Although he’s hailed as one of the most influential figures in modern Chinese cinema, Wu Tianming won’t be familiar to most WiC readers. When Zhang Yimou was shooting his directorial debut Red Sorghum, starring Gong Li and Jiang Wen, Wu raised Rmb40,000 for the young filmmaker, a significant sum at the time, to plant the sorghum field of the title. In an interview, Zhang admitted that Wu had “changed his life and destiny”.
It isn’t just Zhang who is grateful to Wu. When Wu was the head of Xi’an Film Studios, he transformed it from a provincial operation into a proving ground for up-and-coming filmmakers. Under his leadership, films like Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Horse Thief (1986) and Chen Kaige’s King of Children (1987) got made. Both directors have enjoyed thriving careers in the industry.
Wu died in 2014 aged 74. But a month before his death, he finished the filming on his last movie: Song of the Phoenix.
The indie film tells the story of an elderly musician – he plays the suona, or double-reed horn – who tries to pass the skill on to his son, despite the instrument’s declining popularity in the modern era.
Song of the Phoenix only recently completed its post-production and it was released in just a handful of cinemas. Like most art house offerings, it has been crushed by more commercial fare. With blockbusters like Captain America: Civil War and last week’s new animation Angry Birds dominating screens, Song of the Phoenix collected only Rmb3 million ($457,380) in ticket sales in its opening week.
Worried that Wu’s last work was getting no attention, Fang Li, one of the producers of the film, decided to take matters into his own hands. Last Thursday, he turned to social media, streaming a live feed of himself kneeling down and begging cinema operators to dedicate more screen time to Wu’s final creation.
“If you [the theatre manager] can give us prime scheduling, I am old and willing to kneel for you,” Fang pleaded, before spending the next 40 minutes explaining to younger viewers why Wu was a film legend.
Fang said he made the video because only 1% of screens across the country were showing Song of the Phoenix. And he reckoned that by the end of the second week cinema managers would ditch it completely.
“The reality is, the film is about to completely disappear. How can I not be moved [to do something]?” he told Southern Weekend.
Fang’s video went viral, with many netizens discussing whether China’s film industry had become too commercial and whether cinema chains should give smaller productions more of a chance.
In light of the outcry, larger operators like Huayi Brothers, China Film Stellar, UME and Broadway all promised to increase screenings of Song of the Phoenix at their theatres. By the end of last week, it had surged to Rmb30 million in ticket sales. Many of those who have seen it have been impressed, prompting a rating of 8.3 stars out of 10 on Douban, the TV and film review site. That may help the feature hit Rmb40 million in sales by the end of this week, which would count as a commercial success too (it cost Rmb10 million to make and Rmb3 million to promote, says Southern Weekend).
“Moviegoers prefer to watch star-studded commercial films. Theatres thus end up squeezing out art house films to make space for more screenings of profitable blockbusters. For films like Song of the Phoenix, which lack stars and funding for marketing, it means that the film flies under the radar for many moviegoers,” says the People’s Daily.
Even though Wu was a proponent of independent cinema, he also understood the importance of making movies that sell tickets. According to ThePaper.cn, the director once said: “At Xi’an Film Studios, we release two to three experimental films every year from the most courageous experimental filmmakers. They are not intended to make money. At best, they win a few awards overseas. On the other hand, the other three or four films we make I expect to earn enough money to keep the studio in business… This is the only way we can financially support filmmakers like Tian Zhuangzhuang and Chen Kaige.”
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