Plotline gives movies a script for global success

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Since the production of China's first-ever film, Dingjun Mountain, in 1905, domestic cinema has seen a century of change and been marked by a constant trait of absorbing inspiration and experiences from different civilizations.

As China's first international movie event to fully resume all in-person activities since the COVID-19 outbreak, the 13th Beijing International Film Festival gathers celebrities such as action star Jackie Chan (third from left) at the red carpet opening ceremony on Friday. [Photo/VCG]

As the country's first international movie event to fully return to its in-person roots since the COVID-19 outbreak, the 13th Beijing International Film Festival — which will run until Saturday — gathers hundreds of film creators and industry insiders from home and abroad, delving into the longstanding yet still intriguing subject of how to boost cultural exchanges.

"Over the past three years, the international situation has changed a lot due to the pandemic, bringing conflict, confusion and challenge," says Huang Jianxin, a veteran director and producer.

"However, movies have a distinctive strength to provide beautiful and heartwarming moments, making it a significant medium to break down barriers and promote communication."

Boosting coproduction

China has signed film coproduction agreements with more than 20 countries, including France, Russia and New Zealand. Prior to the pandemic's impact on the world film industry, China had jointly produced a total of 244 movies with other countries and regions between 2000 and 2019, according to China National Radio.

With the rapid development of the film industry, Chinese filmmakers have transitioned from relying on foreign economic support to produce films in the early 1990s, to now being capable of raising a big budget and investment in coproductions that have a global distribution reach, says Huang, known for serving as the chief producer of The Battle at Lake Changjin, China's highest-grossing film of all time.

As one of the pioneers to explore jointly produced films with foreign filmmakers, the Beijing-based Huayi Brothers Media Corp once cooperated with American studio Columbia Pictures to produce several popular movies, ranging from Feng Xiaogang's directorial effort Big Shot's Funeral (2001) to Jiang Wen-starring martial arts movie Warriors of Heaven and Earth (2003) and Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle (2004).

Wang Zhonglei, cofounder of Huayi Brothers, recalls that their cooperation with Hollywood had brought in money and experience, allowing some of the top-notch Chinese filmmakers to fully unleash their creative potential.

"Back then, as China's film industry was in its early stages, we were relatively unfamiliar with marketing and promotion. I vividly recall being presented with a set of 10 posters by our American collaborators right after wrapping up production on a movie. It was a new and exciting experience for us at the time," says Wang.

The surge of the Chinese economy has given domestic film companies more control and prompted some stellar coproductions with China's neighboring countries due to the cultural affinity in late 2000s, adds Wang.

One of such most influential examples is A Battle of Wits, a 2006 war movie jointly produced by China, Japan and South Korea. According to Wang, the movie is inspired by Mozi, a Chinese philosopher who lived more than 2,400 years ago, and whose stories are also retold in the two neighboring countries, providing a strong foundation for the film to be well-received.

According to some domestic reports, international coproductions have moved toward larger scale and deeper cooperation in recent years, exemplified by phenomenal hits such as Legend of the Demon Cat, one of the highest-grossing Sino-Japanese movies in Japan, and The Meg, the highest-grossing live-action Sino-American movie in North America.

"We have noticed a growing interest from foreign audiences in Chinese cinema. They are curious about why China has developed so rapidly over the past few decades and how Chinese people live in the modern era," says Yang Xianghua, president of iQiyi's movie and overseas business sector.

According to Yang, the streaming platform iQiyi has established overseas branches since 2019 and provided subtitles in 12 languages across over 190 countries and regions. Surprisingly, he discovered that almost 90 percent of the audience in North America who watch Chinese movies are foreigners.

Exotic influence

Over nearly 130 years since the birth of projected moving pictures, there have been many beautiful moments like this — where directors, amid the vastness of foreign cultures, serendipitously encounter their own muses and create timeless classics that will last a lifetime.

For instances, Quentin Tarantino's love for Chinese martial arts movies led to the creation of the Kill Bill franchise while Bernardo Bertolucci's interest in the Forbidden City gave cinephiles the masterpiece The Last Emperor.

Qiao Sixue, a young filmmaker known for her directorial debut The Cord of Life, traveled to France in 2013 to learn about cinema. During her time there, she watched many European classics by masters such as Bertolucci and Roman Polanski, finding that the overseas experience broadened her views on the meaning of life and the value of the world.

"In France, you'll find that regularly visiting cinemas, museums and art galleries is a part of everyday life. Growing up as a young person in a small town in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, I was enthralled by the masterpieces displayed at French art spots that I had previously only seen online or in books," she says.

