'China's Spielberg' Feng Xiaogang Says Censors Are Holding Back Industry (Q&A)
The director of numerous blockbusters is visiting L.A. to leave his handprints and footprints at the TCL Chinese Theatre on Friday and promote his new film, "Back to 1942," which has been submitted for the foreign-language film Oscar.
Chinese censors are holding back the nation's film industry, director Feng Xiaogang -- who has been described by Newsweek as "China's Spielberg" -- told The Hollywood Reporter during a visit to Los Angeles this week. Feng made international headlines in April by denouncing China's censors during an emotional speech in Beijing as he accepted the Film Directors Guild's director of the year award. Although his remarks were censored when the event aired in China, Feng said that his fellow filmmakers applauded him. '"Within the Guild everyone was like, 'Yay! Finally someone can speak up about this in public,'" he said. "As for the people in the Censorship Bureau, they just pretended it never happened."
Explaining what it is like to work under the censors, Feng continued, "You have to keep a lot of things in mind when you're making a film, and that's hurting the film already in the first place, because you're always thinking, 'Okay, can this get through?' And after you send it to them, they give you a lot of little notes about changes that you have to make, and every little bit of sacrifice, in the end, is a great harm to the film itself." He added, "A lot of the suggestions that they give you -- like, I almost want to laugh. [I ask myself] 'What does that even mean?' It's ridiculous. 'What is wrong with this line? What is wrong with this shot?' But they just make you change it. So that's really frustrating to a lot of directors, and it almost feels like, 'Okay, I just don't want to do this anymore because they're always there to stop me.'"
Feng, 55, has been China's most consistent hit-maker over the past 20 years. He is in L.A. this week to promote his latest film, the epic historical drama Back to 1942, which China has submitted as its best foreign-language film Oscar entry, and to attend a ceremony on Friday at which he will become only the second Chinese person to have his handprints and footprints immortalized at Hollywood's TCL Chinese Theatre, formerly Grauman's.
On Tuesday, I spent a fascinating hour in Beverly Hills with Feng, whom I met at the magnificent home of his longtime producer and friend Dennis Wang, co-founder and co-chairman of the giant Chinese production company Huayi Brothers Media Corporation, which, Feng jokes, his films paid for. Over the course of our conversation, Feng puffed on a cigarette and sipped from a thermos to alleviate a cough as we focused on his rise to prominence in China -- which has coincided with China's and the Chinese film industry's respective rises. We also discussed Back to 1942, which centers around the devastating famine that struck Henan, China 71 years ago, claiming the lives of some three million Chinese. It is a project that Feng has spent 17 years trying to bring to the screen, and it features a cast of Chinese actors along with American Oscar winners Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins.
Regardless of how much success Feng achieves and how many accolades he brings to China, he doubts that he will ever be able to make films in his country without interference from the censors: "It doesn't seem possible," he said mournfully. But, in spite of those roadblocks, he feels that, with Back to 1942, he has made a film that he can truly stand behind -- and one which he feels the Academy might embrace, too. "I believe that 1942 is the closest that you can get to an Oscar-level film for China because of the censorship," he explained. "This film is really different because the themes of the film -- pain and struggle -- are international, not about China alone."
A full transcript of our conversation -- which was made possible by the translation of Feng's production assistant Amie Zuo -- follows. An unedited video of our entire conversation is at the bottom of this post.
Did you watch a lot of movies as a kid? And, if you did, were any films or filmmakers particular favorites or influences for you?
When we were younger, my generation was mainly exposed to Russian films and the domestic revolutionary-themed films. It was after my twenties that I became more exposed to foreign films.
When did you first have the opportunity to try filmmaking yourself, even if it was just for fun? And how did that first opportunity come about?
I began my career as an art director, both on stage and on films, and that's when I started to look at what the director is able to do -- they could tell stories and they could create their own work -- and that's when I felt like, "Okay, I want to try that, too."
How did that lead to television? Unlike most filmmakers in China, you worked in television before films ...
Basically, it's all about the timing. At the end of the 1990s in China, the film market was really doomed -- completely dead. No one was going to the movies because everyone was at home watching TV dramas. That's when the Chinese TV drama market peaked. And I was working at the Beijing television station by that time as an art person -- scenic director -- and felt like, "Okay, since no one is making films right now, let's start with the TV dramas." And then once I was able to build a really strong audience base, I would take audience -- my fans -- to the movies. Because the movie market was so bad, it was really easy to transition into the market. The threshold was not that high. So yeah, I had good practice with the TV dramas and was then able to move to the big screen.
