China’s politically apathetic millennials enchanted by patriotic movies starring their idols

By Xie Wenting Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/2 19:03:39

Seasoned Hong Kong director, cast of popular stars make a new recipe for revolutionary movies

A patriotic film celebrating the founding anniversary of the People's Liberation Army is raking millions of yuan every day on box office

The humanistic touches by its Hong Kong director and the cast of young and popular actors are seen as the film's secret of success

Director Andrew Lau speaks to the cast during the shooting of the film The Founding of an Army. Photo: CFP

After saying goodbye to his wife and little children for an unknown future, a young Mao Zedong walks away from his crying children, with tears in his eyes which later roll down uncontrollably. At the same time, loud sobbing reverberates in the auditorium.

The scene became a classic in the latest film The Founding of an Army. Traditionally, Chairman Mao has been presented as a powerful man who would never show his weakness, but this film broke this tradition and had him cry, said Shi Wenxue, a Beijing-based film critic with the Beijing Film Academy.

The film, directed by Hong Kong director Andrew Lau, has trigged heated discussions ever since its debut in the cinemas on July 27, with soaring box office returns.

The film tells the story of the Nanchang Uprising in 1927, which is seen as the starting point of the Communist Party of China's military action against the then Kuomintang administration.

This is the first patriotic war film Lau has directed. His previous works include gangster movie series Youth and Danger and crime-thriller Infernal Affairs, which were hugely popular among the young audiences.

On many occasions, the producer of the film has stressed that Lau was chosen to direct the film because he wanted to make patriotic war films more appealing to young people. Now the film seems to have achieved this goal, with millions of audiences flowing to the cinemas, partly due to their young idols in the cast.

"It's important to attract young people to the cinema first by an array of popular idols. Then the film can have a better patriotic educational effect," said Shi.

Lau isn't the only Hong Kong director to make patriotic films in the mainland. Recent years have seen a number of his Hong Kong counterparts undertaking production of patriotism-themed films, offering the mainland's young audiences a fresh look into the history.

Heading north 

The trend of Hong Kong directors going north to shoot films started in 2003 after the signing of the Mainland and Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership Agreement.

According to the agreement, co-productions by Hong Kong and mainland enjoy the same status as films made only by the mainland producers. Hong Kong films are also eligible for being financed in the mainland.

At that time, the Hong Kong film market shrank greatly, but the mainland film market was witnessing a boom. So some Hong Kong directors went north to grab the last straw, including Shi.

But at the beginning, the results were much worse than their expectations, and in media outlets they were often described as "unaccustomed to the climate of a new place."

The turning point came in 2009 when director Peter Chan set up a studio in the mainland, the first of its kind by a Hong Kong director. That year, he supervised the shooting of his first patriotic mainland film directed by Hong Kong's Teddy Chan, Dark October. The film tells the story of the 1911 Revolution led by Sun Yat-sen that overthrew the Qing Dynasty (1864-1911).

The film achieved great success at the mainland box office. The director made a breakthrough by interpreting the revolution from the point of view of ordinary people who were engulfed by the war.

In recent two years, these Hong Kong directors have gotten into the fast track of making patriotic films. The representative works of this period include Tsui Hark's The Taking of Tiger Mountain and Dante Lam's Operation Mekong, which won widespread recognition. The first is a remake of a Red story about a conflict between the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and a bandit gang during the Republic of China era, while the second is about how Chinese police brought the criminals who killed Chinese boatmen on the Mekong River to justice, both of which are classified as "films that highlight the mainstream social tune."

Shi said the so-called "films that highlight the mainstream social tune" can be divided into four types. The first type is based on the stories about the PLA army and the country's revolutionary past. The second type presents stories that uphold harmonious values in the contemporary society. The third genre is related to the country's contemporary ideology and the fourth type recreates the Red classics.

According to Shi, it's easier to get approval from film authorities for movies under such themes. "They also have policy support and investors are willing to invest into such film projects because they believe it's safe," he said.

Wu Zongqiang, a Beijing-based film director, told the Global Times that an important reason for Hong Kong directors to make patriotic mainland films is that they have a limited knowledge of the mainland film market, so they prefer to make films that are "safe."

Humanistic spirit

After Tsui finished shooting The Taking of Tiger Mountain, he invited post-80s and post-90s audiences for five premieres. The audiences responded enthusiastically to the intense action scenes. But when it came to preaching patriotic values, they showed different response.

In the end, Tsui cut all the parts that explicitly preached ideology. He turned the Red classics into a spy action movie which then became a blockbuster.

Shi noted that Hong Kong directors like Tsui are good at giving stories a human touch.

"Classic Hong Kong films embed strong humanist ideas. They show more of a humanistic spirit, an element that patriotic mainland films lack. They are good at depicting ordinary people and telling stories to the ordinary," he said.

Compared with mainland film directors, Hong Kong directors have their own advantages. According to Shi, Hong Kong directors don't use the simple binary opposition to depict heroes, who are often shown as perfect and flawless in every manner in the mainland films. Instead, the heroes they depict have human emotions who can cry and decide to kill the criminals for revenge. "Depicting heroes like a real human is their advantage and this is more favored and accepted by the audiences," he said.

Director Wu said that mainland directors have to face more interventions from both investors and many other sides than their Hong Kong counterparts. "Very often mainland directors have good ideas but the results are poor because of too many interventions," he said.

Shi added that for such films, there are mature co-workers from the mainland to help them set the boundary of adaptation.

Fresh faces

While Hong Kong directors are bringing their experiences to the mainland, some find it hard to accept, especially in their way of dealing with patriotic films.

Mature Hong Kong films have fixed production methods. One is to use famous actors and actresses. But when they use that method on the mainland, they face setbacks.

In the movie The Founding of an Army, the selection of a cast featuring "fresh meat," a term referring to young and handsome actors, generated controversies.

Director Ye Daying, a grandson of prominent CPC military leader Ye Ting, voiced strong opposition to the selection of those young actors, especially the one who played his grandfather, on his Sina Weibo. "You choose an effeminate male actor who can't even stand straight to play Ye Ting. Who are you trying to humiliate?" quipped Ye.

He also posted a photo concerning a regulation which states that the films involving history and cultural celebrities need to have written approval from the celebrities or their relatives first before going into production.

Ye said in the Weibo post that he has sent a letter to the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television to express his dissatisfaction.

But thousands of fans of those young actors refuted him and defended their idol on the Internet. They praised their idol's perfect performance and noted that those revolutionary heroes were also in their 20s in 1927.

Song Ruoxi, 26, told the Global Times that most young people like her won't step into the cinema if it's not for their idols' sake. She added that she knew nothing about this historical battle before going to the cinema.

But the film also induced a change in her thinking. "Before, I loved the country but had no particular feeling toward the Party. This film transformed my conception. After seeing the film, I developed a strong feeling for the country and the Party," she said.

In the cinema, she checked up relevant information on the Internet in order to know more about the film's background and the figures to follow up the plot. After watching the film, she continued to collect information about the PLA army.

Wu said that it's understandable for directors to use "little fresh meat," referring to the young actors, because they can attract both investors and audiences. "But the quality of the film doesn't depend on 'little fresh meat,' it depends on how well the director tells the story," he said.

Shi said that maintaining the good image of these young idols sometimes undermines the story's authenticity. "Their hair style remains in perfect shape even in a chaotic scene," he said.

Newspaper headline: Red recreation

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

blog comments powered by Disqus