| Global Times | May 22, 2013 18:53
By Wei Xi
Movie poster for Lost in Thailand
Movie poster for The Banquet Photos: CFP
Very often in the beginning of a movie we will see such words - A Feng Xiaogang Film, A Chen Kaige Film or A Zhang Yimou Film. They appear independently on the large screen, so obvious, as if these names are claiming a territory.
For decades, these names have served as a guarantee of quality as moviegoers faced a long list of options.
But now, as new names like Xu Zheng, Xue Xiaolu and Zhao Wei flood onto the movie screen and do surprisingly well at the box office, many Chinese audiences are wondering whether it is time for the new to replace the old?
A new movie world
It is often recognized the age of the Chinese blockbuster in the mainland began with Zhang Yimou's Hero in 2002. With a reported $30 million investment and starring top-ranking actors and actresses like Jet Li, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, the costumed kung fu action brought its director not only various awards and nominations around the world, but also a total take of $177 million in the world market.
Following that, a number of kung fu blockbusters came to the Chinese movie screens: Warriors of Heaven and Earth (2003), House of Flying Daggers (2004), The Promise (2005), The Banquet (2006), Red Cliff (2008 & 2009) and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011). They all share a similar mode: big investment, big stars and big scenes.
However, not every one of them was able to achieve big success as Hero did a decade ago, though the investment kept rising from Warriors' 74 million yuan ($11.95 million) to The Promise's 300 million yuan.
Even when Feng Xiaogang shifted the story to contemporary China and added in more serious issues of humanity, war and politics in his Back to 1942 (2012), a defeat at the box office by Xu Zheng's 30-million-yuan Lost In Thailand seems to declare the end of an era for the older generation of directors.
Some people may regard it a fluke that Love Is Not Blind took in nearly 350 million yuan from theater ticket sales in 2011 with an investment of only 15 million yuan, but the trend proves otherwise. The subsequent box-office success of Lost In Thailand (1.29 billion yuan), Finding Mr Right (over 500 million yuan) and the currently playing So Young (680 million yuan after four weeks) forces the industry's attention toward a group green-hand directors.
Now, even more of such works are being brought up on the schedule - Charlie Yeung's Christmas Rose, Guo Jingming's Tiny Times and Wang Ziming's Badges of Fury. These films all feature green-hand directors, mid-budget production costs and more modern-day stories. Collectively, they send an obvious signal for changing times.
In a phone interview with the Global Times, Chen Shan, a professor at Beijing Film Academy, said that compared with directors of the older generation, these young directors, mostly born in the 1970s, have less of a problem considering the mood of the public over theories of directing.
He explained that the older directors have a strong belief in the "arthur" school of film direction, which is to say that a movie should reflect the director's personal vision, while the younger directors think more about what their audience wants.
And there can be capital reasons as well. According to a report on People's Daily, Xue Xiaolu, director of Finding Mr Right, remarked that because a mid-budget movie does not have the money to present a polished appearance, it has to shine with regard to its content.
In the same report, Mr Right's producer Jiang Zhiqiang said that getting a 500 million yuan return from a 30 million yuan investment is not the most significant thing. More importantly was that they made "the best use of other resources besides the capital." These "other resources" included uplifting themes and the positive energy a movie carries as well as using new media for publicity.
A recent article from entertainment portal ent.qq.com reported statistics from the China Film Association: as of March, 2013, the number of movie screens in the Chinese mainland had reached 14,000. This number was about 9,600 in January, 2012.
"The [high] box office recorded by a single domestic movie is built on a base of an increasing number of cinemas. This is a common view inside the industry," Liu Fan, a member of China Film Association, told reporters from ent.qq.com.
Among the newly built movie screens, a majority of them are outside the big cities, where the popularity of younger stars like Xu Zheng, Huang Bo and Zhao Wei has an important influence when moviegoers are deciding which movie ticket to buy.
Also, as many insiders point out, the stories told by young directors resonate more easily among today's audiences, which are closer in age with the directors and therefore share similar life experiences.
Yet, few professionals agree with the excessive optimism that many domestic moviegoers have expressed recently, believing that the younger generation of directors will create a shuffle within the industry and take over veteran directors' responsibility of taking Chinese movies to an international stage.
Zhang Baiqing, a researcher at China National Academy of Arts, refuted this possible shake-up on his Sina Weibo, writing, "How can a single Lost In Thailand and a single So Young have such power? Unless all the audiences in the world become [like] the Chinese of the post 1970s, 1980s and 1990s."
And from scriptwriter Fang Li's point of view, the current trend only proves the market needs variety. "It's like when a person has had too many dishes that taste the same, he would like to try something different," he said.
As a friend of director Xu Zheng, Fang told the Global Times even Xu himself believed the success of Lost In Thailand was to a large degree due to the screen schedule of Feng Xiaogang's Back to 1942 and Lu Chuan's The Last Supper.
A "perfect storm" of timing benefited Lost in Thailand as the public had grown weary of the serious subject matter that dominated theaters from November 2012 through the New Year season.
Chen Shan doesn't want to dampen the hope of young movie fans, but had this to say: "A single work's success cannot prove a director's ability. Whether it's the degree of maturity or the understanding of a movie work, the young directors still have a long way to go compared to the older generations."
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