It's like Hollywood in the old daysby Yuan Ren / August 18, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Going to the cinema in China is a bit different. The Chinese love adventure, a beautiful actress, or special effects, and go home happy even if a film isn’t any good. Farce works a treat: the Chinese find nothing funnier than someone falling flat on their face.
But lately I’ve been carrying around a 500RMB (£50) cinema gift card that a friend gave me, and I can find nothing to spend it on. China has developed its own version of the Hollywood rom-com, turning out a slew of movies about marriages, or break-ups, or whatever. The problem is that they are nowhere near as raucous or funny as their American counterparts. Very few western films make it into the Chinese cinema due to a government quota of 100 per year. The big action films, like Captain America are always welcome: the Iron, Spider and Super men all seem to make it.
A friend recently decided to watch four Chinese films in three days. They were, he said, “terrible.” Even the artier stuff—an animated Chinese fantasy called Big Fish & Begonia, (a bit like the Japanese film Spirited Away)—had no proper storyline; it’s a fairly basic failing. “A common problem with Chinese films today is the lack of character and plot development,” said an American Chinese scriptwriter friend.
But Chinese movies are not all bad. The last one I enjoyed in the cinema was the art-house film Song of the Phoenix. It’s about the declining tradition of playing a wind instrument called the suona at funerals, made by the late Wu Tianming. A good film like that in China feels precious. Poignant and revealing, one scene showed a jazz band hired by the family of the deceased turning up and playing next to the suona band, the shiny saxophone juxtaposed with the much daintier suona, a folk instrument somewhat like a hunting horn. Despite critical acclaim, the film was sidelined on release, overshadowed by Captain America: Civil War. In an online video, the film’s producer fell to his knees to beg theatres for more airtime.