Saturday, October 29, 2011

Newsbites: Jackie Chan's 100th Film, China's Big Presence at Venice, and the CCP's Renewed Interest in Culture

Kevin Spacey checks out Gong Beibi in his first Chinese feature, Inseparable, unveiled this month at Busan.

I’m conscious Screening China has been quiet for the past month, as I’ve been tied up with my thesis and a few other things such as the recent World Cinema Now conference at Melbourne’s Monash University, where I gave a paper on Chinese documentaries. I’ve also been busy catching up on a whole lot of older Chinese film titles which I’ll blog about in the coming weeks. But first a news round up of what’s been happening in Chinese film over the past month. You may also notice the blog has a new look, which is hopefully more reader-friendly.

The Big End of Town: Spacey in China, New Zhang Yimou, and 100 Flicks for Jackie

The Wall Street Journal reported that Kevin Spacey’s “first Chinese film” premiered at the Busan International Film Festival in early October. Inseparable is described as a “dark comedy” set in Guangzhou. Directed by the Taiwan-born Dayyan Eng, the film also stars Daniel Wu, who has appeared in Hong Kong flicks like One Nite In Mongkok and mainland movies like The Banquet and The Founding of a Party. The plot of Inseparable sounds a little bizarre. Wu plays a local man down on his luck, while Spacey is his American neighbor who decides to save him. According to the WSJ they are “soon donning handmade superhero outfits and fighting injustices around Guangzhou.”

dGenerate Films have a complete list of the 22 Chinese films that played at Busan this year. For anyone confused, the Busan International Film Festival used to be the Pusan International Film Festival, Asia's biggest film festival.

Jackie Chan, Hong Kong’s all round action hero and latter day apologist for dictatorship, has released his 100th film. Entitled 1911 it focuses on the revolution that swept away the Qing Dynasty and established the Republic of China, the last vestige of which still exists on the island of Taiwan. The film also stars mainland China’s Li Bingbing, and Joan Chen makes an appearance as the infamous Empress Dowager. The Wall Street Journal did a short interview with Chan about the film here. For anyone down in Melbourne, a subtitled print of the film is currently playing at the Russell Street Greater Union cinemas.

"Don't worry Jackie, anyone would look battered after making 100 movies." Li Bingbing comforts Jackie Chan in 1911.
The trailer for Zhang Yimou’s new epic about the Nanjing Massacre, The Flowers of War, has been released and can be viewed here. It’s another China meets Hollywood production, with Christian Bale in the leading role. It’s been released in the U.S. in mid-December – let’s hope the actual film is less clichéd than the trailer. Given Zhang Yimou’s output over the past decade I’m not holding my breath.

China’s Venice Bonanza

Films from the Asia region did well at the Venice Film Festival (31 Aug- 10 Sep) this year, taking out three top prizes. Two of these went to Chinese titles. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Silver Lion for direction went to Cai Shangjun’s People Mountain People Sea (a literal rendering of a Chinese expression meaning a really crowded place). I don’t know much about Cai, other than the fact he directed a feature in 2007 called The Red Awn and wrote the script for Zhang Yang’s well-known 1999 feature Shower. I’m keen to see People Mountain People Sea, which according to the WSJ is “based on a true story about a man searching for his brother’s killer.”

Legendary Hong Kong New Wave director Ann Hui also had a new film at Venice called A Simple Life, which earned Deanie Ip the festival’s Best Actress Award. Hong Kong mega-star Andy Lau appears as the male lead alongside Ip.

Another Hong Kong legend, John Woo, was on hand at Venice to promote a new Taiwanese epic that he produced, entitled Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, directed by Wei Te-sheng. Wei previously directed Cape No. 7, which gave the Taiwanese industry a huge push a couple of years ago by becoming the island’s second biggest box office earner in history (beaten only by Titanic). For earlier posts on Taiwan’s film revival see here and here.

Last but certainly not least on the Venice roll call, Jia Zhangke was present to serve as the jury president of the festival’s Orizzonti section. Jia also took the opportunity to announce that he had married long-term collaborator Zhao Tao. Congratulations to the happy couple! Zhao Tao appeared in the Italian film Io sono Li at the festival – her first role in a film not directed by Jia Zhangke.

Jia Zhangke and Zhao Tao announced their marriage while at the Venice Film Festival last month.

The CCP’s Revived “Interest” in Culture

Less joyous is the news that China’s beloved leaders had a get-together in Beijing this month focusing on culture. Specifically, it was the sixth plenary session of the 17th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

The is worrying because apart from the obvious fact that a focus on culture for the CCP invariable means exerting a greater degree of control, attacks on culture have often presaged broader political campaigns in the history of the People’s Republic. The first move in Mao’s Cultural Revolution, for example, was a condemnation of the play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office by Shanghai critic Yao Wenyuan. Yao went on to become a member of the notorious “Gang of Four” in the following years, until his arrest with the rest of the so-called “Gang” after Mao’s death in late 1976. Given that the last year in China has been extremely tough in terms of censorship, arrests and harassment of anyone seen not to be toeing the line, the latest developments in the cultural sphere are worrying.

Russell Leigh Moses speculated in the Wall Street Journal about what the latest “cultural reforms” signify:

“One aim is that many officials want to put the Party back front and center in the lives of people – be that through revolutionary nostalgia or providing cultural guidance… Some officials write and act as if a lot more guidance from the top is needed, and that cultural direction supplied by the Party will address moral shortcomings in society…  There was [also] another agenda being pushed at the plenum: combatting the deepening influence of social media.”

Sure enough, last Wednesday (October 26) The Guardian reported that CCP had issued an official communiqué in which it “vowed to intensify controls on social media and instant messaging tools.”

Control over television content has also tightened, with both The Wall Street Journal and Guardian reporting this week that “entertainment” programs are to be restricted in primetime. According to The Guardian, “Provincial channels will be allowed to show no more than two entertainment shows in the ‘golden time’ between 7.30pm and 10pm.” The WSJ claimed the dreaded State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) also issued a statement this week which amusingly expressing a desire to limit “excessive entertainment” and “low taste.” SARFT already pulled the plug on the very popular Super Girl – a local version of American Idol – last month.

What all this means for the Chinese film industry remains to be seen – not to mention the unofficial independent sector. Apparently IFChina Original Studio, which I wrote about here, has just been told they need to leave Jinggangshan University. On the other hand, the Beijing Independent Film Festival was able to proceed this year, despite some intense pressure from police. Trainspotting cafe in Beijing was also able to host the Beijing New Youth Film Festival from September 9-18.

David Bandurski over at China Media Project has provided a partial translation of the People’s Daily editorial that followed the Central Committee plenum on culture, which is a classic piece of CCP babble. Check it out here.


  1. "Zhao Tao appeared in the Italian film Io sono Li at the festival – her first role in a film not directed by Jia Zhangke."

    Zhao has appeared in two previous non-Jia films -- Zhang Yuan's "Dada's Dance" and Isaac Julien's "Better Life," a theatrical version of his multiscreen installation "Ten Thousand Waves."

  2. Ah, I stand corrected. I didn't realise Zhao had been in those two earlier productions. Was her role in Dada's Dance quite small? She doesn't seem to be in the cast lists I could find online.

    Thanks for pointing out that error.