Berlinale Sweep Sees China's State Media Proud But Cautious

Berlinale Golden Bear 2014 winner, "Black Coal, Thin Ice"
Berlinale Golden Bear 2014 winner, "Black Coal, Thin Ice"
 Courtesy of Fortissimo

China's state media warmly, if a little cautiously, welcomed news that its filmmakers had dominated the awards at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival, giving high priority to the plaudits but steering clear of too much analysis on the subject matter of the big prize-winners.

China Central Television (CCTV) proudly reported how Black Coal, Thin Ice won the Golden Bear, although the state broadcaster restricted its coverage to factual reporting rather than any effusive welcoming of Diao Yinan's triumph, and Best Actor gong for Liao Fan as an overweight alcoholic policeman investigating murders against the gothic backdrop of China's coal mining region.

Black Coal, Thin Ice producer Vivian Qu said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter during the Berlinale that the movie had been approved by China's Film Bureau and would hopefully screen in March. The reaction on social media was largely positive.

STORY: Chinese Film Noir 'Black Coal, Thin Ice' Wins Golden Bear 

There was a high-profile mention for Lou Ye’s Blind Massage, which won a Silver Bear honoring "extraordinary artistic achievement." A one-time bad-boy, Lou was banned for five years for one of his biggest movies, Summer Palace, back in 2006.

The broadcaster also showed a clip of No Man’s Land by Ning Hao, mentioning that it was in competition in Berlin. This film was banned by censors for more than four years as a nihilistic work.

While proud of the performance of its filmmakers, the cautious welcome reflects how these movies are edgier than the usual costume dramas and martial arts movies that win official approval, although they are not overtly political.

The coal mining industry is politically sensitive in China, and the government doesn't like movies set in the business. There have been numerous corruption cases centered around private mine owners in northeast China, appalling mine disasters because owners cut costs in the wrong places.

A previous Silver Bear winner, 2003's Blind Shaft by Li Yang, was banned in China.

The story which ran on the state news agency Xinhua was equally proud but again steered clear of reading too much into the subtext of the films on offer.

The growing sophistication of filmmaking in cinema means the subject matter increasingly reflects the economic realities there, although none of the prize-winning films makes any open criticisms of the ruling Communist Party.

There are signs of a certain swagger around the world's second biggest film market right now, as a huge increase in the number of cinema screens boosts demand for content.

Box office hit $3.6 billion last year, with 58 per cent of the tally coming from domestic movies.

The quota of foreign movies allowed into China on a revenue-sharing basis was raised to 34 in 2012, and the success of the Chinese films at the Berlinale will do little to quell a wave of rumors that the authorities have considered opening up the market further.

Diao himself alluded to the improving situation when he said: "I think the fact we are here in Berlin shows our censors are becoming more open, although there are difficulties," he said.

All three movies in competition at Berlin showed leading filmmakers moving away from first-tier cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen to shoot projects in smaller, less affluent cities, illustrating the grimy underbelly of China's remarkable economic growth story.

Berlin fest director Dieter Kosslick had said before the event that the movies were chosen for coming from "outside the glamorous cities."

Diao and Qu said in the interview that the pressure to make movies that pass censorship was as much commercial as political.

STORY: China 2013 Box Office Surges 27 Percent to $3.6 Billion 

Black Coal, Thin Ice started life as a purely arthouse project, but morphed into something with noir elements after pressure from investors.

"When we started filming it in 2005 and 2006, it is not what you see now, it was not a noir movie, but it was very difficult to attract investors both in China and elsewhere," Diao said. "My second film, Night Train, Vivian also produced and she found lots of investors. Vivian inspired me a lot and together we revised the script. When we were revising the script, the investors urged more commercial elements," said Diao.

Producer Qu said the censorship issue was one that filmmakers dealt with in a pragmatic way.

"It's a very practical thing because if you want to do an independent movie and don't care about censorship, there are limited resources. If your film needs a certain scale, it has to clear censorship, that's why the film took so long," she said.

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