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Review: Blockbuster Successes and Film Diversity in China

Chen Kaige's US$40 million budget film The Promise will premiere on December 15th across China, and seven days later, Zhang Yimou's US$7.2 million film Riding Alone for a Thousand Miles will make its debut on screens across the country. 


Riding Alone for a Thousand Miles had made its world premiere last month as the opening film of the Tokyo International Film Festival. The Promise screened an 11-minute trailer to 200 distribution companies during the Cannes Film Festival, boasting 1 million dollars in promotion and marketing. With anticipated record box office takings and the great success of recent blockbusters in the industry, doubts about the diversity and variety of Chinese film arise.




These two films have still not yet opened in cinemas, but they have drawn the attention of the industry all year long. No matter what the expectation of audiences is, what really seems to draw moviegoers are the two film tycoons directing these pictures.


He Jian, from the China Film Academy, says that over 200 films are produced in China each year, but only 50 domestic films can be screened in cinemas. Those that don't get screened are mainly propaganda and art house films.   


Film publisher Gao Jun analyzes, "Many domestic films are not good enough to please audiences, and hardly any of them can last a week in cinemas." Director Jia Zhangke, however, holds a different opinion. He thinks that many good films have been included, such as Pao Cai and Many Rice, which filmgoers have no access to or ability to get to know.   


As common members of the audience, perhaps we are not able to give an insider's judgment on the matter. While it is an unavoidable fact for the Chinese film industry that Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige enjoy great influence, on the other hand, few genres in the film market simply mean less choice. It seems that only the big names can survive in this industry, and in terms of greater variety, there is still long way to go.   


Film critics mostly give positive evaluations to Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige's contributions to the Chinese film industry. Chan Dongbing thinks that since they have achieved successful box office earnings for years, they have drawn investment from other industries to the film industry. This year's investments are estimated to be 30% more than that of last year. This is due at least in part to the trail of "higher investment and higher receipts" of Zhang Yimou's domestic blockbuster Hero.




This year's films from these two directors have yet to be opened in cinemas, but strong promotion and long production times have already created real effects. Besides, critics claim that it is expected to promote domestic films. The question is whether or not doing so sacrifices a greater balance in film industry. High budget films receive the most favorable run time in cinemas, carry out sufficient promotions, thus winning audiences and gaining more future investment. Small or low budget films are disadvantaged from the beginning. If they are edged out from cinemas, there is little hope for them in the business field. Director He Ping acknowledges this situation, saying that "filmmaking is like doing business. When you make it big, the development of your business is no longer decided only by you. All producers want to earn money. That's a simple truth." Lu Chuan holds the same opinion: "Controlling capital is of equal importance to controlling filmmaking. Zhang Yimou has experienced so much these years, the investment that goes to him is the accumulated result of that."   


This is most likely the perspective of filmmakers. For common audiences, the question still remains. Their success is restraining the diversity of Chinese film, though we cannot blame them for this.   


Chinese director Jiang Wen said at a forum, "There are few roads for Chinese films. The foreign husband for Chinese film is international awards and the husband at home is recognition from the government. Everybody is competing for the government's favor and this turns people into fools. If one gains favor, the others all imitate him." Also, most of what we import for cinemas in China is Hollywood blockbusters, others can only be found in the pirated DVD market. It is misleading of audience's tastes. At the same time, the most anticipated Chinese directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige also join in with their blockbuster productions. This leaves the impression to audiences and publishers that only these such films can be rightfully called cinema film.


Renowned director Feng Xiaogang, who has in recent years built his reputation for New Year's releases, began this year to shoot a film with a 30 million dollar budget called Night Banquet. More directors are following suit.  



In his earlier years, young Chinese director Jia Zhangke talked more about film arts. As he began to concentrate more on film production, he talked more about investment and the film market.   


As a successful young director in China, Jia Zhangke is also beginning to plan big budget productions for his films. His last release, The World, was a failure at the box office this year but received much professional recognition from international film festivals.   


As to the question of variety, Chinese director Feng Xiaogang represents the perspective of directors. "If we did not shoot films, would it not also affect the variety of films? And if we did not make films, it does not automatically mean that other films can receive high box office earnings. We've given confidence to investors and won more opportunities for other directors. Then investors can have extra money to support more experimental films, which in turn helps stimulate diversity in the industry. It is rare nowadays to find a director who does not cater to audiences."  


(CRI December 7, 2005)

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