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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VIFF 2010: Day Four


607 – Before getting to Day Four’s films, I wanted to mention this short by Liu Jiayin that played before Day Three’s showing of Thomas Mao. Liu made my favorite film from last year’s festival, Oxhide II, which also happens to be the highest rated film directed by a woman on my recent Top 600 Films of All-Time list. This 17 minute short consists mostly of one shot of a bathtub in a hotel room (the hotel apparently commissioned the film). A plastic fish, manipulated by Liu’s father, with only his hands visible, swims in the water and encounters some mushrooms, a cloudy sky and a fish hook. The mushrooms are played by Liu’s mother and Liu herself is the sky and hook. It’s a marvelous bit of silliness that conveys all the warmth of a family at play.

Hahaha – The first of two films directed by Hong Sangsoo at this year’s festival, it begins, unsurprisingly for Hong, with two old friends drinking and telling stories about women. The film proper is comprised of these two stories, which end up being about the same woman, though neither knows it, while the frame is played in black and white stills with voiceover (and lots of “Cheers!” as the two drink quite a lot). The Hong films I’ve seen all have a split structure, with the second half of the film telling a new story with some of the same characters in a way that mirrors and comments upon the events of the first story. This film has that same structure, but the stories are intercut instead of segregated. This makes the film a lot easier to watch, and this is definitely the film I’d recommend to anyone who hasn’t seen a Hong Sangsoo film yet. As for the stories themselves, they’re Hong’s traditional terrain of romantic misadventures and misunderstandings and lots and lots of drinking. Again there’s a character who’s a film director, this time he falls for a tour guide who’s dating a poet who is best friends with a guy who’s on vacation from his wife with his girlfriend. It’s this last guy and the director who are the two narrators of the film. It’s as funny as Like You Know It All, one of my favorites at last year’s festival, if not quite as weird and certainly not as insidery about film festival life.

The Fourth Portrait – This Taiwanese film is about a precocious young boy named Xiang whose father dies, sending him first into the helpful hands of the school janitor, and then back to his mom, a prostitute (naturally) and step-father (who’s pretty much pure evil). Director Chung Mong-hong keeps this dire material much lighter than one would expect.  Though the kid’s situation is rough and potentially terrifying, there’s enough humor and visual style (there are traces of both the Taiwanese New Wave and Wong Kar-wai, the latter especially in the scenes at the mom’s “lounge”) that things never get as horribly depressing as they might in a lesser film. There’s even a musical bit that sounds like a Chinese version of the Carl Orff song used in Badlands and True Romance). Xiang is surrounded by helpful adults, from the elderly janitor to a small time hustler to a concerned teacher. Even his mom is a decent sort. We never get the sense that Xiang’s situation is hopeless, instead, we can be sure that he’ll survive and thrive. The title comes from a series of drawings Xiang makes throughout the film: the first is his father, the second his friend the hustler, the third his older brother who may be haunting him and the fourth, more than a little cheesily, is the film itself.

I Wish I Knew – After last year’s excellent 24 City, I wasn’t quite prepared for this latest film from Jia Zhangke. While that film was a documentary that mixed scripted and acted interviews with real-life talking heads in a way that made one question the nature of documentary realism, this film is pretty much a straight and conventional film. It’s an epic collection of stories about Shanghai, told by the people who lived there and the children of the people who lived there. Shanghai was the epicenter for the most important developments in China over the 20th Century, from the European occupations to the Japanese invasion to the Civil War between the Communists and Chaing Kai-Shek’s KMT to the Cultural Revolution to the embrace of capitalism in the late 1980s. Even the Chinese film industry was based there for much of the century. Jia’s 18 interviews tell these stories in detail, with communists and KMT generals and movie stars and directors. Wei Wei appears, which marks two days in a row that we saw a film featuring this 88 year old actress, after The Drunkard. Also interviewed are Hou Hsiao-hsein (who’s actually the only person who doesn’t share a personal anecdote, he just talks about his film Flowers of Shanghai, though like many people in the film, his parents came to Taiwan from Shanghai ahead of the Communist victory). The film is very loosely structured, with the interviews coming not in chronological order of their stories, but rather the geographical order of where they have spread out. The Shanghai diaspora mainly went to Taiwan and Hong Kong, and so Jia goes to each of those places to seek out their stories. But these interviews are interspersed with scenes of present-day Shanghai, where frequent Jia star Zhao Tao wanders mutely around the sites of the old stories, neatly tying the old and new, the diasporic and the homeland together. It’s a beautiful film, about as good as a straight documentary can be.

Short Celebrity Addendum: Jia was there last night for a Q & A (he’s serving on the jury at the festival this year for the award for new Asian filmmakers that they’ve given out for 17 years or so, having previously won the award for his own first film Xiao Wu). I don’t know that I’ve ever been so giddy in a movie theatre. And then this morning, waiting in line for Catherine Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty, I’m pretty sure we were standing behind a very confused Wallace Shawn (the screening was delayed for projection reasons and the staff were giving confusing directions to the old people). I attempted to help the maybe-Shawn through the line, but he either couldn’t hear me or was too confused to pay attention to a much taller man.