Berlin: China's Films Show Gritty Underbelly of Economic Miracle

"No Man's Land"

China's three competition pics take story away from Beijing and Shanghai into second-tier cities.

The glittering skyscrapers and rising wealth in Beijing and Shanghai have hogged the headlines, but the three Chinese films in competition at the Berlin Film Festival show a new brand of edgy realism in China.

Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice, Lou Ye’s Blind Massage and No Man’s Land by Ning Hao are set "outside the glamorous cities", according to Berlin fest director Dieter Kosslick, and they reflect an increasingly important aspect to China's development.

The three movies leading filmmakers in the world's second biggest movie market 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 growth story.

Early signs of this fresh pragmatism include Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin, which snatched best screenplay honors in Cannes, and namechecks corruption, prostitution and murder in urban China. Around 170 Chinese cities have more than one million citizens.

Kosslick said the films' grittiness was not the reason the movies were chosen, but rather their aesthetic qualities and clever play on genre. The growing sophistication of filmmaking in cinema means the subject matter increasingly reflects the economic realities there.

Based on the popular novel by Bi Feiyu, Lou's Blind Massage (Tui Na in Chinese) is set in Nanjing, a mid-ranking city in China not too far from Shanghai, and it refers to a popular kind of massage given by blind therapists in China.

Lou's censorship history is well knownSummer Palace in 2006 earned him a five-year ban for its references to the bloody crackdown on the democracy movement in Beijing in 1989.

"China has many places that aren't glittering. You don't have to go looking for it. It's the way life there. The camera can find things on the ground below the skyscrapers, or in the streets behind them. Or even filming normal pedestrians, you see stories that are not shining, this is the normal life there," Lou told THR.

Remarkably, Blind Massage has been approved by the Film Bureau for distribution in China, despite being a social commentary.

"I like going behind the shiny surface and showing what life is really like, and that works in Beijing or in Paris," he said.

Zhao Yinan's noir-ish Black Coal, Thin Ice is set in a small town in northern China.

"I like small towns and out-of-the-way places more than big cities. China takes place more slowly in provincial places, and the spaces there allow present-day and past realities to exist side-by-side," said Zhao.

"If I'd set out to make a Gothic thriller, I would have chosen a desolate space, somewhere decadent, mysterious and savage," said Zhao.

His actual choice of setting had nothing to do with small-town sociology, he said.

"I don't think this story would have worked in a big-city, cosmopolitan setting. There are many places in China which have the innately surreal quality I needed. I feel lucky that I was so spoilt for choice."

For his action-thriller road movie No Man's Land, Ning Hao headed west. His movie spent nearly four years on the cutting room floor at the censor's office, but on release was a huge success in China, taking $3.2 million on its opening day.

Featuring Xu Zheng, Huang Bo and Yu Nan, the movie was finished in April 2010. It tells of the adventures that befall a lawyer driving to the deserts in the far west of China, who meets a range of characters including strippers, smugglers and murderers en route.

The movie combines elements from Chinese mythology, American westerns and modern black comedies, but remains an essentially Chinese movie.

"I am always trying to figure out how to catch and express China’s own national characteristics: something different from the American style," Ning said.

Scott Roxborough contributed to this report.