Chinese Cinema Today

A couple months ago I was asked to write this brief overview of the state of contemporary Chinese language cinema for the Estonian arts magazine Sirp. You can read this essay in Estonian on their website, and here, with their kind permission, is the original English language version.

Long one of the most vibrant and diverse film cultures in the world, the landscape of Chinese-language film has shifted dramatically over the last few years. Beginning with the handover of Hong Kong to Mainland China in 1997, the previously separate industries in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong have become increasingly enmeshed, and with the rapid expansion of theatrical exhibition on the mainland and an economic boom that has opened up a massive potential audience, China is set to overtake the United States as the largest movie market in the world. Chinese companies have begun investing heavily in Hollywood productions, while American companies are seeking closer ties with their Chinese counterparts. A Chinese company (Wanda) now owns the largest chain of exhibitors in the US (AMC Theatres), as well as an American production company (in January of 2016 they purchased Legendary Entertainment, producers or co-producers of Jurassic World, Blackhat, Pacific Rim and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, among other blockbusters). Warner Brothers recently launched a new production house in cooperation with Chinese company CMC to remake Warners properties like Miss Congeniality, and release original films from veteran Hong Kong filmmakers Peter Chan and Stephen Fung along with Jackie Chan and Brett Ratner. CMC also has a joint venture with Dreamworks Animation, Oriental Dreamworks, which released Kung Fu Panda 3 this past January. Complicating this vast influx of cash into film production is China’s oft-arcane system of censorship and import quotas, which limit the kinds of films that can be shown in the nation’s theatres, as well as a tradition of gaming the system, if not outright corruption, in box office accounting. In the past few weeks, widespread fraud in the reporting of the grosses of Donnie Yen’s Ip Man 3 was discovered, leading to punitive action against the film’s local distributor and participating exhibitors.

With this dynamic and rapidly developing film culture, trying to predict what Chinese-language cinema is going to be like in five or ten years is a fool’s game. Instead, by taking a snapshot look at a few examples from the past year, we can get a sense of where the culture is at right now. From The Mermaid’s astounding box office success, to Go Away Mr. Tumor’s unique disregard for generic expectations; from Jia Zhangke’s idiosyncratic move toward the mainstream of the international art house with Mountains May Depart, to Bi Gan’s microbudgeted, experimental and defiantly local debut Kaili Blues, Chinese cinema is one of the most financially lucrative and aesthetically innovative cinemas in the world.

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This Week in Rankings

With the Seattle International Film Festival just around the corner, I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks reading actual books (Joan Didion, John McPhee and James Agee) and watching baseball (and playing Out of the Park) rather than watching movies, trying to save up energy for the endless slog that is the world’s most exhausting film festival. But before that little break, I did write some stuff: I watched a bunch of Chinese language films from 1996 to compile an Underrated ’96 piece for Rupert Pupkin Speaks, including Johnnie To’s A Moment of Romance III. I wrote about Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! and Alexander Sokurov’s Francofonia for Seattle Screen Scene, along with the Chinese thriller Chongqing Hot PotI also wrote about the state of Chinese cinema for the Estonian magazine Sirp. You can read it here in Estonian, I plan to publish the original English version in a few days.

Since the last update we’ve done four episodes of The Frances Farmer ShowMysterious Object at Noon and Gates of the NightProspero’s Books and The Princess of FranceYouth of the Beast and Sonatine, and A Brighter Summer Day, SPL 2 and Purple Rain.

These are the movies I’ve watched and rewatched over the last few weeks and where they place on my year-by-year rankings.

Gates of the Night (Marcel Carné) – 14, 1946
Dirty Gertie from Harlem USA (Spencer Williams) – 17, 1946
Youth of the Beast (Seijun Suzuki) – 15, 1963
Battles Without Honor and Humanity (Kinji Fukasaku) – 6, 1973
Deadly Fight in Hiroshima (Kinji Fukasaku) – 12, 1973

Proxy War (Kinji Fukasaku) – 21, 1973
Final Episode (Kinji Fukasaku) – 18, 1974
Police Tactics (Kinji Fukasaku) – 31, 1974
Purple Rain (Albert Magnoli) – 12, 1984
Under the Cherry Moon (Prince) – 30, 1986

Violent Cop (Takeshi Kitano) – 19, 1989
A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang) – 2, 1991
Prospero’s Books (Peter Greenaway) – 7, 1991
Sonatine (Takeshi Kitano) – 9, 1993

Mahjong (Edward Yang) – 2, 1996
Viva Erotica (Derek Yee & Law Chi-leung) – 8, 1996
Stage Door (Shu Kei) – 21, 1996
Beyond Hypothermia (Patrick Leung) – 22, 1996
Ebola Syndrome (Herman Yau) – 28, 1996

Big Bullet (Benny Chan) – 31, 1996
Black Mask (Daniel Lee) -41,  1996
A Moment of Romance III (Johnnie To) – 42, 1996
The Stunt Woman (Ann Hui) – 47, 1996
Dr. Wai in “The Scripture with No Words” (Ching Siu-tung) – 49, 1996

Shanghai Grand (Poon Man-kit) – 57, 1996
Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star (Wong Jing) – 66, 1996
Yes, Madam 5 (Lau Shing) – 78, 1996
Mysterious Object at Noon (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) – 15, 2000
The Princess of France (Matías Piñeiro) – 40, 2014

Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) – 13, 2015
SPL 2: A Time for Consequences (Soi Cheang) – 14, 2015
The Force Awakens (JJ Abrams) – 20, 2015
Francofonia (Alexander Sokurov) – 72, 2015

Lemonade (Beyoncé Knowles & Jonas Åkerlund) – 1, 2016
Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater) – 2, 2016
Chongqing Hot Pot (Yang Qing) – 6, 2016
Confirmation (Rick Famuyiwa) – 10, 2016
Get a Job (Dylan Kidd) – 11, 2016