The truth is out

Why new movie based on a true story is such a novelty in Chinese cinema

The truth is out

True story, true love: Li Feier

China is no stranger to mining accidents. In fact, the country is the world leader when it comes to mining fatalities. In 2009, it reported 2,631 deaths, according to the work safety administration. Surprisingly that was considered good news, well down on the 6,995 headcount for 2002.

With that level of human misery, perhaps it’s no surprise that there is now a movie based on a mining accident. Together is inspired by a true story in Guizhou, in which three coal miners (played by Daniel Chan, Li Yu and Ni Dahong) were trapped in a coalmine for 17 days and 15 hours. As such it strikes a chord with the recent Hollywood blockbuster, 127 Hours, adapted from the true story of a Colorado mountain climber trapped by a boulder.

Like 127 Hours, Together is a story about survival and courage. Yan Ran, the director of the film, said he was inspired by the story of the miners, and there were parallels with the experience of the Chilean miners conduct underground too. The men survived as a group, under impressive leadership. Adding to the drama is the anguish of those above the mine, praying for the survival of their loved ones, including Chan’s love interest in the movie, Xiao Wen (played by actress Li Feier).

Together is one of a less common breed in China’s film industry today – one based on a true story. Hollywood has a longer list of such fare: this year’s Best Picture Oscar went to a film that told the true story of a British monarch’s battle with a stammer (The King’s Speech) and other Oscar nominated films at past Academy Awards include The Blind Side, An Education, Milk, Erin Brockovich, and Frost-Nixon – all stories inspired by real events. Or consider The Social Network and A Beautiful Mind, the former nominated for Best Picture and the latter winning it. Both purported to be based on real people and events (albeit taking some dramatic license every now and again).

In China it’s harder to think of locally-made ‘true story’ films. The nation’s most internationally acclaimed director has experimented with the genre. Zhang Yimou’s Not One Less was based on the story of a young girl teaching at a poor rural school. Biopics about ancient people are more common fare, such as a movie about Confucius (a big-budget version came out last year, starring Chow Yun-fat). Given thousands of years have elapsed since the sage’s death and academics battle over the chronology of his life, few would classify this as ‘true’ in the way Together is.

Why is the ‘true story’ genre that’s so loved by Hollywood studio execs so much less likely to reach cinemas in China? Chinese directors probably know that local audiences would be equally keen to watch such movies. However, they also realise that getting the censors at SARFT to approve such scripts can be tougher, with gritty (contemporary) true stories potentially more politically sensitive.

Yan’s got the go ahead, but perhaps it’s no coincidence that the film’s theme of proletarian heroism is the sort of thing that’s been popular with Chinese leaders since 1949.

Likewise it helps that the villain of the film is an exploitative mine owner, a businessman who cuts corners on safety but sends the miners deep underground anyway. Given the campaign to see China’s state-owned mines acquire those of less scrupulous operators (see WiC1) this is also a message that fits with the government line. Beijing claims that fewer accidents occur at state-owned mines and that, as the industry consolidates, miners will enjoy safer conditions.

Let’s see if that turns out true.

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