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Shanghai Indie Goes Mainstream

Shanghai's sixth-generation movie directors are now getting the official recognition and opportunities they deserve. But will success spoil the edgy, artistic qualities that make these films so good, wonders Michelle Qiao.

For Chinese independent film director Wang Xiaoshuai, the invitation to participate in the Shanghai International Film Festival is a long overdue honor.

Despite his international recognition and awards, this has taken so long is part of the story of independent films in China. Participating in the festival for the first time is the just the beginning of Wang's introduction to the domestic market: During the festival, he is scheduled to sign a contract with the state-owned Shanghai Film Studio for a semi-autobiographical film with a budget of 8 million yuan (US$960,000), the largest in his career. "Beijing Bicycle," which won the silver at the Berlin Film Festival, is now being evaluated by the censors and may soon be screened in Chinese cinemas.

In the meantime, Jia Zhangke, another indie director scheduled to participate in the festival, has just finished his first movie in cooperation with the Shanghai Film Studio. After years of being banned, the work of independent directors is finally being mainstreamed. Wang and Jia, along with He Jianjun and Liu Bingjian, are part of China's sixth-generation directors.

Their work is distinguished from the epic-style and rural setting of fifth-generation directors like Zhang Yimou ("Raise the Red Lantern") and Chen Kaige ("Farewell My Concubine") with a gritty urban realism and an almost documentary style. Budget constraints mean that their films may be less colorful and occasionally use amateur actors, but the films are critically acclaimed internationally.

In China, however, they are never shown, either because of censorship or concerns over box-office returns. Wang's first film, "The Days," which depicts the final days of a deteriorating relationship between two artists in Beijing, cost less than 100,000 yuan.

The film premiered at his Danish friend's home in 1993 with an audience of only 20. "Censors today have a more open attitude," notes Wang. "They're making things easier for us by only asking for the script outline, rather than the entire screenplay. I can feel the Shanghai government's urge to recover the glorious past of the film industry here in the 1930s."

Movie fans, however, are concerned that official cooperation will mean the loss of the characteristics that make independent films so appealing. "I think the quality of their films will deteriorate," says Zhu Hongyin, a local film fan. "They cannot but help compromise after losing their independent status. It's not good for their art, but it is understandable. They have a desire to prove themselves and gain some measure of fame with their movies, but I am confident that not everyone will sell out to commercialization."

The directors themselves disagree, saying that art comes first. "I really don't think my style will change," says director Jia. "I wouldn't compromise for the sake of the box office. The Shanghai Film Studio has invested 8 million yuan for my next movie, 'The World.' If there is no response at the box office, I will continue to make my movies on budgets of 200,000 yuan or even less."

Not all independent filmmakers are following the same path. Shanghainese director Cheng Yusu commends those who are obtaining official recognition, noting that domestic market is an important one, "But I have chosen my own road. I'm going to cooperate with foreign filmmakers to produce English-language movies, for which there is a sizable overseas market," he adds. Today's emphasis on box-office returns has movie industry insiders wondering if these documentary-style independent films, which have been criticized as being targeted at Western tastes, will make it in the domestic market.

"Film is art with cultural value -- it's not just a product," says director Wang. "Looking at the film posters from the 1930s and 40s, I am reminded that these movies were made for the artistic sense -- not only because of commercial value. Today, movies are kind of slaves to the box office." Wang adds that good-quality films are essential for a thriving movie market. "We should protect original films. We should protect original creativity," he says. "The film market has been destroyed to the point that even the cinemas were renovated into skating rinks! If we are going to popularize films, we need more cinemas -- they need to be as convenient as coffee shops and neighborhood stores."

Raising the bar for quality films for Chinese audiences may take some time, says Wang. "There are classics and there are pot-boilers, and even if the public's tastes run to pot-boilers, we should never ignore the classics," he says. "Personally, I'm not any good at popular topics like kung fu or comics. I prefer suspense stories that focus on the complex, weird relationships among modern people, sprinkled with spice like trust crises and moral crises." "I admire their (six-generation directors') talent a great deal," says renowned Chinese director Ding Yinnan, who is chairman of the jury panel of the Shanghai International Film Festival.

"They have encountered obstacles. But they are still young. There are so many opportunities ahead. It is my sincere wish that they can leap over these obstacles." Wang notes that while wanting to create artistic masterpieces is a noble goal, going mainstream has its practical advantages. "Look, the worst fate for a film is to lie untouched in a studio warehouse," says Wang. "As long as people are watching, thinking and reacting to your movie, you succeed. And official recognition helps get your movie out there."

(eastday.com June 9, 2004)

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