China’s directors quake

New WTO ruling means Hollywood gains unrestricted access to China

China’s directors quake

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The point of a disaster film is often the spectacle: the Titanic being lifted vertically out of the ocean and snapping in half before sinking into eternity, for example, or Las Vegas collapsing into an earthly chasm (courtesy of 2012).

But Feng Xiaogang, China’s most successful commercial filmmaker, has a different view of what a disaster film should be all about.

His latest film, Aftershock, is the story of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, one of the deadliest on record. But rather than the usual onslaught of special effects, Feng’s 135-minute tale due out in late July tells the story of a woman who survives the earthquake and reunites with the daughter she thought she had lost to the disaster.

“Many directors hope their films are epics, but I would rather capture the fate of ordinary people,” says Feng. That is not to say that Feng has dispensed with visual impact altogether. Aftershock is also the first Chinese collaboration with IMAX, which is helping to digitally remaster the film (see WiC47). And to make sure the earthquake looks real, Feng says he got help from visual effects experts from South Korea and the French media firm Technicolour. Weta Digital, the company made famous by Peter Jackson and also a producer of effects for Avatar, was among his advisors.

Initial reviews of the film have been positive. And audiences do get the requisite disaster scenes, in spite of Feng’s rhetoric to the contrary. Survivors of the real thing have also told the Global Times that the four-minute earthquake scene held true to events in Tangshan 34 years ago, following a preview screening in the city last week.

Inviting survivors to relive their experiences might sound a little tasteless to some. But most attendees seemed appreciative. “The scenes are so real that I started crying immediately,” said 73 year-old Wang Hongru, although he also thanked Feng for letting the current generation understand what Tangshan people went through.

Feng told reporters earlier that he expected Aftershock to make Rmb500 million ($73 million) at the mainland box office. That would make it the highest grossing domestic film (the highest grosser overall goes to Avatar, which took in Rmb1 billion).

Industry observers are also paying close attention to whether Aftershock can fend off Hollywood imports like Knight and Day and Toy Story 3, which are also showing in China this week. The reason: Beijing has agreed to open up the domestic market for entertainment goods by March 19 next year, in line with a World Trade Organisation ruling. That should mean more access to the Chinese market for international book publishers, music producers and film-makers.

The original WTO challenge was brought in April 2007. The US argued that the controls robbed foreign firms of substantial sales prospects. The Ministry of Commerce had said in its defence that entertainment goods should be handled differently from other imports because of their cultural impact.

But with the WTO’s rejection of the Chinese appeal, policymakers will find it tougher to keep foreign films out of the country’s cinemas – currently it only allows a tiny 20 foreign movies to show each year.

Local filmmakers are now worried that big-budget Hollywood blockbusters could dominate the domestic box office. Ticket revenues have seen annual growth of more than 20% since 2002.

So, a disaster movie in the making for the prospects of Chinese filmmakers? Maybe not. China could still play the censorship card to block an influx of foreign films, according to reports in the South China Morning Post.

Others had a more positive spin. “In a competitive market, well-made Chinese films will compete head-to-head with well-made Hollywood, French and UK films,” says Robert Pisano, president of the Motion Picture Association of America. “The key to success is to tell the stories people want to see.”

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