From the very beginning of your career, if my information is correct, you never accepted government funding for your films; you always private financed them. What was the motivation for that decision?
Back at the beginning, because the market was so bad, the government wasn't funding at all. It wasn't even a choice. And then my first producer said to me, "Okay, I'll fund your film, but you're not gonna get paid at all until I get revenue and then we'll talk numbers based on how much money we made from box office." I'm one of those directors who emerged from that little awkward system that China had during that time. Before my generation, once a director graduated from the film academy, he or she was sent to one of the five or six big, government-funded movie studios in China. And then basically you just worked for them on a salary; it didn't concern you at all how much your film made or whatever. The decision was made for you. There was a very strict order to becoming a director: You had to graduate from the Beijing Film Academy, major in directing, then go to the film studio and start as a script supervisor and then work your way up. Not for at least 10 years could you can have your own piece. But that was before my time. During my time, because the market was so bad, no one cared anymore. There was no standard.
Early in your career you acted in a few films, some directed by others and others directed by yourself. Do you enjoy acting and do you feel that having acted yourself makes you a better director?
I did it just for fun in the beginning, yeah. I was curious. I thought it was fun. I tried it but then discovered that I couldn't really concentrate on being the actor and the director. I believe that as an actor you do need professional training. It wasn't that enjoyable after that.
For Americans who may not know, can you explain what the genre hesui pian is? I believe that your film The Dream Factory was really the first example of that ...
That's true. Before my time, most directors believed that films were supposed to be art house -- not supposed to appeal to everyone and not supposed to be something that everyone could enjoy -- and that there should be a higher standard to be a film director. But I believed that, because the market was so bad, the first priority should be to get the audience back in the film theaters in the first place. I guaranteed that the funders would get their money back and that people would actually start to enjoy watching movies again. Comedy was one of my strong suits. I always enjoy making comedies. I believe that the hesui pian genre exists in America, as well -- every Christmas you see a lot of happy films, family-oriented films -- and at the end of the year, I just wanted to give a really happy ending to everyone. That had a really good outcome -- people really enjoyed that -- starting with The Dream Factory. That made $3 million in China, and that was just unheard of. And then, starting from that, the record in China is now $150 million in China. I like to think that I played an important role in the booming of the Chinese movie industry.
Just to clarify, though, all hesui pian films come out between Christmas and the lunar New Year and are commercially appealing?
In the very beginning, intentionally, it was only from Christmas until January first -- basically, the calendar New Year -- and yes, it had to be a comedy to be called a hesui pian. But because everyone realized that it's the biggest market of the entire year, and more producers wanted to have their films out at that time, there are just too many, so you had to extend it. So now it's between December 1 until the lunar New Year. And it doesn't strictly have to be comedy.
Almost all the films that you have made -- even the hesui pian comedies -- have made some kind of a comment about Chinese society, whether it's the prevalence of cell phones or advertising or other things. Do you feel that the best way to get people to look at themselves and their world around them is through entertainment? Is that the power of the movies?
Absolutely. If you look at my films from the beginning through now you can really see the transformation of China, basically. I implanted little bits and pieces of the economic changes, ideological changes -- it's all in there. I'm really interested in just trying to capture the change of China and how that affects people and their relationships with one another.
With some of your more recent films -- Assembly, Aftershock and now Back to 1942 -- you have focused on China's past, as opposed to the present day. What led you to your desire to explore dramatic, historical topics?
I felt like before, with the genre hesui pian, I was mainly warming up the market; I felt obligated to bring back the market. But then, after that, with Assembly, Aftershock and 1942, I felt like, "Okay, now the audience is ready to take on something that's more serious and something that reflects our culture." When everyone wanted to be artsy, I was making commercial films. But now since the commercial market is so great in China, everyone is doing that, so I felt like, "I wanna go back to art."
It must be very gratifying to see a movie like Aftershock make record amounts of money at the box office because that proves that your experiment worked, doesn't it? That audiences now are ready and interested in coming out and seeing a movie in large numbers about something that isn't comedic at all?
