Heady days for cinema industry in China


China’s film market continues to grow despite the recession, writes CLIFFORD COONAN in Beijing

CHINA MAY be experiencing a painful economic slowdown, but audiences are flocking to see costumed kung fu comedies, tense historical dramas, science fiction fantasies and elegant Beijing Opera biopics in numbers never seen before.

“While China is on an upscale swing, the whole world is on the way down,” says Peter Chan, Hong Kong director of The Warlords, one of the filmmakers hoping to take advantage of the boom in the mainland market.

Time was when China was not on the map in terms of box office, but now it’s becoming a big regional player. Box office receipts last year rose by nearly a third to 4.215 billion yuan (€470 million) and, for the first time, Chinese films beat out foreign competition to dominate the silver screen at home.

For a Chinese film, earning more than 100 million yuan (€11.5 million) at the box office is the true seal of success. Last year, eight Chinese films passed that figure, including The Forbidden Kingdom, Kung Fu Dunk, the first part of the Hong Kong director John Woo’s epic historical drama Red Cliff, and Chen Kaige’s biopic of the Beijing Opera legend Mei Lanfang, Forever Enthralled.

These are heady days for the industry and China is immensely proud of the success of its films.

“During this economic slowdown, there are still many funds willing to invest Chinese films,” says Yu Dong, head of PolyBona, long a distributor of films but now keen to get more involving in making movies.

This year will see the release of a major propaganda movie to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the revolution that swept the communists to power, featuring what its state-backed producers call the “most powerful line-up in the history of Chinese film”.

The movie, the title of which translates as The Great Cause of China’s Foundation, is being directed by Han Sanping, head of the all powerful state-owned China Film Group.

Han is a fervent nationalist, always urging local filmmakers to make more patriotic and “ethically inspiring” movies and responding to critics by saying nationalism is also common in Hollywood.

Among the stars taking direction from Han will be top directors Chen Kaige and Feng Xiaogang plus actors like Andy Lau, Jiang Wen and Ge You.

Anyone who is anyone in the business has to play a part – unpaid – to do their patriotic duty.

Top director Zhang Yimou announced last week he would also make a movie to mark the anniversary and was “examining a few scripts”.

The one-time bad-boy director of Raise the Red Lantern, who marked his rehabilitation by overseeing the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies last year, is also down to do a fireworks display to mark the event.

The ability of China’s film market to grow despite the global recession has lured film makers from Hong Kong in particular.

“The rise in revenues changes the dynamic of the market place,” says Chan, who recently launched a Hong-China joint venture, Cinema Popular. “This has all changed drastically in the last 18 months and I can only see these percentages rising.”

Hong Kong was returned to China from British rule in 1997, and the former colony has a definite headstart because of favourable cross-border trade deals and a shared cultural background.

Driving the box office boom has been ever more Chinese watching films on the big screen. Cinemas used to be draughty, uncomfortable places but many companies have started building multiplexes, which fill as soon as they are opened.

Some of the expertise in building cinemas came from foreign companies, such as the cinema arm of the Hollywood studio Warner Bros, which was forced to withdraw from the market after a rule change ruled foreign firms out of the business.

This kind of regulatory problem shows how China remains a tough market for foreigners, much to the chagrin of the Hollywood studios, keen to gain a foothold in potentially the largest market in the world.

To help boost local movies, the screening of foreign movies is tightly controlled in China. There is a quota system which permits only 20 foreign films a year to be released, although films which count as co-productions, ie made with both Chinese and foreign input, are exempt from this rule.

There can be problems here too. Last year, the co-production Shanghai was refused a permit, even though the picture had already spent €2.35 million. There are also regular blackout periods for foreign movies to boost domestic fare.

The government keeps a tight grip on the media, especially cinema, and censorship remains one of the key challenges to working in China. However there are reportedly moves afoot to introduce a film classification system, which would replace the censor’s scissors with reliable and predictable classifications, thus allowing directors and producers to take more risks.