Zhang Yiwu, a professor of Chinese studies at Peking University, says that absorbing influences from various civilizations has been a longstanding phenomenon in Chinese cinema, starting with the early impact of the former Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s, followed by the popularity of Japanese movies in the late 1970s, before Western films from the United States and Europe exerted greater influence from the late 1980s.

As the Chinese film industry continued to experience rapid growth in its domestic market for a decade prior to the pandemic and has since solidified its position as the world's second-largest film business, more and more Chinese movies are screening at international film festivals, winning attention and recognition overseas, he adds.

Between last year and early this year, the China Film Archive, the largest of its kind in the country, organized festivals specifically for screening Chinese movies in 17 countries and regions, including Egypt, Chile, Colombia and India. From its launch in 2011 to its 13th edition this year, the Beijing International Film Festival has offered in excess of 10,000 screenings of more than 4,000 movies by both Chinese and foreign filmmakers.

Seeking expansion

With the Chinese movie market's robust recovery boosted by the Lunar New Year box-office bonanza earlier this year, a lot of filmmakers and insiders attending the festival say they have felt the domestic industry is back to making money.

"In this season of rejuvenation, China's movie market is truly feeling the arrival of spring," says Sun Xianghui, head of China Film Archive. "Starting from Spring Festival, movies of different genres and from various countries are being shown across Chinese cinemas, just like bamboo roots shooting up from the ground."

As of Monday, a total of 150 movies have been released in China this year, attracting more than 380 million moviegoers to the theaters, and earning a whopping 17.7 billion yuan ($2.56 billion) at the box office. This inspirational figure exceeds the amount from the same period last year, according to the archive.

Coupled with international exchanges becoming easier due to the lifting of pandemic-control measures, the long-standing aspiration of expanding Chinese movies overseas to attract more foreign audiences has once again become a widely debated topic during the festival.

Earlier this year, the Spring Festival blockbusters — The Wandering Earth II, Hidden Blade and Full River Red — have been successively released in multiple markets from North America to Europe.

Simultaneously opening in China and eight countries like the US on Jan 22, The Wandering Earth II, the follow-up of China's highest-grossing sci-fi epic of all time, has been screened in 39 foreign countries, including South Africa and Japan, currently earning a total of 100 million yuan in box-office takings overseas.

With the Western markets dominated by Hollywood blockbusters, the feedback for The Wandering Earth II and its market return has exceeded expectations, says Fu Ruoqing, chairman of China Film Co and chief producer of the movie.

China's rapid rise in technology and science has established a realistic foundation for this grand-themed tale that explores the fate of humanity, making it one of the most resonant Chinese movies in recent years and also indicating that it is easier for commercially mature genres like sci-fi to help Chinese stories captivate foreign audience, adds Fu.

"When we were producing the movie, we had planned to make it a globally released project," he reveals. Instead of cooperating with distribution companies operated by overseas Chinese, a conventional approach in the past, China Film Co shifted to local professionals, gaining more access and promotional opportunities.

Lu Chuan, a renowned director known for the nature documentary Born in China, advises domestic filmmakers to "borrow a ship and set sail into the sea", a metaphorical reference that Chinese companies should strive to seek cooperation with major overseas distributors to gain a larger share in the global market.

Yu Dong, chairman of Bona Film Group, says China has already built a huge domestic movie market, having once produced 1,082 feature-length movies in a single year, the highest number ever recorded.

"Chinese movies have secured a dominating share in the domestic market, with more than 60 percent of the total box office raked from domestic works on average within recent years. Now, more Chinese filmmakers are endeavoring to seek an expansion in overseas markets," says Yu.

Also known for producing blockbusters like Hidden Blade, Yu summarizes three steps for Chinese films to go abroad — inviting more international buyers to Beijing, shooting more coproductions and aiming for a box-office season specifically for Chinese movies.

"I believe Chinese films have the capability to release simultaneously at home and abroad. So, just like Hollywood builds their most lucrative box-office seasons during Christmas and summer periods, we could aim at Spring Festival, a holiday that may draw over 70 million overseas Chinese to admire the stories from their homeland," says Yu.

"Chinese films right now are at a high point of their reputation internationally," says Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, a German director best known for the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others.

Donnersmarck, who has lived in Los Angeles for 15 years, has also observed that when Chinese films selected to contend for the Academy Awards' best foreign language entry are shown in theaters, they tend to attract a full house, although that is not always the case for films from other countries.

He also says that China has created and maintained an attractive structure for talented filmmakers, commenting that the country can be considered somewhat of a paradise for filmmaking with adequate investment and rich resources.

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