Daytime Booze, Nighttime Party: Thoughts on the Present State of Chinese Cinema

By Zhang Xianmin

Translated by Isabella Tianzi Cai

Zhang Xianmin

In this essay, Zhang Xianmin, Professor of Beijing Film Academy, film producer and critic, and organizer of the China Independent Film Festival, comments on the absurdity of China’s film culture and industry today. The essay is divided into four parts: the current cultural milieu, Chinese films’ box office, international film festivals, and the role of the Internet. He argues that first, vibrant film culture exists only in a few major Chinese cities while zero film culture exists in all other places; second, mainland Chinese cinema is not competitive in the global market because it is yet to develop any unique and cross-cultural popular genres; third, award-winning Chinese films at various international film festivals do not have much influence on Chinese cinema but are heavily oriented towards China’s social and political realities; and lastly, Chinese audience consume more foreign films than the other way around. To get his points across, he draws examples from his own experiences as a judge at several international film festivals. Though he can be extremely ironic at times, he shares his most honest thoughts about contemporary Chinese cinema with us in this essay.

I have tried to translate Zhang Xianmin’s essay as close to the original as possible; however, there were instances where I had to abandon the Chinese expressions in the essay for more appropriate English terms.

- Isabella Tianzi Cai

Daytime Booze, Nighttime Party: An Essay on the Lacklustre International Influences of Chinese Cinema in Recent Years

Zhang Xianmin
September 29, 2010

Our Current Cultural Milieu or the So-called Film Environment

Contemporary Chinese culture shows typical signs of a cultural backwater. The creation and recognition of new local cultures are heavily reliant on the existent fame and commercial power of more prosperous places. Cultural resources are clustered in big cities; the rest of China are cultural deserts. If we call this a transition period with Chinese characteristics, it might as well be unprecedented in human history. On the one hand, the cultural development of China lags behind its economic development because the former developed under various kinds of restraints and unhealthy favoritism (we developed but without making progress). On the other, Chinese culture does not have any real power in society; what it has are money-making industries (just like our real estate industry) and politically driven propaganda (in the name of spiritual development). The differences between China and other culturally more developed countries are both the lack of investment by big corporations and the lack of tax incentives for individual cultural workers.

Film is part of this larger picture. China’s box office revenue generated by domestically produced films has increased rapidly in recent years. However, the money has come from a limited number of blockbusters which gave no respect whatsoever towards our traditional cultural values. The government is in favor of high movie ticket prices; it is making our film industry into a capital-intensive industry. If a director tries to make a film, he or she will only get the script approved if the film can help the relevant gatekeepers either get rich or get promoted. These gatekeepers don’t care about the film industry. Their children study overseas, and their only wish is to wait until they have the money to emigrate. Ironically, they deem China not a good place for their children because of its bad culture.

Under the Hawthorn Tree (dir. Zhang Yimou)

I can outline three kinds of games that are played in contemporary China. First is the game of political leverage. For example, [Communist Party leader] Bo Xilai’s son Bo Guagua studies in London. Guagua came back to China once and delivered a speech in Peking University about his determination to contribute to China’s cultural industry. Many years ago Kim Il-Sung’s son said the same thing to his father. Second is the game of money. Han Sanping said that he wanted to invest 6 billion yuan in turning Huairou into China’s Hollywood. Jia Zhangke also said that he would donate 200 million yuan to support young Chinese filmmakers. Third is the game of fame. All of China’s film critics in their 60s agree that the love story in Under the Hawthorne Tree (dir. Zhang Yimou, 2010) is absolutely romantic and touching. And the officials at our film bureau insist that Aftershock (dir. Feng Xiaogang, 2010) is a realist film.

This is why we have midnight drinking parties followed by late night dancing parties. So cinema stands alongside alcohol and parties.

Under this condition, it is meaningless if a film wins an award in an international film festival. Time has changed. Now is different from ten years ago. An award-winner has little influence on Chinese cinema. Awards matter less than more practical things. The general public lives under stress. They consume bad popular culture and they are in turn the shapers of that bad popular culture. At least that’s their relationship with China’s mainstream media.

Box Office

Only Hollywood and a few other big conglomerates have the power to market domestically successful Chinese blockbusters in the international market; maybe one film per year with a box office revenue of $20 million gets that attention. China distributes two to four of its films in 20 countries worldwide, but the countries are small countries like the one that trapped its coal miners underground for over a month. There is nothing to be proud about the sales because they are basically effortless deals. China makes about 5 million yuan for each of these films. But the domestic Chinese audience cannot care less about them – either they cannot find these films or they will not watch them.

Chinese cinema is not competitive when it comes to box office. Westerners control almost all the channels for distribution. At the same time, Chinese cinema will not develop any particular type of popular film genre because of prolonged years of cultural suppression. The most influential genre we have had is kung fu films. Yet it was the Hong Kong film industry that first capitalized on them. What original genre can the mainland Chinese film industry come up with? If anyone knows the answer please let me know. I believe that if anyone still reads my essay today it means he or she can probably get into contact with me. To add to that, American genre films were created by Americans themselves.

Film Festivals

Much has been said about film festivals. Most awards go to middle-aged filmmakers (because older filmmakers have received what were due to them and younger filmmakers are not as good yet); they include Yu Guangyi, Zhao Liang, Ying Liang, Liu Jiayin, Li Hongqi, Guo Xiaolu, etc. Others include Wanma Caidan, Zhao Hui, Yang Heng, Xu Tong, etc. Liu Jiayin is the youngest among them, but she came into fame too young, the fact of which complies with Zhang Ailing’s notion that females must get famous when they are young. Award-winners in the short film category include Shu Haolun, Chen Tao, Li Jia, Xi Xueqing, etc. Which one or ones of them are influential in Chinese cinema? Probably none. Their films have more impact on Chinese society than on film per se. Shall we conclude that mainstream Chinese films (as opposed to independent Chinese cinema) in general does not reflect Chinese society? Or can we say that westerners are scheming to only give awards to films that will not sell?

