Entertainment, Talking Point

Following the script

What were the big themes of 2018? China’s movie industry has the answers

Zhang Ziyi-w

Actress Zhang Ziyi made an appearance to present an award and explain why the show was so special

Four of the most famous huabiao in China can be found in Tiananmen Square. The giant marble columns were built in the Ming Dynasty as imperial signage flanking the Forbidden Palace, although the huabiao originated some 2,000 years ago as signposts for rulers to solicit public views.

It seems fitting that what is now being positioned as the greatest official honour for the Chinese film industry is also named after the huabiao – with winners receiving Oscar-sized gold trophies in the same shape as the imperial columns.

The Huabiao Film Awards are not new – this was the seventeenth time they’ve been handed out. But with the almighty controversy stirred at the rival Taiwanese Golden Horse ceremony last month (see WiC433), it was clear that this year’s event was more politically-charged than ever. And as the cameras panned across the room, it was also evident that China’s acting and movie production elite had obeyed a three-line whip to attend the ceremony and show their appreciation to the Party.

Broadcast live on state television last weekend the event also signalled that after a tumultuous year of tax scandals, the entertainment industry had been brought to heel.

So who won gongs and why were some of the selections significant?

And the Huabiao goes to…

It was minus 8 degree Celsius in the Chinese capital last weekend but more than 300 A-listers braved the red carpet walk into Beijing’s Water Cube Olympic venue where the ceremony was held.

Most of the actresses avoided flashy international labels for an evening rich in patriotic rhetoric (co-host Li Bingbing looked to be wearing a local designer rather than her more usual Gucci, for instance). Foreign media was barely present but the Chinese newspapers marvelled at the sheer star power at the government-run event.

The usual suspects such as Zhang Yimou and Jackie Chan were there, with Hong Kong’s Stephen Chow also making a surprise appearance. The comedian has shunned movie awards in Hong Kong for at least 10 years but Beijing News said Chow wanted to be there to present the Best Child’s Movie award.

“This must be the most expensive movie award ceremony in history,” Taiwan’s United Daily News suggested, noting that nearly all the best-known directors and artists in China were present.

Zhang Ziyi didn’t get one of the 20 or so prizes this year but the actress came on stage to explain how the Huabiao differs from two other film industry awards in mainland China. She noted that while the Hundred Flowers are decided by public voting and the Golden Roosters are picked by industry professionals, the Huabiao Film Awards are given out by the country’s powerful media regulator. In other words, the Huabiao awards are not so much a recognition of popularity or professionalism but the level of government approval.

Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards have historically garnered more attention in Hong Kong and Taiwan. But with Beijing keen to boost the standing of the Huabiao, entertainment magazine Variety believes that the Taipei event’s claim to being the “Chinese Oscars” will be challenged, especially after a Golden Horse winner sparked a row this year over the island’s sovereignty status during her acceptance speech, triggering vitriol from mainland netizens.

The year’s most popular film?

The action flick Operation Red Sea was the biggest winner at this month’s Huabiao, winning the Best Film and earning its Hong Kong-born director Dante Lam the Best Director gong. Earning Rmb3.8 billion ($530 million) domestically, it was also the best grossing movie this year (and the second highest of all time in China). Operation Mekong, another war film directed by Lam, grossed Rmb1.1 billion.

The success of patriotic fare like this has taken China closer towards overtaking the US as the world’s biggest film market, a scenario that industry analysts have predicted for full-year 2019. In the first half of this year it was ahead, although it has slowed over the autumn. According to Xinhua, box office takings grossed over Rmb56.7 billion in the first eleven months and a strong yearend could take it past Rmb60 billion for the first time.

The Pentagon has sometimes turned to Hollywood for a bit of promotional pizzazz in the past (think Top Gun) and Chinese moviemakers are drawing from the same genre. The plot of Operation Red Sea, for example, is set around an evacuation mission by the People’s Liberation Army off the coast of Africa, and the film was funded by the Chinese military (see WiC404). The subtext is pretty clear. “The message of Operation Red Sea is quite clearly that the Chinese military can do the things that the United States military does just as effectively,” the Diplomat magazine claimed.

Yet Chinese media argues that the movie is also a reflection of how China offers a new approach in its dealings with African countries. “While China’s classic war movies portrayed war as glorious, Operation Red Sea actually preaches peace,” Xinhua noted, adding that the movie is set to represent Hong Kong for the Best Foreign Language Film honour at the next Academy Awards.

Step forward Wolf Warriors too…

At Rmb5.7 billion, Wolf Warrior 2 is the best grossing Chinese movie of all time (see WiC376). The crowd-pleasing drama follows a PLA special forces veteran as he battles Western mercenaries during another evacuation mission in Africa.

The movie won Wu Jing the Best Actor award and the action star was quick to offer his appreciation during the Huabiao ceremony. “The prize is very weighty. I have to say thank you to my country, as well as the era that we are living in,” he proclaimed, before giving a broad hint that Wolf Warrior 3 can be expected soon.

The patriotic undertones in the franchise are unapologetic. The first Wolf Warrior movie opens with a tagline that translates as: “Anyone who offends China will be killed, no matter how far away they run”. And its more popular sequel closes with an image of a Chinese passport and a short message: “When you encounter danger on foreign soil, do not give up. Please remember, at your back stands a strong motherland.”

Audiences seemed impressed, and the critics say that the popularity of Wolf Warrior 2 has underlined the need for more grizzled local heroes. “We need our own tough guys, we need our own Sylvester Stallone,” one critic with the Shanghai Daily wrote.

Are ‘Cold War’ movies next?

