A Flaubert flop

Why is Feng Xiaogang’s latest film underperforming at the box office?

Taiwan Golden Horse Awards

Fan Bingbing: flew to Taiwan for Golden Horse, but didn’t win award

Feng Xiaogang has been lauded for his Midas touch. Virtually every film he has directed has been a box office success. Even when he took time away from the director’s chair to star in the little-known crime drama Mr Six, Feng was still a winner, last year taking the best actor title at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards, the Oscars for Mandarin-language films.

But Feng’s reputation as a box office ‘sure thing’ was put to the test after a disappointing opening for his latest feature I Am Not Madame Bovary.

The film, which took only Rmb320 million ($46.46 million) in its crucial first weekend, is forecast to take no more than Rmb500 million by the end of its run, a much smaller sum than his last offering Personal Tailor, which earned Rmb700 million in 2013.

Madame Bovary’s path to the big screen hasn’t been straightforward. After winning critical acclaim at international film festivals in Toronto and San Sebastian in September, it was scheduled for release in China during October’s weeklong National Day Festival, one of the busiest movie-going seasons of the year.

But the sensitive subject matter – the film is a social satire that ridicules the Chinese bureaucracy – forced its producer and distributor Huayi Brothers to push the release date back to November.

No matter: in this quieter month Huayi and Feng thought their offering would benefit from less competition than during the frenetic holiday season.

What they did not anticipate is that the regulators would decide at the last minute to schedule Hollywood blockbusters in a bid to boost audience interest, which has been waning.

Added to the roster were Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the Harry Potter spinoff, as well as Disney’s animation film Moana.

As if this wasn’t tough enough, Feng has also accused Wanda, the country’s biggest cinema operator, of “sabotaging” his film by limiting its screenings.

In a letter published on his personal weibo, the filmmaker complained that Madame Bovary had received 10.9% of the screening slots in cinemas run by Wanda, which is owned by billionaire Wang Jianlin, compared with 40% in other major theatre chains.

The move, he wrote, was retaliation against Huayi Brothers for poaching one of Wanda’s senior executives earlier this year.

Wang Sicong, a.k.a Wang Jianlin’s high-profile son, responded to Feng’s accusations by suggesting his film simply wasn’t strong enough to deserve more screenings.

“If your film has good box office results, we will increase the screenings accordingly. You, as a director, should speak with really good films in hand,” he scoffed.

The reviews for Madame Bovary have been mixed. It stars Fan Bingbing who plays a woman who discovers her husband has been cheating on her (see WiC341 for more). The South China Morning Post describes it as Feng’s “most adventurous film yet – both aesthetically and politically”. Much of the action is shown in circular and square frames – a style commonly used in contemporary Chinese ink paintings, but a radical cinematic effect.

Some cinemagoers were very pleased with what they’d seen. “I wasn’t expecting a film about the political system. It vividly portrays how officials behave when they are being watched and when they are not,” one gushed on Douban, a review site. “The cast is superb. Even the circle and square-frame filming style is something we have never seen before. It’s great to see that director Feng is still pushing his limits and giving us something new every time.”

But not everyone was so complimentary: “The story is just average. Even the round and square frames are more of a gimmick than anything. Director Feng, have you ever considered the feelings of the audience?”

“The dialogue is stupid. The story is lengthy. The sarcasm and cynicism is dull. All in all, the film is just not funny,” another wrote.

The professional critics were much more supportive. At this year’s Golden Horse Awards, which took place in Taipei last weekend, Feng was named best director for Madame Bovary. Hong Kong filmmaker Anne Hui, a member of the selection jury, told Tencent Entertainment, a portal, that Feng had won because “as a mature filmmaker, he still demonstrates a lot of initiative and the ability to experiment”.

This year’s Golden Horse ceremony was dominated by mainland Chinese stars. Even though Fan did not win best actress, two other mainlanders – Zhou Dongyu and Ma Sichun – were named joint winner for their role in Soul Mate. Mainland actor Fan Wei, too, beat rivals Tony Leung Kai-fai and Jacky Cheung to win the best actor in Mr No Problem.

The successes struck a raw nerve with some Taiwanese. The awards, which used to be a showcase for the island’s once flourishing film industry, now serve as more of a reminder of the ailing fortunes of Taipei’s showbiz scene. While mainland actors and filmmakers took all the major gongs, the only bright spot for Taiwan was Lin Bo-hong winning best supporting actor for his role in At Café 6.

“Please host the show in China. I’m about to cough out blood,” complained one Taiwanese who attended the event. “People who aren’t familiar with the Golden Horse probably think it is a mainland film award given that all the winners were from China,” another vented.

That said, Taiwan’s top director first diagnosed that the industry was drifting northwards a few years ago. In an interview with the New Cultural Newspaper in 2013, Lee Ang, the island’s most famous filmmaker, opined that the challenge from mainland China was inevitable because Taiwan’s film sector was made up of two types of genres – one is “boring art-house films” and the other “well, I don’t even know how to describe them”.

A shortage of investment is also crippling the island’s movie business. “Taiwan’s film industry is very short of money, while the mainland’s is flooded with cash. In recent years, the influx of capital into China’s film and television industry has not only pushed up the box office but also made the share prices of relevant Chinese media firms go up, thereby channelling even more investment into the sector,” says Chief Entertainment Officer, an entertainment blog.

As the backlash against this year’s Golden Horse awards has revealed, the fear in Taiwan is that its entertainment industry is going to be permanently outgunned.

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