A Still Shot from the film, "The Flowers of War" [Photo: baidu.com]
Since taking in 24 million U.S. dollars at the domestic box office on its opening weekend and getting a Best Foreign Film nod from the Golden Globes, famed director Zhang Yimou's latest feature seems to have come closer to international success than any other Chinese film.
With a budget of 100 million U.S. dollars, "The Flowers of War" is the most expensive Chinese film ever made. It featured a crew consisting of members from more than 20 countries and regions, including a British special effects team, a Japanese art director, a Hong Kong costume designer, a Turkish choir group and Hollywood heartthrob Christian Bale.
The film has experienced the rare feat of being both a strong draw at the box office as well as a work of critical acclaim, and is seen by insiders and experts as a new approach for China's film industry to produce quality films that do well at the box office.
Set in Nanjing, which was known as Nanking at the time of the city's occupation by Japanese troops in 1937, the film tells the story of a group of prostitutes risking their lives to save 12 schoolgirls from being raped by the Japanese army.
A Film Journal International review said the film, China's Oscar entry for Best Foreign-Language Film, "offers powerfully realistic and inventive war scenes... and will likely be remembered as a triumph of the genre."
Domestic media described the film as "having both strong sound and visual effects as well as humanistic power."
HUMANITY WITH MULTIPLE LAYERS
Due to political and cultural differences, many Chinese mainstream films have long been accused of over-glorifying patriotic sentiments and lacking humanistic factors while independent works by emerging filmmakers have been criticized for amplifying harsh social realities to grab attention overseas.
While admitting that the moral judgement on the Nanjing Massacre is indisputable, Zhang said he tried to portray the Japanese invaders with multiple layers in an attempt to distinguish the film from previous ones depicting the same subject that were written off as unilateral propaganda.
In one scene, a Japanese officer visits a church, the central location of the story, and apologizes for his subordinates killing a Chinese female student. Then he sits down in front of an organ and plays a Japanese folk song, at which point other Japanese officers join him in song to express their homesickness.
"In 1937, the militaristic notion among Japanese armies was very prevalent, and officers were not allowed to sing a homesick folk song, but we still wanted to endow this character with something special," said Zhang.
According to the director, the film originally included a private talk between the officer and the priest that showed the officer's passion for painting and music, but the scene was cut due to concerns for running time.
"We wanted to give the audience something to imagine... We didn't want to generalize," Zhang added.
However, some Western critics were less than impressed by Zhang's efforts.
The Film Journal International review also said some dialogue is "a bit too saccharine for Western ears," while a New York Times review criticized the film for failing to "take a point of view on one of the most gruesome chapters in Chinese history."
"Whether making mainstream movies or independent works with strong individual expressions, Chinese filmmakers should stay true to themselves and create works with an artistic view," said Rao Shuguang, vice president of the China Film Archive.
TWISTS AND TURNS
The 60-year-old Zhang Yimou first surprised the global film industry in 1987 with his directorial debut "Red Sorghum," which earned China its first Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.
The film, featuring stunning visual images and a realistic presentation of life and love among common people, was among China's art house cinema pioneers.
However, at the turn of the century, Zhang, along with other directors that included Chen Kaige, whose "Farewell My Concubine" won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1993, steered their focus from art house films to commercial blockbusters, garnering excellent box office records as well as public condemnation for choosing scale effects over intrinsic quality.
In response to such accusations, Zhang has said on many occasions that China is in desperate need of its own commercial blockbusters and what he did was for the sake of the development of the Chinese film industry.
In 2010, China produced over 520 films, up from less than 100 annually prior to 2003, and movies shown in the country raked in 10 billion yuan (1.57 billion U.S. dollars) at the box office, or 10 times more than that in 2002.
Meanwhile, insiders have warned of quality issues amid the industry's exponential growth.
Tong Gang, head of the film bureau under the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), has said that there are "far from enough" Chinese films that can "win critical acclaim and, at the same time, meet audiences' cultural demands," adding that a large number of the country's film products lack humanistic qualities, values, realism and aesthetic pursuits.
In late October, the Communist Party of China approved a landmark guideline aiming to make the cultural industry "a pillar of the national economy." Minister of Culture Cai Wu called for more efforts to promote Chinese culture worldwide by "actively absorbing the excellent achievements of foreign cultures."
"If we want our films to step on to the international arena, we should make use of every advantageous source at hand to showcase Chinese culture and values, which include inviting renowned international stars and adopting overseas marketing methods," Zhang Pimin, vice head of the SARFT, told Xinhua.
PRODUCERS VERSUS CINEMAS
Thanks to the film's producer, Zhang Weiping, "The Flowers of War" also triggered a battle between producers and cinemas, which prompted a change in the country's system of divvying up box office earnings.
As Zhang Yimou's long-time partner, Zhang Weiping participated in the production of "Hero" as well as "House of Flying Daggers" and "Curse of the Golden Flower," upping the share for producers to 42 percent.
Before that, film producers in China received only 35 percent of the box office share as cinemas pocketed the rest.
However, for Zhang Weiping, 42 percent was not enough.
Prior to the release of "The Flowers of War," Zhang proposed raising the share for producers to 45 percent, triggering a run-in with several of the country's top cinema chains.
In late November, the SARFT issued a guideline recommending that cinemas receive no more than 50 percent of box office sales.
"In an attempt to ensure a profit balance between film producers and cinemas based on international practices, cinemas' share of box office sales in a film's first round of screening should not exceed 50 percent in principle," the document said.
According to the SARFT's Zhang Pimin, the lion's share for cinemas in the past was aimed at shoring up confidence among cinema investors amid limited numbers of screens and the slow development of cinemas, among other historical factors.
"Nowadays, we have nearly 10,000 screens across the country. It's time to make adjustments to boost the confidence of film producers," he said.
Many experts hailed the SARFT document, but called on the country's producers to make greater efforts in making quality films instead of "merely being excited about a salary raise."
"There's no such thing as a contradiction between officials and civilians toward Chinese films. Both film workers and film department officials are full of emotions and want to push Chinese films to prosperity," said Rao Shuguang of the China Film Archive.
Rao stressed that Chinese filmmakers must be fully prepared in terms of culture and ideology as they work to transform the country's film industry from "big" to "strong."
"Humanity and aesthetics will always be the indisputable truths in filmmaking," Rao added.