Monday, January 9, 2012

Newsbites: Flowers of War Rakes in the Cash, Content Restrictions Tighten & Ai Weiwei Speaks

Happy new year! Too many end-of-the-year deadlines and too many festivities mean Screening China has been very quiet of late. So let’s kick off 2012 with a look at the China film news.

The big event of recent weeks has been the unveiling of Zhang Yimou’s latest epic, The Flowers of War. With a budget reportedly between US$90-100 million, Zhang's film is the most expensive ever made in China. Flowers hit Chinese screens on December 16 and stars Christian Bale as a priest sheltering in a church with a group of Chinese women during the Japanese seizure of Nanjing in 1937. Predictably, the film has been criticised for its heavy nationalistic tone. It’s perhaps a measure of Bale’s naivety that when he was asked about the film’s nationalism at the premiere in Beijing, he claimed, “I hadn’t ever considered that question.” He also rather laughably claimed he thought Zhang Yimou wouldn’t have wished for the film to be taken that way either.

Christian Bale stalks through the ruins of Nanjing in Zhang Yimou's new epic The Flowers of War.

Flowers has done well at the box office, with The Wall Street Journal noting after its opening: “The Flowers of War (金陵十三钗) scored big with moviegoers on its opening weekend in China, pulling in 152.1 million yuan (US$24 million).” On January 4, Hollywood Reporter stated the film had grossed US$83 million in its first 17 days of release, making it the top-grossing Chinese film of 2011, and the third highest grossing Chinese film of all time.

Those figures put it well ahead of China’s first 3D martial arts flick, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, which opened in China on the same weekend. Directed by Hong Kong action legend Tsui Hark, Flying Swords stars stalwart Jet Li and the wonderfully versatile Zhou Xun. The film is a sequel to New Dragon Gate Inn, which Tsui wrote and produced back in 1992. Hollywood Reporter was disappointed with the film, but conceded, “Made as pure mass entertainment with an A-list cast for the China market, Tsui’s target audience won’t feel short-changed.”

Zhou Xun in Tsui Hark's Flying Swords of Dragon Gate.
Still on the subject of box office, the surprise end-of-year hit in Hong Kong was a small film from Taiwan called You Are the Apple of My Eye. According to Hollywood Reporter the high school comedy set in the 1990s pulled in HK$61.29 between its mid-October release and the end of 2011, placing it second only to Transformers: Dark of the Moon in Hong Kong’s annual box office roll-call. Even more surprisingly, the film is a directorial debut for Taiwan author Giddens Ko. The film also did well in Taiwan and Singapore. I’ve previously written about the Taiwanese film revival here and here, so it’s heartening to see the island’s small industry continue to power along.

Teenage love is a poke in the head - a loving moment from Giddens Ko's surprise hit You Are the Apple of My Eye.
Back on the mainland, Christian Bale wasn’t only making headlines with his box office performance in December. While he was in China for the premiere of Flowers of War, the actor attempted to visit blind activist Chen Guangcheng, who is under house arrest in a village called Dongshigu in eastern Shandong. As many journalists and activists have attested, Dongshigu is surrounded by a small army of hired thugs who have successfully isolated Chen from the outside world. You can read a recent account of a journey to the village by acclaimed Chinese novelist Murong Xuecun here. Bale, like many others, found himself roughed up when he approached the village and was unable to see Chen. According to Reuters, when Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin was asked if China had been embarrassed by Bale’s actions, he replied, “If anyone should be embarrassed it’s the relevant actor, not the Chinese side.” Way to go Beijing – still winning hearts and minds after all these years.

The tightening up of governmental control over screen content over the past year continues, with The Washington Times reporting last month:

“China is proposing to ban movie content that it says disturbs social stability and promotes religious fanaticism, the latest attempt by the authoritarian government to tighten control over what people see. According to a draft law posted on the Cabinet’s website on Thursday, films must not harm national honour and interest, incite ethnic hatred, spread ‘evil cults’ or superstition, or propagate obscenity, gambling, drug abuse, violence or terror. A total of 13 types of content are banned in the draft law, but no terms or phrases were defined.”

