Golden year for Chinese cinema

Golden year for Chinese cinema

This year was by many measures the best yet for Chinese cinema, although obstacles are expected alongside opportunities in 2015, insiders say.

Already, 2014 marks the most profitable year for the country's box office, which totaled 25.9 billion yuan ($4.2 billion) by mid-November, compared to 21.7 billion in 2013. Experts expect it to surpass 30 billion yuan by Dec 31, after such domestic blockbusters as The Crossing: Part 1, Gone With The Bullets and The Taking Of Tiger Mountain hit screens this month.

The growth can be traced back to market reform of the film industry initiated in 2003, when box-office income was 890 million yuan.

"This is perhaps the best time ever in China's cinematic history," Chinese Film Literature Association deputy director, film critic and screenwriter Zhao Baohua says. "There was even more competition from Hollywood. But domestic films still held their own."

Foreign films account for about half the box-office income.

Transformers: Age of Extinction remains the highest-grossing film ever in China. At 1.91 billion yuan, China's tickets sales exceeded North America's. So far this year's top-grossing domestic film, Breakup Buddies, earned 1.1 billion yuan.

"A high point is that this year's fierce competition also nurtured young directors who've come to represent domestic film," Zhao says.

He cites writer-turned-director Han Han; Lu Yang, director of Brotherhood of Blades, which many critics call the best Chinese martial arts film in years; and Old Boys: The Way of the Dragon creator Xiao Yang, who won international acclaim for his performance of Little Apple, a song from the film, at last month's American Music Awards.

"Some movies are controversial," Zhao says.

"But their expressiveness has lured people into cinemas. So 2014 has been a hallmark for a new generation of filmmakers."

But there are downsides to the upsurge of Chinese cinema.

"One problem is cinema now tends to cater excessively to audience's preference for entertainment and special effects," says Zhao, who's also a member of the government's film-screening body.

"But cinema is a cultural industry, rather than one of shallow entertainment and flashy effects. Yet some serious and realistic films aren't popular. Filmmakers need to become better storytellers. Censorship is loosening. We're unable to stop people's demand for entertaining relaxation. But it's unclear which direction is good or bad."

Beijing Normal University film professor Zhou Xing applauds the increasing diversity of Chinese films.

"The problem is so many blindly mimic Hollywood," he says.

"It's wrong to transplant Hollywood genres into China merely to win transient commercial success. We must establish a local culture. Creativity is film's lifeblood."

Art-house films haven't won audiences but have earned critical acclaim. And while the biopic of writer Xiao Hong, The Golden Era, didn't bring in big bucks, its all-star cast won filmgoers' attention.

"This encourages us to open art-house cinemas," Beijing Novo United Films Co Ltd's president Zhou Tiedong says.

"Chinese film will become more diverse in 2015. But we're still exploring to find a more mature business model."

Next year will mark the 110th anniversary of Chinese film. (The first Chinese movie was 1905's Dingjun Mountain.)

Zhou expects this will breed nostalgia for art-house films.

The War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45) will be another major theme for 2015, as China celebrates the 70th anniversary of victory. Though it will possibly produce high-budget war films, the cinema manager worries the fad may bore audiences.

Experts expect a continuation of 2014's expanded international cooperation. China this year signed coproduction agreements with South Korea, Russia and India.

Real estate and media giant Wanda Group reportedly plans to invest in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and North America's Lions Gate Entertainment this month.

"China's film industry can't escape borrowing foreign ships to send its films overseas when it can't construct its own fleet," Zhou says.

He points out that about 90 per cent of Chinese films screened abroad in recent years have been Sino-foreign coproductions.

"Such cooperation will expand in the next few years, encouraging Chinese filmmakers to seek broader horizons, ameliorate industry woes and construct a more complete industry chain," he says.

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