Like in previous years, March and April are always a slack time for the Chinese film industry. Compared to the four blockbusters from last Christmas, and Fearless during Spring Festival, it has really been quite dull lately but only in the realm of cinema. In the world outside the movie theaters there have been many highlights.
Hong Kong Film Awards
Undoubtedly, the most significant event in the Chinese entertainment world in recent months was the 25th Hong Kong Film Awards, which was held last Saturday.
The event was first launched in 1982 as the Hong Kong movie industry was enjoying its prime. Initially it was just a local activity. However, after developing for a quarter of a century, its influence already exceeds its competition the Golden Horse Film Awards in Taiwan Province and the Golden Rooster Awards on the Chinese mainland. It is considered by many as the Academy Awards of Chinese language films.
There has been an increasing melange of Hong Kong and Chinese mainland movies in recent years, especially since the Chinese central government resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997. Most movies produced in either location have participation with the other to the extent that it is sometimes difficult to decide whether they are a Hong Kong or a Chinese mainland production.
This year's Hong Kong Film Awards best reflects this trend. As so many familiar faces from the Chinese mainland including Zhang Ziyi, Li Bingbing, Fan Bingbing, Qin Hailu, Hu Jun, Xia Yu and Zhang Liangying were invited to the Hong Kong Coliseum, mandarin almost became the official language of the awards ceremony.
Zhou Xun, from the Chinese mainland, was awarded Best Actress for her impressive performance in Perhaps Love, the first Chinese musical in nearly four decades.
The movie, a Chinese mainland production helmed by Hong Kong veteran Peter Chan Ho-Sun, tells the story of an actress torn between the present and the past.
Besides Best Actress, Perhaps Love won in five further categories Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Original Film Score, Best Original Film Song and Best Costume scooping the most awards for any single film.
But the most prestigious awards Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor went to gangster movie Election starring Johnnie To.
Different from many other contemporary Hong Kong movies, Election, a violent tale of power struggling gangsters, has the least Chinese mainland elements, retaining an original Hong Kong flavor.
Migrant workers' lives focused
On the same day as the Hong Kong Film Awards ceremony, the 13th Beijing Film Festival for College Students opened in Beijing and three other Chinese cities, running until April 29.
Different from other film festivals, the event, held by the Beijing Normal University, is organized and attended by college students.
It is also an opportunity to watch the finest selection of domestic movies, most of which will never have a chance to be screened in foreign theaters. Every year about 200 movies are produced on the Chinese mainland, but only a handful are lucky enough to make it into cinemas, and even fewer will enjoy a marketing potential.
The Movie Channel of China Central Television (CCTV), the largest national TV network in China, buys the TV broadcasting rights of every Chinese movie. For most movies, this is the only way to balance their budget.
This year, a total of 30 Chinese movies made last year will be shown in 150 universities across the country within three weeks. It is estimated that the total audience will exceed 2 million.
Although Perhaps Love is being screened, it is not likely to draw much attention since it has already been widely shown.
Many believe the most striking production is Loach Is Fish Too, which won the Best Artistic Contribution at last year's Tokyo International Film Festival.
The film follows the stories of two migrant workers from rural areas now working at a construction site in Beijing.
The two, a struggling woman raising two daughters on her own and a man she meets on train, share the same name Ni Qiu, which refers to the small freshwater fish, the "loach." As the two men work together to fight against the difficulties of their lives, their fates are gradually intertwined.
The film, starring famous anchorwoman Ni Ping, does a superb job of depicting the hardships faced by migrant workers that have flooded cities to find employment.
The director, Yang Yazhou, famous for realism in previous work, continues his trademark style by presenting many scenes of drudgery and camaraderie among laborers. According to Yang, many scenes in the movie are shot on real construction sites and all the extras are "genuine migrant workers."
According to Yang, Loach is the first time that migrant workers have ever been portrayed in a Chinese movie.
Another movie that won the Best Actress award at last year's Tokyo Film Festival, You and Me, will also be shown at the student festival. Starring 84-year-old Jin Yaqin, it features the friendship between a girl and an old woman.
Other movies that will be shown include Perpetual Motion, Aspirin and The Contract.
Perpetual Motion, a drama from auteur Ning Ying, follows a night of celebration that turns into a subtle interrogation among three old friends.
It is New Year's Eve in Beijing, and Niuniu, the editor of a successful fashion magazine, lays out a feast of gourmet food and invites three of her best friends for an evening of girl talk. But she has more in mind than just a fun evening indoors. She has discovered that her husband is having an affair with one of her closest friends, and over the course of the evening, she hopes to find out who has betrayed her.
Aspirin, starring and financed by actress Mei Ting, is an urban girl's adventure in seeking true love.
In The Contract, directed by Lu Xuechang, a university student has to persuade a prostitute to pretend to be his fiance and meet his parents in the countryside. When the "rent period" deadline approaches, both are struggling with their double roles.
Zhang Yimou's movie
Since it began shooting in February, Zhang Yimou's latest costume epic, The City of Golden Armour has been the talk of town.
With a budget of about 360 million yuan (US$44 million), the movie, aimed for release in late 2006, will refresh the Chinese budget record.
The movie is being shot in Beijing and will transfer to Hengdian, a renowned film production base in East China's Zhejiang Province.
The movie has a star-studded cast. Gong Li plays the part of the empress, opposite an emperor played by Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-fat.
Taiwan pop idol Jay Chow plays the role of the second prince whose lowly mother is banished from the ancient Chinese palace. He becomes a general with powerful martial accomplishments and seeks revenge for the unfair treatment of his mother.
The latest news is that the director has praised the talents of Jay Chow.
"His performance has surpassed the atmosphere created by the original script," Zhang was quoted as saying.
"Chow has surprised me with his sentimental expression. I expected he would be OK with his cool appearance, but his performance has been beyond my expectations. He is a successful singer now, and maybe he will become an outstanding actor and even a director," Zhang said.
On Tuesday, Zhang Ziyi reportedly visited the crew and talked with Gong Li and Zhang Yimou. According to The Beijing News, a local daily in Beijing, Zhang Ziyi, who does not have a part in Golden Armor, asked the director to consider her in his next movie.
Gong and Zhang are the two most famous Chinese actresses in the world. They were both brought to stardom by Zhang Yimou.
Zhang Ziyi first partnered with Zhang Yimou in The Road Home in 1999.
Gong and the director first collaborated on Red Sorghum, released in 1987. The partnership extended to films like Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, and The Story of Qiu Ju. However, the two haven't worked together since Shanghai Triad, released in 1995.
The director's signatory kung fu epic Hero is the best-selling Chinese movie ever made, but it seems that Golden Armor will outshine the scale of the former.
Battle scenes in Golden Armor will involve an estimated 20,000 extras, while Hero only used 1,200.
(China Daily April 13, 2006)