The Future of Chinese Filmmaking: Made in U.S.?

By Isabella Tianzi Cai

Sally Liu came from Beijing to get her MFA at Columbia University. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Back in 2005 when I started as a freshman studying film at Boston University, I was one of only two foreign-born Chinese film students there. I remember the surprised look that people often gave me when they learned about my major. At the time, it was rare to see a student from mainland China taking on film as her major, especially at the undergraduate level.

My reason for studying film was a straightforward one. I fell in love with the medium in high school, and I wanted to become a filmmaker. I could also intuit an impending bright future for Chinese cinema, given its vast unexploited market. In this sense I probably have much in common with the thousand or so Chinese film students in the U.S. today.

This is why Los Angeles Times reporter John Horn’s Oct. 2 article “Reel China: Land of Cinematic Opportunity” makes me feel excited about the path I chose. In the article, he describes the trend of U.S.-bound Chinese film students, the pull and push factors for this trend, the challenges faced by the students, their aspirations, and the reality that they face once they complete the programs. Each of these points reminds me of my own experiences and those of my friends’. I can’t help but wonder, if we are being identified as a group, how will we do collectively ten or fifteen years from now? And how do we prepare for the future?

To reiterate, Horn writes that the number of mainland Chinese art students in the U.S. has grown significantly over the past few years, and film majors count among them. Many Chinese students wishing to become filmmakers chose to leave China behind because the chance of getting into the Beijing Film Academy was too slim – about 0.5% get selected, 14 times lower than the admission rate of Harvard.

Here you may ask, why must they go to the Beijing Film Academy in the first place? The reason is simple. Most people in mainland China have only heard about the Beijing Film Academy as a place to study film. It has the longest history and the best reputation. No other school can challenge its place.

Therefore, even though getting a foreign education means a huge investment, people who can afford it believe that the investment will eventually pay off.

In the article, one thing that Horn’s subjects comment unanimously on is the creative freedom that they can enjoy in American film schools. While they need to subject their films to unwanted monitoring and censorship at many levels in China, they need not worry about getting into serious troubles for making a political film in the U.S.

In addition to the freedom of expression, the students also comment favorably on the curriculum in the U.S. They appreciate the freedom to pick their desired courses to fulfill their desired studies. Many are also amazed by the range and diversity of courses available to them. One student mentioned copyright law and budgeting classes, which were not known to her to be offered in China, and was a delight for her to be able to learn both here.

In my own undergraduate and graduate experiences, this is definitely something that I can put my finger on and have benefited much from. During my four years in college, I became fascinated with cultural anthropology and philosophy. I took the required number of courses in both fields with great self-motivation and eventually graduated with a minor in each of them.

Horn also touches upon the language barrier that foreign students typically face. Unquestionably, learning the everyday English is still several steps away from using it effectively in screenwriting and other areas. And using the English language with a profound understanding of a drastically different set of cultural assumptions, signs and symbols, and subtlety could take a long time.

Fortunately, exemplified by the California Institute of Fine Arts, some U.S. schools have started to counter this one-way effort of Chinese film students by making American film students learn Chinese and sending American film students to China, according to Horn. These measures are directed to developing a pool of American talent necessary for future co-productions between China and the U.S. As some have come to believe, more investment in the film industry may come out from China, and now is the best time to get ready for it.

Here I also want to express my commiseration with Yu Gu, whose story is mentioned in Horn’s article. It is said that she went to China to make her student film “A Moth in Spring.” But local authorities stopped her production in an unexpectedly rough manner. Could she have avoided this sticky situation by connecting to the authorities first, like what Fan Lixin did for his film Last Train Home? Or does her failure to complete her student film tell us something about the work environment faced by mainland Chinese independent filmmakers? The answer is probably yes to both questions.

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