I believe that I have made two different types of films: The first tries to capture my own life, to reflect upon my own life and to show the audience what my understanding of the world of life is. That's like Woody Allen's style. I usually write this type of film myself. The second type I adapt from really famous novels and pieces from really famous writers in China, and these topics usually deal with struggle, the desperation of the culture and ideology -- and I believe these kinds of films have more meaning. Because of the economy booming really, really fast in China, a lot of people have become conceited and forget how much the Chinese people struggled in the past. I feel like I should use film to remind them where they came from.
Back to 1942 certainly does that. I understand that you've spent 17 years trying to bring it to the screen. Why did you feel so passionate about this particular story, and why did it take that many years to get it made?
First of all, 17 years ago it would have been almost impossible to get it past the censorship because that part of history is an open wound to a lot of Chinese people -- it's just a subject that you can't touch. Also, the market was getting better, but it wasn't big enough yet to handle such a big production. But last year, I felt like, "Okay." After 17 years of work, I was able to get the story past the censorship, so that's the most important thing, and then the market was now mature enough to have such a big production -- and maybe to actually gain revenue too, not to lose money, from a subject like this. I felt like, over the years, I had built up enough trust in the Chinese audience to try a risky theme like this. Usually people will think, "Okay, a story like this, maybe it's not the film that you wanna go to." But I believe that it's because of the trust that I have built with the audience over so many years -- because this film is labeled with my name -- it has a certain guarantee. It's actually really lucky to be a Chinese director because in Hollywood, or even the Hong Kong film market, it's really star-oriented. The audience looks at whoever stars in the film and then watches it. But in China it's very director-based, director-centered, so the audience actually says, "Okay, this is a director who I like, maybe I'll go watch his film."
Speaking of stars, I know that on a few occasions, previously with Happy Funeral and now with Back to 1942, you elected to cast Hollywood actors in your films -- Donald Sutherland with the former and now Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins with the latter. What led to the decision to cast them and what was it like working with them?
I felt like, first of all, those three actors you mentioned were perfect for their stories, for their parts. And working with them, I felt like these three actors were really professional and are really, really good. Their understanding of their roles is very, very accurate. And I feel like they were able to give so much to the film, and not just box office-wise. For example, after Adrien read the script his mom read it as well; his mom is actually a refugee from Hungary and then they moved to New York. Adrien’s mom told him, "Well, this story is very much related to you. Like everyone in China, you are also a descendent of refugees." Adrien’s mom said, "It's so funny, it's almost like I gave birth to Adrien so he can play really good roles related to the year 1942," like in The Pianist, as well.
Back to 1942 marks the second time, after Aftershock, that China has submitted one of your films for the Oscar for best foreign language film. That must be a pretty exciting thing ...
I believe that 1942 is the closest that you can get to an Oscar-level film for China because of the censorship. Before that, with all the films that have been submitted, American audiences felt there was still a barrier because of the ideology and couldn't really agree with a lot of things that they saw. But this film is really different because the themes of the film -- pain and struggle -- are international, not about China alone. A lot of Chinese directors, well -- because the Academy Award is such a high honor, and other film festivals, as well, a lot of directors make films to cater to the taste of the Academy or other film festivals. But I believe that's not right because, first of all, you can't predict what kind of films they like every year. And second of all, I believe that a good film only comes when you believe in it, when you really want to tell the story, not cater to other people's needs. So don't try to guess what they like because they'll always surprise you. Make a film that touches you, yourself, and then it will touch other people as well.
In America, you are frequently called "the Chinese Spielberg." I wonder how you feel about that? Is it something you like, is it something you dislike?
Of course it's an honor, but I'm no Spielberg. There is still a long way to go for me. But Spielberg is someone I really admire because he is one of those directors who comes with a certain guarantee: His films cannot be bad. Like Martin Scorsese, too. I believe there are a few directors in America who have a certain standard whenever they make a film, so it just can't be disappointing. Their films have a very high artistic value, and at the same time the audience is really able to actually understand them and enjoy the story.
How do you see the Chinese cinema dealing with some of the challenges that it faces? I know that piracy still remains a big issue there, which must be very frustrating as a filmmaker, as must be the fact that Chinese films still generally struggle to find an audience abroad. Do you think these are things that are going to change anytime soon?
