The maestro rides again

Veteran director sees box office bounce from Olympics

Chinese director Zhang speaks to the media during a news conference for his opening film at the 15th Pusan International Film Festival in Busan

Master of ceremonies: Zhang

Zhang Yimou has set many records over a prolific directorial career of nearly four decades. He was the first Chinese filmmaker to win the prestigious Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival with his 1987 debut feature Red Sorghum, which starred his long-time muse, actress Gong Li.

His next project Ju Dou was also popular: the 1990 film was nominated for the Cannes Palme d’Or and went on to become China’s first nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.

Zhang is also the first person to direct the opening ceremonies at two Olympic Games (a feat that almost certainly won’t be repeated). The 71 year-old filmmaker organised the opening sequences for the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, which featured 15,000 performers and showcased the breadth of Chinese history in a four-hour masterpiece. And last week he was at the helm again for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics.

This time round, the ceremony was significantly smaller in scale than the prior one, featuring 3,000 performers and lasting just under two hours. This, said Zhang, was largely because of coronavirus concerns (for more about the opening ceremony, see Talking Point).

Last week’s ceremony had more of an environmental theme too. Zhang chose to count down to the show from the number 24. This was based on the 24 Chinese solar terms, representing the total number of periods in the Chinese lunar calendar that demonstrate changes in nature and climate. The lighting of the Olympic flame also had a greener theme.

“Director Zhang Yimou is amazing. When it comes to art direction and aesthetics, there is nothing you can pick apart,” one fan applauded.

Zhang’s work at the Olympics has meant that he’s had less time to spare for his other directorial efforts. The filmmaker was so caught up with his preparations for the Games that there was less opportunity to promote his new film Sniper, which he directed with his daughter Zhang Mo. Despite strong ratings on film review site Douban, the military drama earned just Rmb200 million in box office take during the Chinese New Year holiday. “Because of the opening ceremony of the Games, I am too busy to take care of my new film,” Zhang told CCTV anchor Bai Yansong last Friday, adding that the number of cinema screens allocated to his film around the country had been “miserable”.

Last Sunday saw war epic Battle of Lake Changjin 2 awarded about 37% of cinema capacity, with Sniper getting just 7% of screens, despite its strong audience feedback (7.7 out of 10 on Douban, the best of all the films released during the holiday period).

Its producers also complained that the film, which featured a cast of little-known actors, was given undesirable time slots in cinema schedules, such as early in the morning or near midnight.

Many of Zhang’s fans took note of the limited time that he had available to promote his own release. More than 110 million netizens were soon following the same debate on Sina Weibo, with actor Yu Hewei one of a number of stars to post support for the film on his personal weibo account.

“We should go to watch Sniper even it is only a compensation [for Zhang] for his spectacular opening ceremony of the Games,” he urged.

The pleas seemed to have made an impact. This week, the number of screens showing Sniper edged up beyond 10%. Nevertheless some of its lower proportion of box office take than rival offerings was a result of the distributor cutting the price of tickets for the film from Rmb35 to Rmb30 last Sunday, making it the cheapest to see of the eight new features released during the Spring Festival holiday period…

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