Sunday, August 7, 2011

Newsbites: Founding of a Party Scams its way at the Box Office, Film Festivals in Beijing & Shanghai, and Stanley Kwan Returns

We're just in it for the suits – Wang Xinjun and Andy Lau in Founding of a Party, the Chinese Communist Party's latest love letter to itself.

It's been a while since the last Newsbites post, so here's a new roundup of China film news from around the web.

The biggest recent film news on the mainland has been the release on 15 June of Founding of a Party, the Communist Party's latest love letter to itself. This one marks the 90th anniversary of the founding of the CCP. Like 2009's Founding of a Republic, the new film is an all-star affair starring, among others, Andy Lau, Chow Yun-fat, Fan Bingbing and Zhou Xun. Shanghaiist has thoughtfully provided a complete who's who of the film's star studded cast.

As noted in an earlier post, the lovely Tang Wei was to play Mao's girlfriend, but was pulled form the film at the insistence of Mao's family, who deemed the actress too racy to be bedding the Great Helmsman. Given Mao's rep for bedding vast numbers of young beauties, I would have though Wang would have been right up his alley.

Me? Racy? Tang Wei as Mao's girlfriend, a part eventually cut from Founding of a Party.

As is usual practice for Party pics, a raft of Hollywood blockbusters were held up to ensure a clear playing field in China's cinemas, and a week after the film's release the state news agency Xinhua breathlessly reported:

“Nearly 3 million Chinese paid to watch The Founding of a Party... in the first five days of screening, the film's releaser said Wednesday. The film, which is expected to set a new box office record in China, reaped more than 105 million yuan (16.15 million U.S. dollars) as of Sunday, five days after it was officially released.... Ticket sales of the film accounted for more than 57 percent of the country's current box office.”

The film's “releaser”?? Xinhua really needs to crackdown on its English polishers.

Reviews for the film even within China's media were lukewarm, and according to The Wall Street Journal, a month after its release, Founding of the Party had made around 348.45 million yuan ($54 million), a long way short of Avatar's record of  $73.2 million during its first two weeks of release in China, and total Chinese gross of gross total of $204 million.

The Wall Street Journal also notes allegations that the film's box office was inflated by state-owned companies taking their employees to cinemas en masse. I know from my own time in Chinese state media that this is standard practice when the authorities need to bolster numbers for any cultural event. More amusing were claims that the Jinyi International Cinemas chain based in Guangzhou was found to be selling Founding of the Party tickets to every customer, and then simply changing titles by hand when viewers actually wanted to see other films. Coincidentally, “Jinyi was one of two chains in Guangzhou responsible for the province’s leading national ticket sales in the first few days of the movie’s release.” Shanghaiist also reported on the doctored tickets.

Ah you gotta love the CCP – has there ever been a political organisation that spends so much money and time reassuring itself of its own greatness and popularity? If this blog post is to be believed, genuine ticket sales in some theatres were dismal indeed.

Unfortunately I haven't been able to see Founding of a Party yet, but it's relative lack of success in China is interesting, given that Founding of a Republic appeared to be a genuine hit with many mainland audiences back in 09. My guess is that while Founding of Republic appealed to a sense of unity and nationalism in China, people these days are far less tolerant of overt propaganda in praise of the CCP. Or maybe it's just a terrible film.

While the party has been busy making love to itself, at the other end of the spectrum China's unofficial film sector continues to suffer harassment from the authorities, with Beijing's Queer Film Festival recently forced to follow the lead of Tongzhou's Documentary Film Festival and publicly cancel, while secretly going ahead with unpublicised screenings. The Shangahiist reports:

“Organisers decided to host the festival at the Dongjen Book Club, located in the capital's Xicheng District but determined they would not officially announce the venue until the last minute to lower the risk of a premature shutdown... Three days before the start of the festival, however, on June 12, district police as well as officers from the Bureau of Industry and Trade, as well as the Culture Bureau, showed up at the book club, and demanded to meet with the organisers. At the meeting, the police informed organisers that the festival was 'illegal' and had to be cancelled. The book club was also threatened with 'harsh consequences' if it decided to go ahead with the hosting of the festival.”

