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Fast forward with film

Updated: 2013-08-23 08:10
By Raymond Zhou ( China Daily)

 Fast forward with film

Scenes from Chinese films (clockwise from top right): Finding Mr Right, Painted Skin: The Resurrection, Lost in Thailand, Love Is Not Blind, Tiny Times, Switch and So Young. Photos provided to China Daily

In the past year, Chinese films have galloped ahead like a dark horse, beating Hollywood imports

There is a groundswell in China's film industry, and Hollywood has taken notice more than most Chinese have. In the first half of this year, box-office takings in the Chinese mainland reached 10.99 billion yuan ($1.8 billion; 1.35 billion euros), out of which domestic films accounted for 62 percent. For the first time in five years, takings for imported movies dropped in the world's second largest market for film exhibition, and the fall was as much as 21.4 percent year-on-year.

Four Chinese movies grossed more than 500 million yuan at the box office in the first six months of the year. By contrast, only one import achieved this feat, and that was Iron Man 3, a Hollywood franchise movie with significant Chinese investment and a token nod to Chinese input in the form of two cameo appearances by Chinese stars.

Hollywood has always accused its Chinese peers of manipulating the market. But this time there was no "protection month" in which only Chinese works were allowed to screen; and imports were not deliberately scheduled to compete with each other. Almost miraculously, a sizeable audience for home-made movies instead of imported ones seemed to pop up from nowhere. That took both domestic pundits and Hollywood honchos by surprise.

Hollywood had always commanded close to half of China's film market. That was when China limited the number of imports to just 20 a year. When China raised the import quota from 20 to 34 early last year, it spelt doom for the domestic industry. And it was indeed doomsday for the first batch of Chinese movies that unfortunately debuted in the 2012 spring season. All of them flopped miserably.

Fast forward with film

A protection month was hastily installed. Painted Skin: The Resurrection, whose distributor had reportedly pleaded for a three-day window, suddenly found itself with no competition and ended up grossing 726 million yuan. If that was a fluke, Lost in Thailand won the race without such measures by the end of the year when it became the highest grossing Chinese movie with 1.25 billion yuan and the highest attended movie ever since film exhibition as a means of entertainment nosedived in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The dramatic rise of Chinese cinema in the past year did not come from the humiliating beating it took early last year. (Most of the movies that turned out to be runaway hits were already in production or post-production by then.) Ironically, Chinese filmmakers should give credit to Hollywood because it is the typical Hollywood way of story-telling that is absorbed by these Chinese films. And that secret is called genre films. These films are commercial in nature; they conform to strict formulae in narrative, which Chinese filmmakers had always ignored or disdained.

The current wave of genre films in China can be traced back to Love Is Not Blind, a romantic comedy that opened in November 2011 and turned into a sensation by sheer word of mouth. Since then, the costume epic, which was seen as China's only hope at beating Hollywood, has been in steep decline, dragging down with it its star-studded casts, lavish production values and pompous storylines. In its place have come a steady slate of mid-budget movies with coherent stories and dialogues that resonate with the public. Above all, these movies were designed from the beginning not to give vent to the creators' artistic expression but to entertain a mass audience.

It is hardly surprising that most of these domestic hits are comedies. Comedy is mostly local. When Hollywood sent scouts to recover the secret formula, many of them reported that these Chinese movies were not particularly funny. Of course not. When you translate every line into English, you have lost much of the fun, leaving only a few sight gags. You have to sit with a full-house local audience to gauge the effect of these movies.

Hollywood movies are made for the global market. It is simply beyond its scope of interest and ability to make the kind of Chinese comedies that click with the Chinese audience. It can air-drop talent from overseas, but an ear for a good joke cannot be trained in a week or a month. It takes a lifetime of immersion in a culture. Take Lost in Thailand or Finding Mr Right. The premise is very Hollywood, with one inspired by Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and the other by Sleepless in Seattle. Yet, details of the stories are totally grounded in Chinese reality.

Fast forward with film

I often encounter the argument that "Culture is skin deep, and it is our common humanity that binds us all". This is perfectly right, but in a cut-throat market it is the "skin" part, the superficial part, that wins the audience. This applies not only to East-West differences, but also to regional cultures within China. The success of such titles as Switch and the Tiny Times franchise, which experts have dismissed as shoddy works from amateur filmmakers, nevertheless speaks of the dominance of the provincial taste. As big cities in China are saturated with cinemas, the new screens - at a rate of 10 a day - are popping up in smaller cities, where youngsters tend to dream of exaggerated glamour and ignore basic narrative techniques or redeeming values espoused by a more mature demographic. For the foreseeable future, Chinese movies are going to slide to mindless entertainment, but the skill of genre story-telling will come into focus as at least one of the major determinants.

The reason Hollywood has underperformed this year is homogenization. About half a dozen of this summer's major releases have flopped in the US, and if it is any relief, one of them has found a big audience in China. Pacific Rim has become one of the rare imports that grossed more in China than in its home market. The Croods, an animated feature, opened modestly in China and, through positive word of mouth, climbed higher on the box-office curve with each week. Hollywood is still a juggernaut to be feared; it is just that Chinese filmmakers now have more confidence tackling it with better-positioned and more tailor-made tales.

Another detail worth noting about this crop of Chinese hits is that they are mostly made by first or second-time directors. Sure, some, such as Zhao Wei, who made her directorial debut with So Young, were acting stars with a large following, and one of them was a best-selling author. This not only denotes the rise of a new generation of film directors, but may suggest that, for genre filmmaking, the director may no longer be the biggest calling card. If the story is great and casting is decent, you may turn unknown quantities into dark horses.

Genre formula is not patented. Hollywood is a master at it, but filmmakers everywhere can utilize it. The thing is, Hollywood tends to overuse it while its Chinese peers had long overlooked its importance. The young generation in China does not attach stigma to it because they grew up with movies made for entertainment. It seems we are back to square one, with confidence to go forward but facing a future that may bring sudden changes. But definitely, we are on a higher level this time.

Contact the writer at raymondzhou@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily Africa Weekly 08/23/2013 page30)

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