Saturday, January 19, 2013

Newsbites: Shock Box Office Hit, Wong Karwai Returns, and More Cancelled Festivals

Zhang Ziyi in Wong Karwai's new martial arts feature The Grandmaster.

Screening China’s regular roundup of Chinese film news.

Happy 2013! It’s been a very long time between posts here at Screening China - I got a little overwhelmed with the end-of-year rush in the final months of 2012. Among other things, I attended the annual Visible Evidence documentary conference in late December in Canberra. I'm pleased to say the event featured several papers focussed on Chinese documentary, by luminaries such as Paola Voci and Ying Qian.

Here’s a roundup of Chinese film news over the past few months.

Surprise Box Office Smash

The big box office surprise of 2012 in China was the stunning success of low-budget comedy Lost in Thailand, described by the Wall Street Journal as a film “about a pair of co-workers competing to find their company’s largest shareholder in Thailand to secure a contract approval.” The same publication noted early this month: 
"Lost in Thailand steamrolled its competition this week to become the highest-grossing mainland film ever and the first local production to break through the one-billion-yuan ($160.4-million) mark at the box office."

Released on December 12, the film had been seen by more than 31 million movie goers in China within three weeks of its release, according to CMM Intelligence. The modest film easily beat off stiff competition such as Ang Li’s Life of Pi, Feng Xiaogang’s 1942 and Lu Chuan’s The Last Supper. Not bad work for a first time director Xu Zhen.

Wang Baoqiang (left) celebrates the success of Lost in Thailand.  Xu Zheng (right) looks dubious.

The strange thing is, by all accounts, Lost in Thailand is pretty underwhelming and no-one can quite understand why it has been such a success. Tea Leaf Nation gave a good summary of theories regarding the film’s smash hit status, with many speculating it is partly a reaction against the overblown, propagandistic historical epics and effects-driven blockbusters that have characterised much mainstream Chinese cinema in recent years. I haven’t seen the film so I can’t comment, but the success of Thailand, as well as the more serious but equally low-budget A Simple Life shows there is an audience for films in China that aren’t based purely on spectacle.

WSJ notes that China’s total box office for 2012 has been reported as RMB 16.8 billion, with around 48 per cent of that coming from domestic titles. Which sounds like a healthy percentage compared to most nations, except when you consider that protectionist and censorial measures mean that 75 percent of the films distributed in China last year were locally made.

Wong Karwai Returns with The Grandmaster
He’s been talking about making another martial arts film for years. Now The Grandmaster is here. Wong Karwai’s first feature since My Blueberry Nights (2007) had its world premier on 6 January in Beijing, according to the Wall Street Journal. It was released in mainland Chinese and Hong Kong cinemas on 8 January.

Tony Leung in Wong Karwai's new film The Grandmaster.

The film stars Wong’s frequent collaborator Tony Leung Chiu-wai, as the famous martial arts master Ip Man. Leung first worked with Wong on the director’s second feature, Days of Being Wild, way back in 1990, although his part in the film ended up being reduced to a very enigmatic cameo in the final few minutes. He went on to star in Wong’s Ashes of Time, Chungking Express (both released in 1994), Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004). Leung’s co-stars are mainland superstar Zhang Ziyi (who played opposite Leung in 2046) and Taiwanese actor Chang Chen (who appeared in Happy Together).

Variety seemed to like it, saying The Grandmaster ventures “into fresh creative terrain” without relinquishing Wong’s “familiar themes and stylistic flourishes.”

The Grandmaster will open this year’s Berlin International Film Festival in February. You can see a trailer of the film here.

Censorship and Shutdowns

The prolonged run of harsh censorship and event shutdowns continues unabated in China, with two major festivals forcibly cancelled in the last months of 2012.

The 2012 Bishan Harvest Festival in Anhui, organised and curated by Chinese documentarian Ou Ning (who I interviewed here), was forced to cancel just a day or two before it was due to open in early November. This multifaceted event encompasses photography, film, visual arts and performance. I was honoured to have been invited to appear this year on a panel. Unfortunately the festival ended up colliding with the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, and when you have an important political event in China, everything else stops.

Some of the American guests were already on the plane to Bishan when they got the message the festival wasn’t allowed to proceed, including Mary Kerr, former Executive Director of the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar in New York. She provided an enjoyable account of her experiences and the festival that might have been for dGenerate Films.

Around the same time, the 9th China Independent Film Festival was scheduled to play in Nanjing from 16-22 November. Predictably, it too was forced to cancel, as John Berra reported for Electric Sheep.

In censorship news, SARFT are rumoured to have had a go at the latest Bond flick Skyfall, due to open in China on Monday (21 January). According to The Guardian, censors removed a scene in which a security guard in a Shanghai skyscraper is shot dead, and removed references the Chinese character Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe) makes to becoming a prostitute at a young age from the Chinese subtitles.

Back in September, Chinese director Lou Ye (Suzhou River, Summer Palace) lashed out against China’s pervasive state censorship in an interview with Tea Leaf Nation provided a good summary of his comments in English. Lou was specifically angry about a recent stoush with the authorities over his latest film, Mystery, which unlike his last few titles was submitted to be passed for screenings in China. After the censors demanded many changes, Lou removed his names from the credits before the film’s October release.

Zhu Rikun, former director of the Beijing Independent Film Festival, penned an article for UK magazine New Statesman in October, railing against China’s censorial environment. The article appeared in a special issue of the magazine edited by Ai Weiwei, and in the print edition Zhu’s article appeared with a photograph of documentarian Ai Xiaoming taken by myself (unfortunately this image doesn’t appear in the online version).

Zhu was in the US at the end of 2012, as an international fellow at the Jacob Burns Film Center in New York state. There he curated a program of Chinese independent work.

Randon Titbits
Chinese-Canadian director, Yung Chang best known for his 2007 documentary Up the Yangtze, has a new documentary about a Chinese boxing coach, entitled China Heavyweight (Qianchui Bailian). The film took the Best Documentary Award at Taipei’s Golden Horse Film Festival in November.

In an unusual move, South Korea’s Busan Film Festival (the biggest film festival in Asia) screened a North Korean film last October entitled Comrade Kim Goes Flying. The China connection? One of the film’s directors is Nick Bonner, known to many Beijingers as a long-term resident of China’s capital. Nick runs the Beijing-based Koryo Tours, one of the few travel firms that can get you into North Korea – I joined one of their trips to Pyongyang back in 2010. He has also produced several well known documentaries about life in North Korea, such as A State of Mind (2004).

Comrade Kim Yong Mi (played by Han Jong Sim) in the new North Korean feature Comrade Kim Goes Flying.

Nick showed me a few minutes of Comrade Kim Goes Flying when I was in Beijing last May, but unfortunately I’ve yet to see the whole film. The Guardian describes it as being “about a young woman who runs off to join the circus as an acrobat.” Apparently it won the Best Director Award at the Pyongyang International Film Festival last September. Probably not a lot of competition for that particular gong.

And last but certainly not least, I’m sorry to report the death of legendary Japanese director Nagisa Oshima from pneumonia this week, on 15 January. Oshima was a central part of the Japanese New Wave of the early 60s, with titles like Night and Fog in Japan and Cruel Story of Youth (both 1960). In the 70s and 80s he found more international audiences with the incredibly sexually explicit In the Realm of the Senses (1976), and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983, starring, among others, David Bowie). No connection to China, but I thought it important to mention anyway. The Guardian’s obituary for Oshima is here.

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