The World of Chinese - - Editor's Letter - BY DAVID DAW­SON

China's got the money, it's got the ta­lent, and it's got the drive, but the in­die film scene is strug­gling. While movies like Kaili­blues have shown that in­die flicks can make money, it's still tough for in­de­pen­dent film­mak­ers look­ing to shimmy up the in­dus­try food chain.

“I’m still sur­prised by the doors that are opened here and the kinds of meet­ings you can get into,” says Chi­nese-amer­i­can film­maker Wen Ren, re­flect­ing on his ex­pe­ri­ences with in­de­pen­dent film­mak­ing. “If you have a good idea, there are lots of op­por­tu­ni­ties that can get you in the door.”

Wen, whose ca­reer was kicked off af­ter his short sci-fi film Café Glass pre­miered at the Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val, splits his time be­tween Bei­jing and Los An­ge­les. His ul­ti­mate goal is to work on co- pro­duc­tions be­tween China and Hol­ly­wood, but in the mean­time he is en­gaged in mak­ing a web­series en­ti­tled Gushi­hui which is rem­i­nis­cent of a Chi­nese X-files. When it comes to the topic of “in­de­pen­dent film­mak­ing” in China, he is introspective about what that term en­tails.

It’s dif­fi­cult to de­fine what ex­actly con­sti­tutes an in­de­pen­dent film in China be­cause even in the Western con­text it’s a fairly sub­jec­tive term. It’s pos­si­ble to cat­e­go­rize in­de­pen­dent films as those that are self-funded, but given the wide va­ri­ety

of fund­ing sources avail­able to the film­maker, this may be ar­bi­trary and re­strict the pool to a neg­li­gi­ble num­ber of films.

Ar­guably the in­de­pen­dent film with the high­est pro­file in 2016 was Kaili Blues. Di­rec­tor Bi Gan, fresh out of film school, crafted a haunt­ing look at a fa­ther and his lost son, but the film’s real star was the di­rec­tor’s home­town: Kaili, Guizhou prov­ince. The film was made on a shoe­string bud­get, aided by the Bi’s cast­ing of his fam­ily mem­bers and low pro­duc­tion costs in an area like Kaili. It was also fairly niche, with Bud­dhist scrip­ture in­ter­spersed be­tween long scenes of rid­ing mo­tor­bikes through lush, wet, im­pov­er­ished land­scapes.

He was still funded by mul­ti­ple in­vestors.

Aside from find­ing a stu­dio or a wealthy pa­tron, there are emerg­ing av­enues for fund­ing that have been brought about by the ubiq­uity of the in­ter­net. On­line films and TV se­ries are of­ten funded by stu­dios and of­fer one av­enue for cre­ative ex­pres­sion, and there is the po­ten­tial to be­come a live-stream­ing celebrity, but th­ese fund­ing sources aren’t nec­es­sar­ily suited to in­de­pen­dent film. There are, how­ever, a small but grow­ing num­ber of Kick­starter­style crowd­fund­ing web­sites. While th­ese don’t spe­cial­ize in films, “mi­cro-movie projects” are a pop­u­lar cat­e­gory of as­pir­ing busi­ness ven­tures. Typ­ing in “微电影” (mi­cro-film) on one of China’s larger crowd­fund­ing sites, Zhong­chouwang, brings up a range of projects seek­ing in­vestors.

Categorizing a film by fund­ing sources is some­what dif­fi­cult; in­stead, it be­comes eas­ier to de­fine an in­de­pen­dent film by its fairly low bud­get and the di­rec­tor’s to­tal cre­ative con­trol. Here, though, it is im­por­tant to keep in mind that even those film­mak­ers who are ded­i­cated to creat­ing art films find they have to


split their time be­tween com­mer­cial en­deav­ors and their own projects.

Wun Yip re­cently re­turned to Bei­jing af­ter work­ing as sec­ond as­sis­tant di­rec­tor on the up­com­ing film Bit­ter Flow­ers, which fo­cuses on a Chi­nese fam­ily liv­ing in Paris and China. She said that work like this not only pro­vided an in­come but also a chance to ob­serve and take lessons from other pro­duc­tions and forge new con­tacts, both of which are in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant to in­de­pen­dent film­mak­ing.

But long be­fore Bit­ter Flow­ers, Wun had learned the im­por­tance of th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences the hard way.

