It's like Hollywood in the old daysby Yuan Ren / August 18, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
A Chinese moviegoer walks into a Cinema at the Wanda Group building in Beijing ©Andy Wong/AP/Press Association Images 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. The film industry here is taking off—it’s growing at 17 per cent a year. Cinema tickets cost around 30RMB (£3) and the blockbusters tend to do well. But there’s no getting away from the duds. Last year for the first time, I walked out of a film, a 3D thing called Monster Hunt that had everyone (including my 19-year-old cousin) in fits of laughter and aww-ing at the pudgy, naked baby “monster.” It was terrible. It was also the highest-grossing film in the history of the Chinese box office—on its opening day alone it grossed $25.7m and after two months that figure had reached $381m. Chinese films are doing well on scale and special effects. I remember being taken aback by the quality of 3D effects in the film The Taking of Tiger Mountain, a classic Chinese Civil War movie released in 2014. The 3D visuals were the best I’d seen up until that point, though the film itself was nothing special. “You can throw money at visual effects but you can’t do the same with art,” a friend said. “The problem is that there’s too much money, too many platforms for young filmmakers; they reach commercial success too quickly and don’t have impetus to keep improving,” my scriptwriter friend says. Another acquaintance in the film investment sector told me that the pre-production period is very short for Chinese films. “A Hollywood film might take three to five years to develop. In China it can be done in a year,” she says. “Everyone wants a quick gain; it’s like how Hollywood was in the early days,” she says. For the time being, I’m staying away from summer blockbusters, until a good one comes along. Most people in the meantime, are happy to make do with films that are a little less challenging.