Chinese film embraces dark side


NEW YORK -- If China's official media fixated in 2008 on the Beijing Olympics and the worst earthquake in three decades, next year it is likely to focus on the commemoration of the founding of the People's Republic. Chinese film writers and producers for movie Websites, film newspapers and celebrity TV shows will no doubt once again swarm John Woo.

Perhaps best known in the West for hits like "Face/Off" (1997), and in the East as the auteur behind timeless Hong Kong action classics such as "The Killer" (1989), Woo will again be in the spotlight in China in 2009.

Following his 2008 hit war epic "Red Cliff" -- his first film back in China in decades -- Woo now is under pressure from the state-run China Film Group (CFG) to start, and finish, the revolution- era epic "1949."

He and producer Terence Chang will strive to finish the film in time for the National Day celebration on October 1 next year, when Beijing will mark the day 60 years ago when Mao Zedong and the Communist Party rose to power.

Before the carefully engineered Olympics were over in August, Woo and Chang already were hard at work in Beijing on the sixth draft of the script by Wang Hui-ling, writer of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the film that in 2002 sparked the perennial goal to make a Chinese movie (at least one, anyway) that could make money overseas, making up for the piracy-challenged domestic market.

Chang, who regularly commutes between Los Angeles, Beijing and Hong Kong, says he's skipping Pusan this year because he cannot budget for, and will not cast, the film without a perfect script.

It is against that backdrop that Pusan 2008 opens quietly for China, the country that made a splash at the festival in 2007 with director Feng Xiaogang's "Assembly," the technically splendid big-budget Chinese war film from Beijing-based Huayi Brothers.

This year, organizers appear to be seeking to celebrate a China and a Chinese film tradition of more studious deportment. In that vein, Pusan 2008 will host a special session looking at the early influence of China on modern Asian cinema. On October 8, several Korean film professors will gather to discuss Chinese cinema's so-called golden era of the 1930s.

Back then, Shanghai not only churned out films that remain classics across Asia today, but all of China was wide open to imports from around the world each year. (Today, big screen imports are limited to 20 a year). The look-back session also will examine the lasting influence of films made in Changchun in northeast China, where the Japanese occupation in the late '30s began a uniquely Asian, if tense, blend of influences.

Among the distinctly mainland (and modern) Chinese films at Pusan this year is "Dada's Dance," Beijing-based director Zhang Yuan's tragedy addressing a man's idealized love of a woman in a small Chinese village. Zhang, now 45, graduated from the Beijing Film Academy and is best known outside China for his films "Beijing Bastards" (1992), "East Palace , West Place" (1996), and "17 Years," for which he won Best Director honor at Venice in 1999. "Dada's Dance" will have its world premiere in Pusan on October 3.

Two non-fiction films treating subjects often obscured in official media in China will see their world premiere in Pusan's Documentary Showcase. Also on October 3, Director Wang Yiren's "Utopian Life" will unspool its chronicle of a rural farming collective where mentally disabled, deaf and schizophrenic patients work together to become self-reliant. On October 6, director Ji Dan's "Dream of the Empty City" will reveal its patient record (in digital video) of an old man confined to his bed in a hospital for the terminally ill.

Crossing the threshold of the festival's Window on Asian Cinema section for fiction films, one finds a slate of Chinese movies with an unusally dark bent. One world premiere, for example, is director Pan Jianlin's drama "Feast of Villains," about a man who faces selling his own organs to earn money to pay his father's hospital bills. In "The Shaft," directed by Zhang Chi, a daughter chooses between her dreams and a suitable marriage in a poor mining town in West China.

After lots of bleak comment on the oppressive poverty of rural modern China, another Chinese selection at Pusan 2008 might be welcome as an allegory, at least, for freedom. "River People," from He Jianjun, will screen in world premiere October 4. Set in the present-day on the banks of the Yellow River in Central China's Shaanxi province, the film shows a master boatman teaching his brothers how to fish for a living even as he dreams of a life on land.

For those international executives who have long expressed frustration at the lack of a free market in China -- even as it becomes one of the most capitalistically rich in the world -- it should come as welcome news (to those not already in the know) that La Peikang, formerly the chief representative of the China Film Group's Paris office for nine years, then President of China Film Co-production Corp., was promoted quietly early in the year.

