NO­TABLE FILMS OF 2016

China’s movie in­dus­try this year may not have seen the en­vi­able growth rate of the re­cent past, but the past 12 months are seen by many as a good year for qual­ity of­fer­ings — and for di­ver­sity as well. Not in the Hol­ly­wood sense, but in the kind of fare s

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE -

There is no cut­off line for the def­i­ni­tion of a Chi­nese block­buster, but movies with a box-of­fice re­turn of 1 bil­lion yuan ($144 mil­lion) or more usu­ally qual­ify. The wide ap­peal of th­ese ti­tles may have more so­ci­o­log­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions than purely aes­thetic ones. And Hol­ly­wood may want to take note be­cause th­ese are the kind of movies that tend to go head-to-head with their for­eign ri­vals and beat them.

It may be some time be­fore Stephen Chow’s slap­stick com­edy will be knocked off the pedestal that is the na­tion’s box-of­fice record, which is 3.37 bil­lion yuan. This is not Chow’s best work, but few have the abil­ity to pen­e­trate the small-city mar­ket as he did. And with an en­vi­ron­men­tal mes­sage that is more timely than pierc­ing, it of­fers a con­coc­tion that could have worked at any time, let alone the Chi­nese New Year pe­riod when it opened.

The clas­sic Chi­nese fan­tasy novel proves to be a rich source for film treat­ment. Taken from one chap­ter of Jour­ney to the West, this much re­told tale gets fleshed out from its orig­i­nal skele­tal plot and is en­riched by fuller and richer por­tray­als of the char­ac­ters. Gong Li as the White-Bone De­mon brings in her star power but the rest of the cast are also top-class. The hol­i­day re­lease made 1.18 bil­lion yuan at the box of­fice.

At 1,182 mil­lion yuan, this sur­prise hit is no­table for its pos­i­tive por­trayal of the Chi­nese govern­ment in its ef­fort to pro­tect its cit­i­zens abroad and bring in­ter­na­tional crim­i­nals to jus­tice. Packed with ac­tion, it of­fers a thrillingly vis­ceral cin­e­matic ex­pe­ri­ence rem­i­nis­cent of a Hol­ly­wood equiv­a­lent.

Amid a pile of car­casses in the sum­mer, this ad­ven­ture movie was about the only sur­vivor mak­ing 1 bil­lion yuan. While the re­views were mid­dling at best, it was helped by the tested-but­not-al­ways-true for­mula of a best-sell­ing novel and a pair of pretty-boy stars. The same for­mula, how­ever, did not help L.O.R.D (Leg­end of Rav­aging Dy­nas­ties), which was among the year’s high­est-pro­filed duds.

Sure, this is a co­pro­duc­tion, and not a purely Chi­nese prod­uct. And with a bud­get of $1.5 bil­lion it has to suc­ceed in ter­ri­to­ries out­side China to yield any profit. Di­rec­tor Zhang Yi­mou has been lam­basted by many crit­ics, but the mon­ster invasion may prove a lit­mus test for cul­tural cross-pol­li­na­tion as it is de­signed to ap­peal to au­di­ences in ev­ery big mar­ket. Its box-of­fice tak­ings are ex­pected to cross the 1-bil­lion-yuan mark by the time this piece sees print.

FIVE WOR­THY FILMS

Th­ese five Chi­nese ti­tles did not break any bound­aries, but they got into the com­fort zone of de­cent com­mer­cial per­for­mances and crit­i­cal ac­claim.

It may look like a ro­mance or a girl ver­sion of bro­mance, but it ex­plores a sub­tle re­la­tion­ship in a love tri­an­gle of two girls and one boy — OK, two young women and a young man. While both women dated the same cute guy they are more in love with each other. The fe­male stars were awarded the Golden Horse for best fe­male lead per­for­mance.

Cao Baop­ing brought out the hid­den side of his male ac­tors who, like those in pre­vi­ous Cao films, de­liv­ered ca­reerbest per­for­mances. The noirish crime ca­per has an in­tri­cate nar­ra­tive struc­ture.

While on­line fic­tion is the tar­get of the film­mak­ing gold rush, stage plays have also proved to be a quiet but fer­tile ground for qual­ity adap­ta­tions. Fol­low­ing 2015’s Good­bye Mr Loser, this po­lit­i­cal satire about a 1940s vil­lage school pass­ing off a don­key as a teacher and deal­ing with its fall­out has opened a lot of eyes. Even though the film ver­sion has the clumsy traces of a new hand and can hardly match the bril­liance of the orig­i­nal ma­te­rial, it still packs a punch.