In the most recent decade, film criticism in China has become commercialized. That is why people no longer have faith in film criticism but in awards. Although judging a film in this manner is extremely narrow-minded, it is the only credible way at the present to gauge the artistic value of a film, just like Churchill’s comments on democracy – he said that it is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

I have been on the award committee at over ten film festivals. The most serious and professional behavior that I have observed with the people in the committee in my work unit, Beijing Film Academy, only appeared once during a meeting for distributing bonus housing. As for our regional film festivals, Hong Kong is a truly developed cultural center; South Korea entered this category probably ten years ago, but Taiwan is still on its way there.

I will comment on the different official dispositions towards film festivals in different countries. While I was in Taipei, in the middle of a discussion about the awards, two girls entered the compound and sat in for the discussion. Out of my experiences in this kind of situation in mainland China, I asked wittily if they were volunteers, and if not, what they were doing here. The award committee gave the explanation that they were representatives sent from the cultural bureau and they were here to monitor the discussion. To put it more frankly, they were there because the institution that they belonged to subsidized part of the festival. Once their identity was revealed, members of the award committee, including me, expressed our reluctance to have them be present. As a result, the two girls left the room, and they stayed in the corridor for the entire morning. Later I learned that this kind of occurrence is not unusual in Taiwan. Since older officials are busy, their younger colleagues are sent in for similar kinds of chores.

In contrast, during the Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF), South Korean officials attended the opening ceremony, wanted to give welcome speeches as well as speeches that showed their passion and determination for the promotion of culture. Probably to subvert and reduce the amount of bureaucracy involved in the film festival, the cocktail party for the opening ceremony at the PIFF had everyone stand up (since there were no chairs), and the only person in control of the situation was the DJ. High-level officials tended to get tired easily, they probably could not digest well when eating while standing up, and they probably could not enjoy the music chosen by the DJ. Perhaps it was somewhat embarrassing to have them wait in line to get their fill of wine, yet it would be more embarrassing for them to call on their inferiors to carry their plates and cups. The number of guests that one was allowed to bring was limited. The secretary of their minister of culture wrote emails to the PIFF organizers, asking them to give the minister some time to deliver a speech about current cultural policies. However, the PIFF organizers retained the right to cut the minister’s speech. The speech was kept at roughly 20 seconds, and that was just enough time for making greetings. The mayor of Pusan wished to say something at the film festival too; however, it was not executed either. The office of the PIFF had been inside a simple iron shed until this year when it was moved into a real building. Last year, five presidential candidates wished to speak at the festival but they were all rejected, none of them came in the end. That was probably the hardest time for the PIFF.

Fighting the power falls on the shoulder of every single one of us. It need not be something grand in scale but little things that matter. Justice may not be the goal when it comes to art, and we know that art is often not about justice, but fighting the power helps protect the working environment by keeping it as professional as possible.

The Internet

In terms of its influence on the world wide web, Chinese cinema can be said to exert more influence in the international market before finding a place in its domestic market. Majority of international audience is not interested in Chinese cinema. The interest flows in one direction only. Chinese-language netizens are quick to produce subtitles for newly released films; they share these subtitles with others. However, there is not a single influential Chinese film critic in the English-language world, and there is literally no one interested in supplying subtitles for our domestically produced blockbuster The Founding of a Republic. In the English-language world, Chinese-language films hardly exist. As for what I said earlier about the relationship between the international and the domestic markets, there are some Chinese viewers who risk climbing over the great firewall of China to watch Chinese-language documentaries that are banned in China.

Summer Palace (dir. Lou Ye)

In 2005, the year that Lou Ye’s Summer Palace came out, I asserted that Chinese cinema did not have political films but only subservient films and art-house films. If politics are detected in any art-house film, it must have ended up so in secret. At that time, only three to four filmmakers dared to embed explicit political messages in their works. However, the number of people who dare to do the same has increased exponentially over the past few years because of a series of social changes and ironically too, the ever stricter censoring going on in the Internet. After a certain event takes place, videos that document it are edited fast and put on the Internet for immediate viewing (the fastest that I have seen is a next-day release). These videos vary in length. They share a common disregard or disrespect for copyright issues, which are capitalist in nature. They use streaming technology. As compared to the dissemination of their content, their form matters little if anything at all. Their purpose is to have as many people as possible watch them and take immediate actions. These filmmakers do not care if their works are films. Some of the longer videos or feature-length films are produced by professional filmmakers, who do not submit their works to any film festival. They do not need anyone to assess the artistic value of their works. The names of these people are sensitive search words in China. Puzzled readers can try to do a search of them by first climbing over the great firewall of China.

Some films have sexual content; sometimes this is not included deliberately by the artists but happens by accident; it depends on how you read it. Two kinds of films are in exile. One is commercialized pornography (art-house pornographic films are allowed in China, so are art-house pornographic videos, which are made using filter lenses and filter paper). They are different from hard-core pornography but are like art-house soft-core pornography. The other kind is comprised of films that deal with sensitive political and social issues. To conclude, at the present moment, politics are more pornographic than art in China. Maybe there is an additional conclusion to be made as well: while politicized art is like propaganda, politics disguised in art is like any other organized or institutionalized activity in China.

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