Though at last check his title remains President of China Film Co-Production, La is also vice president of CFG and now a member of the China Film board of directors, a post from which he has begun to increase his involvement with the Film Bureau in its oversight of both co-productions and the import and export of films. Given his experience in the City of Light, executives from Europe, and particularly France (and even some from Hollywood), generally are pleased at his rise. (Anything to get beyond the memory that a few French films were under threat of boycott in China in 2008 after an Olympics torch runner was jumped by human rights protestors in Paris).

Asked about La directly, sources inside China Film declined to discuss the promotion. La himself could not be reached for this article and it is uncertain if he will be in Pusan. Theories vary, but one oft repeated on background is that La was promoted to right the public relations mess surrounding the import and censorship of American director Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" last spring.

Lee, whose ethnic ties to China (via Taiwan) were hyped by Chinese official media when he won at the Oscars for "Brokeback Mountain" in 2006, ended the ordeal with a few choice comments about China's film industry in "The Wall Street Journal."

Add to Lee's comments the rejection this Spring of Harvey Weinstein's "Shanghai" by that city's government (it ended up shooting in Bangkok) and one sees a movie industry in China in need of a public relations makeover.

Jiao Hongfen, CFG vice president, took several steps in that direction right after the Olympics finished, focusing the world's attention on China's ability to use the television to turn a few heads. Jiao and members of the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT), led 23, mostly-young Chinese executives, to UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television.

School Dean Robert Rosen and a Hollywood Who's-Who hosted their Chinese guests for three weeks of educational exchange co-sponsored by SARFT, which paid tuition, room and board. Classes saw Jay Suris explain what the United Talent Agency does. Motion Picture Association CEO Dan Glickman laid out the Hollywood studios' concerns about censorship and limited market access for the umpteenth time.

There was little talk of 1949 -- film or the anniversary. Rosen said that after years of relations with China begun when he first gave a seminar on American moviemaking in Beijing in 1984, he is more confident than ever that 1949 is of less and less importance and that face-to-face meetings are the only way to affect needed market change, no matter how slow.

"The Chinese media industry is far more complex than it was even just a couple of years ago," says Rosen, who planned the meetings over the course of three years. "There's a greater role for independents now. One hundred-and-forty TV movies are made every year. That's two a week."

So, though China still restricts imports and SARFT often censors the films it does approve, Rosen says the closed-door sessions were promising.

"For the Chinese, it was an opportunity to learn how Hollywood works in an environment away from the public scrutiny of the media. For the Americans, it was a networking occasion and an opportunity to make promising business contacts," Rosen says.

China will never be dependent on exports for the success of their industry as there's just so much room for growth. After all, 60% of the population, or 800 million people, lives in a countryside only just now beginning to get its fair share of cinemas, some from domestic investors, some from joint-ventures with companies from India, for instance.

Another notable shift toward a market-driven movie economy in China came in March with the establishment of Xinhua Media Entertainment (XME) as an arm of the Nasdaq-listed XFMedia.

XME's managing director, David Lee, who formerly led the Weinstein's Co's Asia Film Fund, is encouraged by the 47% growth at the boxoffice in China in 2008 so far.

Fueled in part by a brace of co-productions -- Woo's "Red Cliff" (leading the pack at $44 million), "The Mummy 3," and "The Forbidden Kingdom," (the last of which Lee had a hand in early on), 2008 boxoffice appears on track to outpace 2007.

Lee says XME hopes to release the first film of a three-year slate of commercial pictures budgeted at $20 million-$40 million no sooner than National Day, October 1, 2009, with China Film as its preferred co-production partner.

"We will share with the rest of the world a side of Chinese culture that has never been seen before," says Lee, an American of Chinese descent. "Imagine how Hollywood would have been perceived by the rest of the world if the only kind of films it exported on a commercial level were a one dimensional medieval epic about King Arthur or the 3 Musketeers? We will be 'Hollywood made in China.'"

But Lee and others will have to face the fact that the recent crash in world markets could well hamper the aspirations of both China Film and Huayi Brothers to list on a domestic exchange in the coming year.

Undaunted, Lee observes: "Whether it's high net worth individuals or investors and cash rich companies, the film industry was always perceived as a hedge from the market. In China, where the markets are hammered like everywhere else, people still want to go to the movies, in fact, more so than ever."
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