When she ar­rived in Bei­jing in 2008 af­ter spend­ing years study­ing film and an­thro­pol­ogy in the US, she knew she wanted to cre­ate a film and had the con­cept in mind. Bring­ing her vi­sion to the screen as a short film took three years. The re­sult was Next Minute, a 10-minute film about an open-mic night. She is proud of the film but de­scribes it as a steep learn­ing curve and a dif­fi­cult in­tro­duc­tion to the film­mak­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

“I’d had the idea for years, but once I was work­ing on it I guess I spent about a year work­ing on the script and find­ing crew. At one point, the crew fell apart and I had to as­sem­ble a new team,” Wun says. “It started out as a team of 10 peo­ple to cre­ate 10 min­utes [of film], but by the end it in­volved 60 peo­ple.”

She said a turn­ing point was when she met a pro­ducer from Hong Kong, who was able to help her make con­nec­tions and steer the pro­duc­tion. This comes back to an­other key as­pect of film­mak­ing suc­cess—a lot is about who you know. This is partly be­cause the sup­port struc­tures in China are quite dif­fer­ent.

“There is a lack of re­sources for film­mak­ers in China. In the US, there are places you can go where you can get in­for­ma­tion on ev­ery step of the film­mak­ing process. Here, you need to net­work,” Wun says.

For young film­mak­ers, sup­port from film schools is one way to get off the ground. Bei­jing Film Acad­emy grad­u­ate Liang Shuang said that she doesn’t de­fine her­self as an “in­de­pen­dent” film­maker, be­cause of the school sup­port she re­ceived, which in­cluded fund­ing and equip­ment.

“Even though the pro­duc­tion team is some­thing I formed on my own— in­clud­ing cin­e­matog­ra­phers, ac­tors, and lo­ca­tions—i re­ceived help from a lot of peo­ple. Even though I in­vested a lot of work in­volved in mak­ing the film, there were a lot of class­mates who helped me com­plete it, and the fund­ing [was] not some­thing I had to come up with, so I don’t con­sider my­self an in­de­pen­dent film­maker,” Liang says. “Also, the mar­ket­ing af­ter pro­duc­tion and lots of other steps such as the film’s copy­right and dis­tri­bu­tion—i didn’t do any of that. I guess you could say I was just the cre­ator.”

Wen, though, points out that the less-or­ga­nized state of the in­dus­try in China has its ad­van­tages. “In L.A. you find that ev­ery­thing is dom­i­nated by the big six stu­dios, but here there are many sources of fund­ing,” he says. “There are count­less stu­dios and peo­ple who have made money in ar­eas like real es­tate and other lu­cra­tive ven­tures who want to in­vest in the film in­dus­try.”

Film fes­ti­val cul­ture is an­other area in which there is wide dis­crep­ancy be­tween the Western and Chi­nese ex­pe­ri­ence. A hope­ful young in­de­pen­dent film­maker in the US might hit a film fes­ti­val and win recog­ni­tion through a cre­ative idea, but in China, that path, while still

vi­able, is a bit murkier.

China has no Sundance or Tribeca Film Fes­ti­vals, but that isn’t to say there is no film fes­ti­val cul­ture; it’s just strug­gling for recog­ni­tion. The high­est­pro­file in­de­pen­dent film fes­ti­val was prob­a­bly the Bei­jing In­de­pen­dent Film Fes­ti­val, but sadly, when its promi­nence was at its zenith it was re­peat­edly shut down be­fore be­ing to­tally snuffed out of ex­is­tence. In Au­gust 2014, the 11th fes­ti­val faced dis­rup­tions and be­came limited to a tiny au­di­ence. Since then it has been out of ac­tion.

Mean­while, the Bei­jing In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, which shares the same ini­tials, was trum­peted loudly in state me­dia. In 2016, it drew Hol­ly­wood stars in­clud­ing Natalie Port­man to at­tend. This fes­ti­val, though, is much more a Chi­nese Os­cars than it is a Sundance.

There are other in­de­pen­dent film fes­ti­vals in China. Es­tab­lished in 2003, the China In­de­pen­dent Film Fes­ti­val is still go­ing strong, with its most re­cent fes­ti­val tak­ing place in De­cem­ber 2016. Be­yond the or­ga­nized fes­ti­vals, anec­do­tal ex­pe­ri­ences in­di­cate that it is com­mon for film afi­ciona­dos to or­ga­nize small-scale film events in their own homes. There is also a vi­brant Chi­nese film fes­ti­val com­mu­nity out­side of China’s bor­ders. Canada, for ex­am­ple, has a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of film fes­ti­vals that fo­cus on or high­light Chi­nese films, such as the Golden Panda In­ter­na­tional Short Film Fes­ti­val co-or­ga­nized by CNTV, and the Canada China In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val in Mon­treal. In 2015, the film Drunk Beauty won the Golden Panda’s Best Pic­ture award.

