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Chinese Film -- in Pursuit of Artistic Excellence and Profit
2004/10/27

By TANG YUANKAI

Following the Oscar awarded to Ang Lee for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2001, high hopes were placed on Zhang Yimou's film, Hero. In the event, it failed to win even a nomination for the 2003 Golden Globe Award. At an investment of over 30 million yuan, this film, about an attempt on the life of the first Chinese Emperor Qinshihuang, attracted hordes of filmgoers. It nonetheless made Zhang Yimou the recipient of much criticism.

The Hero poster.The main bone of contention was his portrayal of the emperor as a good and humane ruler. According to his interpretation, the ruthless emperor Qinshihuang, ultimate tyrant in Chinese history, desires nothing but peace and unity for the people of China. After listening to the emperor's self-justification, his would-be assassin betrays his pledge to redeem his family honor by killing the emperor, planned and plotted for ten years, and in effect commits suicide. Few with even a smattering of knowledge of Chinese history could believe this representation of Qinshihuang's character and motives.

For most cinemagoers, impressive visual effects are paramount, and in this area Zhang Yimou excelled himself. He took his glittering cast -- kungfu film actor Li Lianjie (Jet Li); Liang Chaowei (Tony Leung), winner of the Cannes best actor award; Zhang Manyu (Maggie Cheung), winner of best actress award at the Berlin Film Festival; Zhang Ziyi, who also starred in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; and famous actors Chen Daoming and Zhen Zidan (Donnie Zhen), to China's most scenic spots, where the film's kungfu sequences were meticulously planned and filmed. Zhang Yimou's intention was very simple -- to provide strong visual stimulation. The film's full potential, by virtue of its excellent actors and beautiful landscapes was not, however, realized. Some critics say that it lacked innovation and that its style of narrative sequences was obviously influenced by Akira Kurosawa's film Rashomon, whose characters also tell a tale of adultery from their own perspective. In Rashomon this gives an insight into human nature, as its end is left open, but in Hero it is just the emperor and the assassin that tell their versions of the story, getting closer and closer to the truth, until it eventually emerges.

Other criticisms of the film are that Zhang Yimou's approach is based purely on visual stimulation, that its plot lacks depth, and its direction renders the main characters two-dimensional as there is negligible exploration of their personalities. The love story portrayed also fails to move the majority of filmgoers.

Director Zhang Yimou smiles throughout all his Hero's praise and censure.Ang Lee, director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, has been praised for his innate understanding of oriental civilization and social norms, and acquired familiarity with Western cinematic tastes and preferences. His kungfu sequences thus convey cultural messages through superlative performances, and so create a movingly aesthetic effect. Hero, however, brings to its viewers a feeling of episodic heaviness that greatly undermines its brilliant visual effect.

Whether failure or success, Hero nevertheless reflects certain dilemmas currently facing Chinese film. It cannot be denied that film is a social commodity, and that in order to be successful, the producer and director must consider the market as well as art and culture if a film is to succeed at the box-office. In this sense, Hero is of social importance to China.

One of Zhang Yimou's rivals in Chinese film circles is his former Beijing Film School classmate Chen Kaige, who shot a film about Qinshihuang five years ago. Known as the screen philosopher, Chen is no stranger to the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. He likes to consider historical, social, cultural and ethnic issues in his films, that have thought-provoking plots and incorporate fresh concepts. He seldom aims for big box-office hits, but last year his new movie Together made inroads into the Chinese film market, along with other movies including Hero.

Zhang Ziyi stars as Wuyue in Hero.Together is about a father using all his efforts to encourage his son to be an excellent violinist and a true musician, and of the teenage boy's pubescent reactions. It is a critique of materialistic social trends and estranged family relations. To Chen's good friends it is obvious that the movie constitutes Chen's confession to his own youthful transgressions when, at the age of 14 during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), he pushed his father, Chen Huai'ai, a well-known Chinese film director, to the ground in public and betrayed him. This has obviously been a source of pain and remorse to him ever since. The admission comes at the end of the film, when the son gives up the chance of fame to come back to his father.

Chen has changed a lot in recent years. He now distinguishes clearly between commercial and artistic film festival awards. After finishing production on Together last year, he turned down invitations from many illustrious international film festivals in favor of the lesser known Toronto Film Festival. His reasons were simple. Although the festival does not present awards, it is significant as regards the film market, and is considered an important index for the North American box office. "I participated in the festival in order to investigate the market," says Chen. "Winning awards is not the most important issue for Chinese movies at present. What we most need is a wider market." On his return from Toronto, he took the main actors from Together to Beijing and Shanghai to promote the film and so increase the potential the box office return.

Despite his film themes having moved from history and culture to the daily life of ordinary people, Chen does not think he has changed as an artist. "Though Together has a new style compared to my early movies, my artistic aspirations have not changed. I pursue freedom and independence, and my eyes are as sharp as ever."

Spring in a Small Town as revamped by Tian Zhuangzhuang, won the San Marco Award of the 59th Venice Film Festival.In October 2002, Chen Kaige won the Golden Rooster Best Director Award, but this was Together's only laurel despite having seven nominations. Another young director, Yang Yazhou, also won the Best Director Award for his film Pretty Big Feet, which portrays the rapport between a teacher born in the countryside and a girl volunteer from Beijing who work together at a remote rural school. The initial impression of the film is that it imitates Zhang Yimou's Not One Less, and that the production style is greatly influenced by Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth. The intention behind Pretty Big Feet was to win an award rather than be a box office hit. Yang Yazhou's other works, including his new year greeting film and TV dramas have, however, been commercial successes.

Zhang Yuan, much younger director and formerly known as an "underground director," shot three mainstream movies last year: I Love You adopted from a best seller, Peking Opera film Sister Jiang, based on a well-known Chinese revolutionary story, and Green Tea, starring famous film actor Jiang Wen and TV star Zhao Wei.

Huo Jianqi is shooting Life Show.The academic school director Lu Chuan also invited Jiang Wen to perform in his first film The Missing Gun, in an effort to achieve a balance between artistic creativity and the chance to make a profit. The film screenplay was snapped up by the film's investors, the Huayi Brothers & Taihe Film Investment Co., Ltd., who wasted no time in selling the North American copyright to Columbia Pictures for US $1.5 million. This was the first Chinese movie ever to make a profit before it had even been shot.

Meng Jinghui is a theater director. Last year he shot the film Chicken Poets. Feng Xiaogang criticized it as neither sincere nor creative, but it was nevertheless a box office success. Meng's success indicates that among China's huge population, specialized forms of media have an audience and, therefore, market potential.

Another classmate of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang re-produced the film Spring in a Small Town and distributed it through the cinema-line system. It went on to win an award at the Venice Film Festival, and also did well at the box office.

In general, funding shortages for Chinese film productions are becoming a thing of the past. Among the 80 or so films produced in 2002, 30, including Chen Kaige's Together, were invested by the Century Hero Film Investment Co., Ltd. -- a China International Trust and Investment Corporation and China Film Group Company joint venture. Within a year and a half, it has altogether invested 150 million yuan in film, TV productions, cinema-line establishment and exploration of related post-film products. This would indicate that Chinese financial groups and organizations are paying more attention to development of the Chinese film industry and its market, as are private enterprises, such as the Huayi Brothers & Taihe Film Investment Co., Ltd. To them, this is a long-term investment that demands attention to market trends. Chinese films are thus on-track to achieving artistic excellence as well as substantial profits.

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