The report notes that organisers went ahead with a series of screenings for invited audience members at various secret venues around Beijing, while publicly stating the festival had been canceled. Shanghaiist claims around 500 people attended these screenings over five days. Last month dGenerate Films ran an interview with the festival's executive director, Yang Yang.

The current tense environment in China isn't stopping some from speaking out, as Jia Zhangke proved recently when he railed against censorship in China during a public appearance at the Shanghai International Film Festival. Unusually, his comments were reported on the Chinese state media site Jia was quoted as saying, “The only reason that we cannot make genre movies is the barrier that censorship sets.” Apart from Jia's statements the Shanghai festival seems to have been the usual glitzy, anodyne affair.

Meanwhile it seems Beijing is determined to outdo its southern rival in terms of pomp and ceremony, if Shelley Kraicer's account of the capital's recent inaugural film festival is anything to do by. Well, when I say inaugural festival, the capital has of course been playing host to various festivals for years –  they're just not festivals recognised by the authorities. I'm sure the forced cancellation of both the Documentary Film Festival and Queer Film Festival had nothing to do with the authorities wanting to hog the limelight for their own awesome spectacular. Shelley Kraicer reports on the dGenerate site in suitably sardonic style:

“This large-scale PR project (for that’s what it is, fundamentally: a state power-driven PR demonstration on a giant scale) necessitates large, splashy, visible, easily media-tized events, with both domestic and international impact. So, actual film screenings, the core of a film festival’s mission, were relegated in the BJIFF to a sort of barely publicized sideshow (during the festival it was impossible to find English-language information on the film schedule, and Chinese language info was incomplete and only available piecemeal online). Decorative festival side bars included an under-populated 'film market' and 'project market', and various hard- or impossible-to-get-into directors’ talks and festival seminars.”

According to this CCTV report, the festival program featured such cutting-edge titles as the year-old Hollywood blockbusters Black Swan and The Social Network both of which have, of course, been widely available on pirate DVD in China since they hit U.S. screens in 2010. No wonder the festival organisers didn't want to publicise the schedule.

In more serious news, the Wenzhou high speed train crash on 23 July caused an outpouring of grief and anger in China as authorities quickly moved to try and gloss over the incident and silence families of the dead. Asian Fanatics claimed last week that Chinese film stars Tang Wei and Ge You had their Weibo accounts terminated after they posted critical comments about the crash (Weibo is China's version of Twitter. Twitter itself is blocked on mainland China). Ge was quoted “So many people have died, but there was no apology.” The content of Tang Wei's comments was not reported.

Down in Hong Kong, Hollywood Reporter says famed local director Stanley Kwan is currently in pre-production on an adaption of Han Han's novel To the End of Love. Han Han is one of China's most popular novelists and bloggers, especially among China's youth. According to HR the film is a “love story, where river creatures grow to gigantic proportions due to pollution.” Kwan is quoted as saying the tale is “a reflection on the current situation in China.” Apparently the script is currently with the Chinese censors. The article also notes Kwan has a backup project if To the End of Love proves too problematic, based on an essay by Han Han entitled I’m Doing Fine in Hong Kong, Thank You. That film would be shot entirely in Special Administrative Region.

Stanley Kwan on stage with a local journalist at Beijing's BC MOMA cinema in December 2010. Kwan was in Beijing for a special screening of his 1992 classic Centre Stage. Photo Dan Edwards.

Finally, The Wall Street Journal reported back in June that attempts to turn Bruce Lee's former Hong Kong abode into a museum dedicated to the star have come to naught, after negotiations between the proprty's current owner and the Hong Kong governemnt broke down after the owner reportedly made "unreasonable demands, such as wanting to set up his own offices in the museum." Determined fans can still access the site, however, as Lee's home is apparently "currently used as an hourly love motel."

The man himself in that famous yellow jump suit.

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