After a tough year in 2011, the culture war in China shows no signs of abating, with Bloomberg reporting President Hu Jintao’s comments in the magazine Qiushi, published on January 1: “International forces are trying to Westernize and divide us by using ideology and culture. We need to realize this and be alert to this danger.” Which is CCP-speak for, “We’re concerned about the amount of non-vetted information people are accessing, and we intend to do something about it.”

As has been widely reported, control of online content, particularly microblogs like Weibo, has been tightened, and “excessive entertainment” has been restricted on television. Incidentally, state media reported the campaign against excessive TV entertainment had been successful early this month, with the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television declaring, "Satellite channels should design programs with innovative content, promoting traditional virtues and socialist core values in their new entertainment programs." All those CCP cadres who have made millions unleashing state-controlled capitalism on their people must be sniggering up their sleeves about that one.

While we’re on the topic of socialist culture, The Wall Street Journal reported that China was planning to launch the world’s first 3D TV channel on January 1, although it seems only a test channel in Shenzhen is currently broadcasting. According to WSJ, the 3D channel will have 4.5 hours of new content each day, and content will include “cartoons, sports programming, films on special topics, variety shows and programming from major events such as the London Olympics and China’s annual Spring Festival gala.” The Spring Festival gala in 3D? Oh man… it’s painful enough in two dimensions.

Moving on to China’s unofficial film realm, J.P. Sniadecki recently managed to get around the ban on Chinese artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei talking to media and conduct an interview for Canadian journal Cinema Scope. Sniadecki’s interview is distinguished by the fact that it focuses on Ai’s documentaries, which have largely been ignored – or at least overshadowed by his visual art – in the West. Sniadecki provides a good overview of Ai’s filmmaking career, and provides a fascinating chat with the great man himself. This choice quote sums up Ai’s attitude and why I love independent Chinese documentaries:

“It is primarily a matter of freedom of speech: it is just that simple. No matter how wrong or mistaken my point of view may be, I still want to have the right to speak, the right to be heard. In this society, if this right has no way of being guaranteed, then there is no point in speaking about democracy, freedom, and human rights. Humans have being discussing these questions for hundreds of years, and there is no need to discuss them again, they are universal truths. But how did they become politically sensitive questions here? Isn’t it comical? It’s like air and water, the most fundamental building blocks of life—if they are made scarce, how would we survive?”

On a happier note, the great mainland director Jia Zhangke and his muse Zhao Tao held a formal wedding banquet on January 7 in Jia’s hometown Fenyang, Shanxi province, which was the setting for Jia’s early features. As noted here at Screening China last October, the long-term couple tied the knot at the 2011 Venice Film Festival. You can see more pictures from the Fenyang banquet here.
Jia Zhangke and long-term collaborator Zhao Tao celebrate their wedding in Fenyang on January 7.
Last but not least, casting an eye over China’s border readers were no doubt distressed to learn of the death of one of the world’s great dictators, champion golfer and well-known cinephile, the Dear leader himself Kim Jong-il on December 17 (although his death wasn’t announced until December 19). Kim had long played a central role in North Korea’s film industry, and during my trip to the DPRK last August I picked up an English-language edition of his book On the Art of Cinema. As well as being a great conversation piece, I can safely say it’s one of the most boring books on film ever written. Unfortunately it had nothing about kidnapping directors from overseas to bolster your film industry - one of Kim's great innovative moves as overseer of the DPRK film world. Fear not, however, Kim’s fat little son is ready to step into the big shoes left by his dad – this documentary just churned out by the amazingly efficient North Korean state media shows what an all-round achiever Kim Jong-un really is. The images are also very funny – although they probably seem less so to the people he rules. It remains to be seen what the death of the Dear Leader means for the DPRK film industry.

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