First of all, I agree with you, those two are really big problems that Chinese directors are facing nowadays. Piracy is definitely hurting the industry a lot. I believe that people watch pirated films for two reasons. First of all, it's the fastest way to get access to a film, because foreign films are not released in China but you can buy them on DVD. Secondly, and it's a weakness for everyone, it's cheap; it's a lot cheaper than going to a theater. But I believe the government is doing better at helping the directors and really crushing the piracy industry; they are trying, so it is improving. Apart from the government's efforts, a lot of young people today believe that going to the movies is trendy, that not buying pirated DVDs shows that they're better. They actually feel like, "Okay, by going to films, I'm doing something that's both good for myself and good for the industry." As for the second question about Chinese films not being too widely received in foreign markets, I believe there are two reasons, too. First of all, it's still not easy enough for everyone to relate to Chinese perspectives, and that's why they can't really enjoy Chinese movies, because there is no connection between them. And then the second cause is one that I believe all foreign films struggle from -- it's the same for European, Japanese and other Asian films, as well -- and that's the language barrier, which is hard to overcome. I had a really interesting conversation with someone at one of the eight big film studios in America about the foreign language film issue, and the directors and people he talked to said that American audiences are trained to watch films without subtitles in theaters, and so once they see a film with subtitles they conclude, "Okay, this is an art film, this is not a commercial film." So he said it's always a niche market.
There have been very few subtitled films that have done very well in this country, aside from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ...
That's right. For a foreign actor to break into a foreign territory is always really hard because, first of all, you really need a long period of time and a lot of work to actually get soaked into the market so the audience can really remember you and your works. There needs to be a lot of money spent on marketing and advertising. And it's really rare for a production company to invest, in such a massive way, for a foreign director, so mainly you just need a really long period of time to get recognized in a foreign territory. When I first started in Hong Kong and Korea, in Asian territories, they didn't recognize me, they didn't know who I was. But because it's been over 10 years now, I have a fan base in those countries as well. It's because of that long period of time and the repeated exposure.
I hope this is an okay question to ask you and if not just let me know, but ahead of even piracy and getting films seen abroad, my sense is that the most frustrating thing for a Chinese filmmaker must be dealing with censorship, which you've talked a little bit about. In April, when you were honored at the Film Director's Guild in Beijing, you gave a very emotional speech at which you spoke about this -- which received a lot of media coverage internationally, but was censored when it was broadcast in China. What led you to talk about the subject there? And do you feel that censorship has gotten any better over the time that you have been making films?
Well, the Censorship Bureau hasn't really been improving. It has been making baby steps, but not big enough so that it's not a headache to all the directors. You have to keep a lot of things in mind when you're making a film, and that's hurting the film already in the first place, because you're always thinking, "Okay, can this get through?" And after you send it to them, they give you a lot of little notes about changes that you have to make, and every little bit of sacrifice, in the end, is a great harm to the film itself. A lot of the suggestions that they give you -- like, I almost want to laugh. [I ask myself] "What does that even mean?" It's ridiculous. "What is wrong with this line? What is wrong with this shot?" But they just make you change it. So that's really frustrating to a lot of directors, and it almost feels like, "Okay, I just don't want to do this anymore because they're always there to stop me." But I feel like making movies is almost like a drug -- it's really addictive, even though there are so many obstacles you have to overcome -- so you say a lot of things that you don't mean, like, "I don't want to do this anymore," but, in the end, when you have a couple of days to cool off, you still want to make movies.
What was the response in China to that speech? Did you get a lot of support and positive feedback or did you get people giving you a hard time?
Of course, within the Guild everyone was like, "Yay! Finally someone can speak up about this in public." As for the people in the Censorship Bureau, they just pretended it never happened.
Do you have any real belief that things will change within the time that you are making films in China, that you will one day be able to make a film without censors having a say in them?
It doesn't seem possible.
Finally, what does it mean to you to be invited to come here and immortalize your handprints and footprints at the TCL Chinese Theater on Friday? Only one other Chinese person, John Woo, has ever received this honor...
Of course, it's a huge honor for me to have my prints right there. Maybe it's for tourism as well? There are a lot of Chinese tourists in Los Angeles every day and maybe they want to find someone who they actually know when they're taking pictures! It's not because I'm the most popular filmmaker in China -- there are a lot of Chinese movie stars and directors who also deserve to leave their prints here -- but I guess people like me, so yeah, it's nice to have them there.