Drunk Beauty di­rec­tor Yao Qing­tao tells TWOC that he thinks some of the big­gest chal­lenges for as­pir­ing Chi­nese film­mak­ers are re­lated to their own development. “Film has its own artis­tic value and unique artistry, and within those tech­niques there is a dif­fer­ence be­tween qual­ity and quan­tity. A lot of young film­mak­ers have seen a lot [of films] but when it comes to ac­tu­ally creat­ing, they don’t know where to start, or they start sec­ond-guess­ing them­selves.”

“The film mar­ket, from the per­spec­tive of sub­ject mat­ter, is very di­verse. For a young film­maker who lacks in­flu­ence and abil­ity to at­tract cap­i­tal, my sug­ges­tion is: Don’t be greedy. You have to start small.”

The go-to ques­tion for for­eign­ers peer­ing into the Chi­nese film scene is the in­flu­ence that the

au­thor­i­ties ex­ert when it comes to ap­prov­ing films for dis­tri­bu­tion. This in many ways is less of an is­sue for small in­de­pen­dent film­mak­ers, who are less likely to seek wide dis­tri­bu­tion and run the ap­provals gaunt­let, but it’s an is­sue which will even­tu­ally con­front them as they meet suc­cess and move up the in­dus­try’s food chain.

Be­fore even be­gin­ning to come to grips with the reg­u­la­tions, it’s im­por­tant to be aware that there is no con­tent rat­ings sys­tem in China. In­stead, cen­sors de­cide whether or not a film should be al­lowed dis­tri­bu­tion, so films in­tended for a wide au­di­ence must be sub­mit­ted to the State Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Press, Pub­li­ca­tions, Ra­dio, Film, and Tele­vi­sion (SAPPRFT). For­eign pro­duc­tions must be li­censed to be shown on the Chi­nese in­ter­net or tele­vi­sion, and this is gen­er­ally through a co-pro­duc­tion ar­range­ment with a Chi­nese com­pany.

There are vague com­mands that films should “serve so­cial­ism and the peo­ple” but very lit­tle spe­cific in­for­ma­tion on what this ac­tu­ally en­tails. The Film In­dus­try Pro­mo­tion Law, the first ac­tual over­ar­ch­ing law (as op­posed to reg­u­la­tion) that re­lates to the film in­dus­try, will go into ef­fect as of March 2017, and while SAPPRFT has said it re­duces over­sight from cen­sors, this isn’t nec­es­sar­ily the boon it would ap­pear to be.

Cur­rently, a film­maker who wants wide dis­tri­bu­tion must sub­mit their en­tire script to SAPPRFT, though the new law will re­quire only an out­line. Un­der the new law, the bod­ies that ap­prove the scripts will be de­cen­tral­ized and pos­si­bly localized to the pro­vin­cial level. Un­til the law goes into ef­fect it is dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine the ef­fect it will have on film­mak­ers, though crit­ics say that it could make re­ceiv­ing in­vest­ment more dif­fi­cult; in the event that the ap­provals (or with­drawals of ap­proval) oc­cur later on in the film­mak­ing process, in­vestors may be more skit­tish about sink­ing money into a risky project.

The new law also in­di­cates that films need a li­cense be­fore any dis­tri­bu­tion, be it in China or over­seas—and this could be a prob­lem for films that in­tend to use film fes­ti­vals to pro­mote them­selves, as th­ese films cur­rently of­ten don’t at­tempt to get li­censes. China Film In­sider re­cently re­ported that film heavy­weight Feng Xiao­gang’s I Am Not Madame Bo­vary did not re­ceive this li­cense be­fore it was sub­mit­ted to (and won Best Film at) the San Se­bastián In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val.

One can only spec­u­late at this point the ef­fect this could have on smaller in­de­pen­dent films that may rely more heav­ily on fes­ti­vals to se­cure dis­tri­bu­tion. But that be­ing said, the Film In­dus­try Pro­mo­tion law has its sup­port­ers who point out that it for­mally cod­i­fies films be­ing one of China’s pil­lar in­dus­tries, and point out that it clar­i­fies many as­pects of the film in­dus­try that were al­ready op­er­at­ing, but sub­ject to un­cer­tainty.

Per­haps, though, un­cer­tainty is part of what makes in­die films what they are.


Film­ing of Wun Yip's Nextminute, a 10-minute film about an open-mic night

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