Played by the very same Stallone, John Rambo gunned down Soviet villains during the Cold War era. But despite all the talk of Sino-US relations deteriorating to “Cold War status” (see WiC428) none of the Chinese studios have released a film of this ilk.

There has been no shortage of Western bad guys in Chinese movies in general but they are generally depicted in a nondescript, non-nationalised way.

How about the other way around? The New York Times spotted a Chinese villain in a Hollywood blockbuster, with the 2012 remake of the Cold War drama Red Dawn set to depict Chinese soldiers invading an American city.

Following protests in the Chinese media, MGM digitally erased the Chinese army, frame by frame, and substituted the North Koreans in as baddies instead.

The New York Times pointed out that, commercially-speaking, Hollywood had no choice but to cave in to Chinese pressure. “China’s booming box office and seemingly inexhaustible cash reserves have provided a much-needed boost to Hollywood as it faces slowing ticket sales in the United States and challenges from Amazon and Netflix,” it wrote.

Indeed, the links between Hollywood and the Chinese entertainment world are deepening. Of the top 100 highest grossing Hollywood films globally from 1997 to 2013, the Chinese helped to finance just 12 of them. But that number has jumped to 41 over the past five years.

Of course, the biggest economic story of 2018 has been the outbreak of the China-US trade war, but so far the American movie industry has not been a target for Chinese action. Disney’s blockbuster takeover of 21st Century Fox sailed through Beijing’s antitrust review last month and four of the top 10 grossing movies in China this year have been Hollywood productions. It could soon be five out of ten given the strong debut of Aquaman this week.

Hollywood must be braced for collateral damage should the trade and tech rows escalate next year. On the other hand, it may even be a beneficiary of better relations: Sina Entertainment expects that a relaxation of the cap on imported films – 34 every year currently – could be a bargaining chip as both countries try to reach a trade deal in the coming three months.

The import cap is one of the biggest obstacles to the Hollywood bosses. The only way to circumvent the quota system is to co-produce with a Chinese firm, which makes it a domestic film for regulatory purposes. But that means giving up a share of the profits. And it adds a number of other stipulations, like requiring a movie to have a certain number of Chinese actors and filming locations in China.

What were the hits and flops?

Hollywood sci-fi and special effects have delivered box office gold in the Chinese market. Out of the top 20 grossing films this year, nine are American imports and if you exclude Tom Cruise’s sixth Mission Impossible movie, all the rest are about superheroes or monsters.

Avengers: Infinity War and Venom both made it to the China top 10, although Jurassic World 2 (dinosaurs), Rampage (another gigantic gorilla) and The Meg (a megalodon shark) were snapping at their heels.

Chinese studios find it trickier to excel in this genre. Critics had high hopes for fantasy film Asura, which was co-produced by internet giant Alibaba. The movie was heavily promoted as China’s most expensive film ever made with a budget of over Rmb750 million, with hopes that it could kick off a major local fantasy franchise akin to Lord of the Rings. But Asura opened to just $7 million of ticket sales in July. The debut was so disastrous that producers pulled it from cinemas within a week (see WiC419).

According to news portal 36Kr, the more successful trend in local cinema this year was “the return of Chinese movies to social reality”.

Chen Jin, for instance, won the Huabiao’s Best Actress with her role in Hold Your Hands, a movie about the government’s poverty-fighting programme in a village in Hunan (it had earlier received a visit from Chinese leader Xi Jinping, which explains the choice of location).

But the biggest surprise hit of the year was Dying to Survive (see WiC417). Based on the real-life struggle of a leukaemia patient who smuggled cheaper generic drugs from India to save himself and others, the black comedy earned more than Rmb3 billion in July. Unlike Asura it was made on a tiny budget.

Dying to Survive was so popular that it even spurred a new call from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to speed up his government’s medical reforms including the production of more affordable and domestically-produced drugs. But the film’s more cynical message about local healthcare was vindicated by a vaccine scandal that roiled the country in the same month – and discredited several local pharma firms (see WiC419).

So a good year for the film industry in general?

2018 could still go down as the year China overtook Hollywood as the world’s biggest film market. Ironically it is also a year that many of the wealthiest stars and movie bosses will want to forget.

A number of hyper-acquisitive firms have been forced to scale back their overseas expansion following a crackdown from the government. Wanda Group’s Wang Jianlin threw his commercial coming-out party in 2013 with a slew of Hollywood A-listers walking the red carpet at his $8 billion studio and entertainment complex (see WiC211). But when the Qingdao Movie Metropolis finally opened in April no big name stars turned up and Wang had given up his dream of out-muscling Disney by selling off Wanda’s theme parks and property assets (see WiC395). To raise funds the company is now also trying to bring in new investors at its trophy Hollywood buys including Legendary Entertainment and AMC.

Other movie bosses have had a harder year raising capital too and Huayi Brothers and Enlight Media, two leading local studios, both saw their listed firms lose nearly 50% in market value at some point.

Indeed, the local media has talked about a “freezing winter” for the entertainment sector. Beijing has cracked down on various malpractices, beginning with box office fraud (see WiC426). Regulators then turned their attention to tax evasion by film studios and artists. The most high-profile catch was the actress Fan Bingbing, who was slapped with fines totalling nearly Rmb900 million in October (see WiC427). Fan disappeared from the public eye three months earlier to undergo questioning.

For fairly obvious reasons Fan was a notable absentee at this year’s Huabiao ceremony.

According to Sina Entertainment, the taxman has visited more than 500 celebrities and a number of A-listers are preparing to cough up hundreds of millions of yuan of unpaid taxes.

As 2018 draws to a close, the government’s control over the industry looks to be getting tighter and tighter.

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