Wang Xiaoshuai is at it again. Last year the director of Shanghai Dreams (and a staunch critic of China’s movie industry) called local films “too commercial” at the Shanghai International Film Festival. This year, Wang told the press at the Cannes Film Festival that the country’s film industry is “gradually dying”.
“Chinese artistic films will not bloom in 20 years’ time,” Wang warned in an interview with the Global Times.
The outspoken director has been at the centre of media attention lately as his latest film Chongqing Blues has been selected as one of the contenders for the Palme d’Or, the highest award at Cannes.
Chongqing Blues tells the story of a sea captain (played by veteran actor Wang Xueqi) who returns from a long sojourn to discover that local police have shot dead his son. He journeys through Chongqing to search for the truth about his son’s death, and discovers that the city has changed as much as his son – who became a criminal – had.
Even though the movie won applause from critics at Cannes, Wang reckons his film may not be a hit at home. “Cinemas are flourishing but all they want is to make quick money with commercial movies. A film on a serious subject like mine has little chance of being screened,” he laments.
Few know this better than Wang. As one of the ‘Sixth Generation’ film directors in China, his earlier films were not well-known, with six from eight banned from public screening. The two films that survived, Shanghai Dreams and In Love We Trust, were both lauded overseas. However, neither was well received in China: both only managing to fetch around Rmb3 million ($440,000) in ticket sales.
Last year films screened in China took Rmb6.2 billion at the box office, an increase of 44% from a year before. Chinese films outperformed Hollywood imports (there are many more screenings for domestically-made movies), taking 56.6% of the total, making more than Rmb3.5 billion. Analysts expect the Chinese box office to reach Rmb10 billion this year.
Yet far from inspiring local pride, recent films from well-known ‘Fifth Generation’ directors Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Feng Xiaogang have sparked a debate about the future of Chinese cinema, in particular whether leading filmmakers are selling out on their socially conscious past.
Some of the new offerings are not just being critiqued as overly commercial. They can also be “boring and hollow,” according to Cui Weiping, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, the country’s leading film school. “Big-budget films can certainly exist, but they don’t have to be so ugly,” he told the New York Times.
Policymakers, who have largely supported the emergence of bigger-budget films, have expressed concerns too. Mao Yu, a prominent official at SARFT – the country’s top media regulator – recently told the Beijing Youth Daily that he did not want to see “Hollywood-style” blockbusters taking over Chinese cinemas. He said that the government needed to devote more resources to developing locally-inspired content.
Other filmmakers remain unrepentant. “It is an outdated opinion to divide art and commerce, “says Lu Chuan, director for Nanjing, Nanjing. “Film, first and foremost, is a consumption product. Do not try to guide the viewers and look down on them from such a lofty position.”
But others are optimistic of a more sophisticated future. “Looking at the bright side, this is just a passing phase,” says director Wang Quan’an, also a member of the Sixth Generation. “Once people get fed up with these big-budget productions, they will seek out art films.”
Wang certainly hopes so. And he’s not so artsy as to eschew promotional tactics altogether. His leading lady in Chongqing Blues, Fan Bingbing, has been captivating Cannes (and the fashion pages) with appearances in a self-designed yellow ‘dragon robe’, as well as couture from Valentino and Elie Saab (see photo).
The media is impressed. The China Daily writes that “Wang’s leading actress has been stealing the show with her glamorous outfits” and fashion industry website Red Carpet ranked Fan as its Best Dressed Star at Cannes: “Everything about Fan from her gown, to her pose, to her accessories, to her overall styling screams elegance. It’s hard not to admire her.”
Presumably Director Wang will put up with a smidgeon of such trivial tittle tattle, if means that Chongqing Blues ends up with a wider viewing public? The film is due to be released in China in June.
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