A doc­u­men­tary about wild an­i­mals typ­i­cally tends to be rel­e­gated to the small screen, but Lu Chuan pushed it to the big screen and ended up with 64.55 mil­lion yuan at the box of­fice, a feat for the genre.

Chi­nese fran­chises in gen­res like drama and ro­mance tend to lose steam over time, but not this Hong Kong thriller whose ac­tion is more ver­bal and cere­bral than phys­i­cal. The all-star cast did not dis­ap­point.

FIVE ART-HOUSE GEMS

Movies that flaunt their unconventional nar­ra­tives as a badge of honor usu­ally end up with abysmal show­ings at the box of­fice. So, it is a won­der that th­ese films got made in a money-chas­ing en­vi­ron­ment, and an even big­ger sur­prise that some of them at­tracted large crowds. (I ad­mit they have mar­quee names and high pro­duc­tion val­ues, but they are still unconventional at the root.)

This could be the most re­fresh­ing di­rec­to­rial de­but of the year. Bi Gan, 27, switched from shoot­ing wed­ding videos to mak­ing a beau­ti­fully fluid lit­tle film. The plot is a lit­tle stream-of-con­scious­ness, but the track­ing shots are mes­mer­iz­ing.

A boat jour­ney up the Yangtze River has never been so dream­like. The nar­ra­tive may have many loose threads, but the vi­su­als by Pin Bing Lee are ab­sorb­ing.

This Ti­betan tale of a mid­dle-aged shep­herd, ren­dered in stark black and white, cap­tures a slice of life, to­gether with a gen­tle soul, in an age of trans­for­ma­tion. Ti­betan film­maker Pema Tseden fits the pro­file of an au­teur who looks in­ward and back­ward rather than go­ing with the flow of the com­mer­cial tide.

This star-stud­ded and lav­ishly pho­tographed pe­riod piece looks noth­ing like a typ­i­cal art-house fea­ture. Yet, in his heart, di­rec­tor Cheng Er es­chews the public crav­ing for a good yarn and goes for a tableaux of fas­ci­nat­ing peo­ple in var­i­ous ten­sion-filled but ex­tremely re­strained sit­u­a­tions. Un­der the fa­cade of grandeur lies a dis­taste for con­ven­tional story-telling.

OK, it gar­nered 455 mil­lion yuan, way be­yond what an artsy fea­ture would typ­i­cally fetch. But Feng Xiao­gang is clearly us­ing his pop­u­lar ap­peal to gain lat­i­tude for self-ex­pres­sion. His de­pic­tion of China’s of­fi­cial scene ven­tures into a realm that calls for end­less cre­ativ­ity.

FIVE MEM­O­RABLE IM­PORTS

Most chart-top­ping for­eign fare be­longs to the cat­e­gory of fran­chise movies, so that makes this selection spe­cial. It cov­ers a wide range when it comes to earn­ings, but the films all won Chi­nese hearts.

Mel Gib­son’s ver­sion of the real-life con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor Des­mond Doss tugged at more heart­strings in China than in his home­land. It has been widely hailed here as the great­est war film since Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan. Many screen­ings ended with spontaneous ap­plause and many view­ers re­ported a sense of cathar­sis.

Ang Lee’s ex­per­i­ment with new tech­nol­ogy met with sus­pi­cion in the United States, but in China the di­rec­tor’s vaulted stature en­sured max­i­mum ex­po­sure and ut­most re­spect. The char­ac­ter study sparked an avalanche of analy­ses, but the box of­fice stalled at 165 mil­lion yuan.

At 1.5 bil­lion yuan, this Dis­ney an­i­ma­tion is the se­cond-high­est-gross­ing film in China this year. More im­por­tantly, it shows that a good story, even with­out the sup­port of a fran­chise, can turn ev­ery movie­goer into a vol­un­teer pro­moter. Scenes from the film got ama­teur dub­bing treat­ment, of­ten to hi­lar­i­ous ef­fect.

Thanks to its wide and loyal fan base, this game adap­ta­tion made more money in China than else­where in the world. It was al­most the flip side of Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens, which does not have a size­able base in the Mid­dle King­dom and de­pended on across-thePa­cific pub­lic­ity.

The break­out of this Ja­panese an­i­ma­tion was in­flu­enced by its mar­ket per­for­mance in its home coun­try. But it shows that not ev­ery an­i­ma­tion hit has to come from Hol­ly­wood. As a mat­ter of fact, Ja­panese car­toons, with their dis­tinct style, have al­ways found a spe­cial place in the hearts of the Chi­nese.

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

From top: Zootopia,Hack­sawRidge,TheWast­edTimes,Kaili Blues,YourName,Born­inChina,Oper­a­tionMekong are among the best-re­ceived films of 2016 on China’s big screens.

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