Arts film in urgent need of support

13:30, April 16, 2010      

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A scene from Chinese director Yin Lichuan's Knitting, which won the Best Actress and Best New Performer awards at the Golden Rooster film festival in 2009. Provided to China Daily

Commercial cinema has all but forced Chinese art films out of movie theaters. They are in urgent need of support, if they are to survive, reports Chen Nan

When directors Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou blew the critics away with their debut films Yellow Earth (1984) and Red Sorghum (1987), Chinese filmmaking seemed to have entered a brave new era.

But that early promise has dissipated.

Zhang's 2002 martial arts epic Hero and Chen's The Promise in 2005 ushered in the age of Chinese blockbusters, touted as China's answer to Hollywood.

The shift has drawn much flak despite the record takings at the box office. Critics even began questioning the directors' ability to tell stories, comparing these films with their earlier thought-provoking ones such as Zhang's To Live and Chen's Farewell, My Concubine.

"Chinese art cinema has been dealt a big blow by the so-called blockbusters. The use of hi-tech jinks and the single-minded pursuit of profits have made our films superficial and flippant," says Ning Jingwu. A veteran Chinese director who entered filmmaking in the early 1980s for the China Film Group, he later founded his own film studio devoted to art films.

"Big-budget films can certainly be there, but there should be space for art house cinema to grow as well."

Ning, whose Lala's Gun, a semi-documentary about celebrations surrounding a Miao ethnic boy's coming of age, is showing at Beijing's Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), as part of the ScreenOut Film Exhibition. It stars local people speaking in the Miao language.

ScreenOut was started five years ago in Guangzhou by some local media outfits, and moved to Beijing this year with the aim of attracting a wider audience for art films. Currently, nine art films are showing at UCCA in Beijing's 798 Art District.

Despite the onslaught of commercial cinema, art films continue to find success at various international film festivals.

Like Ning's film, which premiered, and also bagged an award, at the Berlin International Film Festival as part of its Generation 14plus program, all nine art films now showing at UCCA have won awards at home and abroad.

These include actress-turned-director Jiang Wenli's Lan set in the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), which won the Audience Award at the Pusan International Film Festival last October; director Wang Quan'an's The Story of Ermei, which picked up the Best Actress award at the Golden Rooster and at the Paris International Film Festival; and Tibetan director Pema Tseden's The Search, which won the Jury Prize Award at the 2009 Shanghai International Film Festival.

"There are still some filmmakers who have not given up on making art films," says Xie Meng, organizer of the ScreenOut Exhibition. He points to sixth generation directors Zhang Yuan's Seventeen Years, which was a big winner at the 1999 Venice Film Festival; Wang Xiaoshuai's Beijing Bicycle which won a Silver Bear at the 2001 Berlin International Film Festival; Jia Zhangke's Still Life, which took the Golden Lion at the 2006 Venice Film Festival; and Wang Quan'an Tuya's Marriage, which picked up the Golden Bear in 2007.

These films, mostly small-budget real life dramas, highlight the environmental and human costs of the country's fast-track economic growth of the past 20 years, and have been well received by foreign film distributors. But finding viewers at home has been a lot more difficult. Very rarely are art films screened in the theaters or even found on the shelves of DVD stores.

"The situation is embarrassing," says Wang Quan'an, whose latest drama Apart Together was voted as having the best script at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival.

"Chinese audiences get to see the latest Chinese art films only by following international film festivals."

Wang says while the problem is not unique to China, the gap between the two film genres is wider here.

"Commercial films are money spinners, which attract investors, directors and actors. This means fewer filmmakers make art films, fewer actors play in them and finally very few watch them," he says.

He attributes the popularity of commercial cinema to the nation's growing "fast-food consumption culture".

"People, especially the younger generation, are living under great pressure. They cannot even afford a place to live, get married and have a baby, let alone sit and watch a slow-paced art film."

Despite an investment of no more than 2 million yuan ($292,800) for his films, Wang says making money in the domestic art film market is almost impossible, given the lack of media promotion and screening venues.

Some estimates of box office earnings for art films shown in cinemas in the past few years put the figure at no more than 3 million yuan. Renowned photographer Gu Changwei's directorial debut Peacock, which bagged the Silver Bear at the 55th Berlin International Film Festival, was deemed a commercial success, even though the box office earnings were just 5 million yuan.

Yu Dong of Poly Bona, one of the biggest film distribution companies in China, admits to the financial pressures the company faces. "We had to calculate very carefully to make it possible," he says of Peacock's success.

On the other hand, Just Another Pandora's Box, a star-studded Hong Kong comedy showing at cinemas since March 18, grossed more than 100 million yuan in ten days, despite being dismissed as "just another messy film" by critics.

"Looking at the bright side, this is just a passing phase," Wang says. "Once people get fed up with these big-budget productions, they will seek out art films."

His view is echoed by Pema Tseden, the first director in China to make films entirely in the Tibetan language.

"We choose what we think are good stories and share them with others," he says.

Concerned by the problems facing art films, various government and non-government organizations have begun to provide venues and financial support.

ScreenOut is one such effort.

The MOMA Broadway Cinema, built at the end of 2009 and located near Dongzhimen area, is another.

It is Beijing's first movie theater promoting art films. The opening cinema last year was I Love You, Chengdu, by Hong Kong director Fruit Chan and China's rock godfather Cui Jian.

Some domestic film festivals such as the Shanghai International Film Festival and the Beijing College Student Film Festival have now instituted awards for art filmmakers.

Source: China Daily(By Chen Nan)

(Editor:王寒露)

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