Audiences Pack Beijing Student Film Festival

Dozens of people, many in their 20s or 30s, stayed outside the China Film Archive's Cultural Theater in Beijing hoping to pick up unwanted tickets.

Inside, most of the theater's 900 seats were occupied. The audience was waiting eagerly for the screening of The Missing Gun, directed by first-timer Lu Chuan, who had just graduated from the Beijing Film Academy. Another film to be shown, Judge Mama, was also directed by a first-timer, Mu Deyuan.

The movies were in the on-going Film Festival for University Students, which include 25 movies which are being screened in a dozen Beijing universities. The festival provides opportunities for students to get a broader view of the domestic film industry.

The audience burst into laughter every now and then during The Missing Gun, titillated by the film's unexpectedly humorous dialogue.

When Lu Chuan appeared on stage after the show, the young director was greeted with thunderous applause. Answering questions raised by the audience, he was interrupted by applause a number of times.

It was a night like any other April night in Beijing -- dry, with a slight chill in the air.

But don't assume what was happening outside and inside the theater was normal. For China's increasingly critical young film-goers who seldom show interest in domestic productions, such an "intimate encounter" with domestic films is rare.

Movies, in fact, seem to be less and less attractive to the Chinese. In 1979, when the country had just kicked off its reform and opening up program, 29.3 billion tickets were issued for the rather small number of films that were then available.

Now, just 20 years later, the country's population has risen from less than 1 billion to over 1.3 billion, whereas the number of movie-goers has dropped to 600 million a year on average.

That is to say, the average Chinese person goes to a movie only once every two years. This has brought a slump to the local film industry.

According to film authorities, in 2001, the total national box-office income was 800 million yuan (US$96.39 million), less than one-thirtieth of that of the United States.

To make matters worse, most of the box-office revenues now come from imported blockbusters instead of domestic works. Insiders estimate that last year only 10 percent of 100 domestic films made profit, another 10 percent barely managed to stay in the black, and the remaining 80 percent lost money.

Set against such a backdrop, young audiences' crave for The Missing Gun and Judge Mama is surprising. Experts are trying to find out what has led to the current resurgence in the domestic film industry, but whatever they might have to say, the warm response from the audience should refute the notion that the Chinese have lost interest in their own movies.

No fewer film fans

He Xinghui, a film and television major from Beijing Normal University, has been paying close attention to her peers' attitudes towards films. She said she believes that most young people still love films, especially domestic ones.

This is born out by the prosperity of film publications. China now publishes many high-gloss film magazines with reviews and commentary on the industry. They sell out quickly on newsstands in metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai, as well as small remote towns.

These publications include old standbys like Popular Cinema, which was first issued in 1950 and has long been among the best-selling periodicals in China. The circulation was in the millions for years.

There are also new-comers, such as The Movie Show, which is published in northeast China's Jilin Province, and Movie View Biweekly of southwest China's Sichuan Province.

Movie websites and BBSs have also flourished. Type "Lu Chuan," a name still unknown to most Chinese, on Google.com, you will get as many as 7,340 results.

On well-known and popular film message boards, people can read reviews, or check out eye-catching visuals, statistical data, or even the latest information or gossip on film personalities, all posted by netizens.

Most of the major China-based web portals have opened message boards on movies, among which those at Sina.com and 163.com are the most popular.

Lu Chuan himself is the host of just such a message board at Sina.com, which claims to be the world's biggest Chinese language website. He Xinghui admitted she seldom goes to the cinema, though the senior female student from Beijing Normal University said she is "a loyal movie fan."

"Most of my classmates go to the cinema only when they are involved in a love affair. I am the same," she said.

But "not going to cinemas" does not mean "not watching motion pictures." "We have many accesses to movies, and the cinema is often the last choice," she said.

He Xinghui goes to neighboring Peking University and the Beijing Film Academy to watch movies every week. There she joins young film-lovers like herself from the nearby universities, and watches "good movies" at relatively low prices.

Another route is compact discs. In Beijing, the cost of a ticket to see a blockbuster ranges from 30 to 80 yuan (US$3.61 to US$9.64). VCDs and DVDs, on the other hand, cost no more than 8 yuan (US$0.96). Many young people simply choose to watch films at home, although they admit that the compact discs are often of inferior quality.

With the popularity of the Internet, many of He Xinghui's classmates also watch movies at ftp websites.

Root problems?

Realizing that the slump in local film industry should not be blamed on audience, industry insiders are trying to pinpoint the root problems.

In discussions and debates, critics and experts have pointed out that the backward distribution system and poor venues contribute to the slump in the domestic film industry.

Experiments are now being carried out in film distribution, and public notices have been put out in the media seeking domestic private investment and international investment for new cinemas.

Film-makers say that they themselves should shoulder the main responsibility.

"There are too few 'good' domestic pictures. This is an essential problem," said Chen Kaige, whose "Farewell My Concubine" won a Gold Palm at the Cannes Film Festival in 1993 and won him worldwide acclaim.

Chen said many domestic productions are put together in a rough and slipshod way. "In this sense, directors are responsible for the slump in the local movie industry," Chen admitted.

But directors, especially the budding young ones, are working harder trying to make more good films.

"As the new generation of Chinese directors, we have the duty to win back the home market," Lu Chuan said after his movie was shown on the first day of the festival.

(China Daily April 29, 2002)

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