Chinese filmmakers in search of global screen success

Chinese filmmakers in search of global screen success
Sun Xiaoxiao says a successful film can have a very strong impact and even shape the image of a country .

China is now the world's second-largest film market, and the prediction is that it will overtake the United States to become the largest by 2020.

According to the latest figures, total Chinese box-office takings last year grew 28 per cent year-on-year to $3.6 billion.

The Film Bureau of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of China, reports that revenues from Chinese films overtook Hollywood blockbusters for the first time.

Despite the sheer size of the market and success at home, Chinese filmmakers still find it a challenge to replicate their success overseas.

Sun Xiaoxiao, a 32-year old filmmaker based in London, is one of the strongest international promoters of Chinese film.

The director of the Filming East Festival-the UK's biggest independent film festival dedicated to Chinese cinema-says that the industry represents the perfect shop window for Westerners to understand contemporary China.

"But despite the increasingly popular 'Made in China' brand worldwide, Chinese movies remain a weak link in the country's foreign trade," Sun says, "and much weaker than many people had expected."

She adds that when she founded the festival in 2007, an audience survey at the time had suggested there was strong interest in Britain for foreign films, particularly from Iran, South Korea and Thailand, but people still generally associated Chinese films with little more than kungfu movies.

"Chinese culture is more than just martial arts," Sun says.

"The popularity of Chinese action and kungfu movies reflects the fact that many good Chinese productions are still not reaching mainstream audiences overseas.

"We hope the Filming East Festival will raise awareness of the Chinese filmmaking community in Britain and the rest of Europe."

Her organisation now boasts more than 6,000 registered online subscribers to its film archive, which lists more than 200 titles.

The festival itself is held during October and November in London and other cities in England and Wales, and lasts up to 15 days.

It is the sole Chinese partner and representative of the British Academy of Film and Television and the event partner of the British Film Institute in Chinese film exhibitions.

"It has grown annually for the past eight years, attracting more viewers and partners and now enjoys high visibility.

"It is certainly helped, in so small part, by China's growing economic strength and rising international influence," Sun says

"Our audience demographic covers a large variety of nationalities and ethnicities, including a mix of British, UK-based Chinese and people from the Chinese mainland, as well as other nationalities."

Sun says from a professional point of view, the festival's main aim is to build links between British and Chinese filmmakers.

"We try to offer the best of oriental cinema to audiences in UK, especially those with less access to these films.

"We also aim to provide our audiences with knowledge and understanding of oriental film culture through film exhibitions and industry sessions.

"Filming East is a good platform for the UK film industry, too, to build international contacts and collaborations with Chinese industry talent, investors and co-producers."

One of its events this year, co-run with the BFI, was a year-long programme of business, trade, creative and cultural collaborations.

As part of that, Feng Xiaogang, one China's most popular contemporary film directors, came to the UK to meet viewers at his own "Feng Xiaogang film season".

"China does not lack good movies, but it needs to explore effective ways of introducing them overseas," Sun says.

"The main reason for their failure internationally, is that Western audiences are not really interested to them, or their subjects."

She describes Filming East's sales pitch as "kungfu-free", and is focused instead more on romance, comedy, art and documentaries from China.

She believes film, and its vivid story telling, can be a powerful tool to introduce China's people and its culture to the outside world.

"A successful film can have a very strong impact, and even shape the image of a country.

"Chinese movie stars and producers cannot just walk the red carpet at foreign film festivals and expect to make their movies more popular abroad."

But she adds, too, that relying solely on festival screenings is far from enough, and directors have to create more opportunities to meet local audiences.

"If you screen non-commercial films in the UK, holding a Q&A session with the director or the production team practically determines whether the audience will buy the tickets.

"But of course, beneficial reviews from film critics are also crucial for film releases in the West. The trips to the UK this year of Feng in February, and Jia Zhangke, the Chinese film director and screenwriter who directed Still Life and Xiao Wu, were very helpful in promoting their films and China's industry," she says.

Sun adds that the perceived cultural differences between East and West is still the biggest hurdle to selling the idea of Chinese films abroad.

She notes, too, that something as simple as the quality of subtitles plays a key role in promoting Chinese films overseas, but there is a shortage of good translators to make sure not only that the English is correct, but also the meaning and context.

"Understanding can be difficult for Western audiences. In Chinese period dramas, for instance, story lines can be unfamiliar and the types of drama, romance and comedy popular in developing countries might not translate well into English."

Some Chinese filmmakers have been exploring better ways of appealing to international audiences, she says, by adopting more Hollywood-style production values. But that can be expensive and sometimes create nondescript productions.

Sun and her team are now planning similar awareness programs in other Western countries too, and have received positive responses so far from Europe, Canada, Australia and the United States.

"After more than a decade of breakneck economic growth, China is now firmly on the world economic stage, but more effort is still needed to improve its cultural influence.

"No matter how much we invest in making a movie, if our audience is restricted to just Chinese it is still a long way from becoming an international success," adds Sun.

"Chinese filmmakers cannot expect overnight success and instant returns-it takes time to develop a successful big-budget movie formula.

"It might still take a while to build up confidence in the Chinese movie industry, but we are here for the long term to try and make that happen."

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