After Kathryn Bigelow’s film K-19: The Widowmaker made a $34 million loss in 2002, Hollywood’s powerbrokers gave her a wide berth. In macho Tinseltown, Bigelow’s treatment seemed to underscore that it was doubly-hard to bounce back from a box office flop if you were a female director.
In fact, Bigelow didn’t get the chance to make another film until 2008, this time with a budget of just $15 million. But the film in question – The Hurt Locker – would go on to make Oscar history, winning six gongs and announcing Bigelow as the first woman in history to win an Academy Award for directing.
Only 9% of the top 250 films at the US box office last year were made by female directors, says the New York Times. That’s already substantially higher than the 2011 figure of 5%, but like Hollywood, there is also a dearth of women behind the camera in China. No official statistics are available, but by WiC’s own calculation only three films made in China last year were directed by women.
Could this be the year that the trend changes? Between March and April, eight female filmmakers will be showcasing their work in China and Hong Kong. Small wonder then, that China Vogue has declared it the “Season of Chinese Women Directors”.
First comes Zhao Wei’s So Young, a coming-of-age story about a young woman’s emotional struggle when she reconnects with two men years after a university love triangle. Zhao put her Rolodex to good use, hiring director Stanley Kwan as the film’s executive producer. So Young is also her graduation project, with the former actress set to complete a master’s degree in directing at the Beijing Film Academy, the country’s most prestigious film school.
Also this month actress-turned-director Charlie Yeung will make her directing debut bringing Christmas Rose to the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Unlike Zhao, who picked the romantic comedy (an area where female filmmakers have enjoyed success), Christmas Rose is a courtroom drama revolving around a sexual harassment case.
Yeung, too, has lured a strong cast for her first feature, including Hong Kong singer and actor Aaron Kwok and Taiwan’s Gui Lun-mei. Senior filmmakers Tsui Hark and Jacob Cheung are the producers of the film.
When asked about her experience directing, Yeung admits that it wasn’t easy: “This is my first time being a director and all the challenges I encountered were beyond my imagination. In the beginning I didn’t even know how to film,” she told the Chongqing Morning Post.
Christmas Rose will be one of six Chinese-language films directed by women at this year’s Hong Kong festival, which started this month. They include: Emily Tang’s All Apologies, Quan Ling’s Forgetting to Know You, Song Fang’s Memories Look at Me, Yang Lina’s Longing for the Rain and Huang Ji’s Trace. Another director from Hong Kong, Ann Hui, says that female filmmakers are making progress in China. When she started out in the industry, Hui told reporters in 2011, there were less than half a dozen female directors. She now estimates there are at least 10 young female filmmakers in Hong Kong alone.
Many of them are starting to enjoy commercial success. The latest feature from Xue Xiaolu – Beijing Meets Seattle – hit the big screen in China two weeks ago (see WiC183) and has led the box office since release. Asked about the contrast between male and female directors, Xue said: “I don’t think there is any difference. Perhaps female filmmakers focus more on the emotional aspect of the film and pay closer attention to details. But these are good things.”
Judging from the takings for Beijing Meets Seattle, Xue’s feminine perspective could also turn out to be a very profitable one. Industry observers say the film could gross at least Rmb250 million ($40.3 million), rendering it one of the best performing romantic comedies yet.
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