cific and both com­mer­cial and crit­i­cal ac­claim as yard­sticks. The cul­tural di­vide seems too wide to bridge. What’s touted as the so­lu­tion is noth­ing but to­ken ap­pear­ances of mar­quee names in each other’s prod­ucts.

Hol­ly­wood fran­chises with Chi­nese cameos are not co-pro­duc­tions ei­ther tech­ni­cally or cul­tur­ally. But Bona’s Yu pre­dicts that the trend will be re­versed when China’s mar­ket size grows sev­eral times what it is now and on-screen or off-screen tal­ents flock to the Mid­dle King­dom for op­por­tu­ni­ties. “If the co-pro­duc­tion is in the Chi­nese lan­guage, it will have China as the pre­dom­i­nant mar­ket. If it’s in English, the mar­ket will be global. We’re al­ready faced with such choices,” says Yu.

In the past decade, Hol­ly­wood stu­dios have made oc­ca­sional for­ays into purely Chi­nese pro­duc­tions that tar­get only the Chi­nese mar­ket, but the suc­cess rate is not en­cour­ag­ing. Now, Chi­nese com­pa­nies are looking west­ward for sim­i­lar in­vest­ments, in projects and also in cor­po­rate en­ti­ties. Un­known to most out­siders, more and more Hol­ly­wood he­roes and su­per­heroes would be vaulted into pub­lic sight with the help of Chi­nese money.

Chi­nese con­glom­er­ate Wanda’s ac­qui­si­tion of US film stu­dio Leg­endary En­ter­tain­ment early this year has been the most vis­i­ble case, but by no means the last. There will come a time, much sooner than ex­pected, when mu­tual in­vest­ments in each other’s film projects will be so ex­ten­sive that the cul­tural imprint of a story will have lit­tle to do with the na­tion­al­ity of those who bankroll it.

So far we’re talk­ing only about the the­atri­cal mar­ket, or films as shown in movie the­aters. Us­ing a wider per­spec­tive, you’d find that the con­stel­la­tion sur­round­ing this bright­est star is un­der­go­ing rapid changes as well. China does not have a de­vel­oped an­cil­lary mar­ket for the­atri­cal re­leases. Yet fea­ture films cus­tom­ized for the online plat­form are pro­jected to reach 2,200 in num­ber and 1 bil­lion yuan in rev­enue this year.

The change is hap­pen­ing now. There are more movies and more ways to watch them, in­clud­ing vir­tual-re­al­ity movies that are yet to go com­mer­cial. The terms “film” and “pic­ture” will sound quaint when you think of their ori­gins.

This event could well be a re­minder to the film­mak­ers, who would pre­fer them­selves to be called “artists”, that when they choose to en­gage in self ex­pres­sion and per­sonal as­pi­ra­tion, they must have a clear-cut po­si­tion­ing be­fore they start: for whom are the ex­pres­sion and as­pi­ra­tion meant?

If you want to reach an au­di­ence, you should know where your au­di­ence is and find the right chan­nel to re­lay your mes­sage to them in­stead of forc­ing oth­ers to pay for your ex­pres­sion and as­pi­ra­tion that are not meant for them in the first place. It is un­fair and un­rea­son­able to blame the the­aters and au­di­ence for not ap­pre­ci­at­ing some­thing that is not de­signed for them.

In any coun­try, even in France, where art movies al­ways en­joy a niche mar­ket, it is un­wise for a small art movie to pit it­self against a big com­mer­cial one.

Since the in­au­gu­ra­tion of the the­ater chain al­most 20 years ago, why couldn’t we es­tab­lish an art house the­ater chain in China that could be de­voted to the dis­tri­bu­tion and ex­hi­bi­tion of art film? The an­swer is sim­ply that we do not have an ad­e­quate num­ber of “art movies” to sus­tain the ex­is­tence of an art house the­ater chain.

Be­cause of the quota on the im­port of for­eign films, even Os­car win­ners barely make it to the Chi­nese the­aters. How could a mea­ger crop of do­mes­tic art films sup­port an art house the­ater chain in a mar­ket where view­ers can have full ac­cess to all sorts of film re­sources via the in­ter­net al­most for free?

Source: Film Bureau of the State Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Press, Pub­li­ca­tion, Ra­dio, Film and Tele­vi­sion. YANG LIU / CHINA DAILY LI MIN / CHINA DAILY

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