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China’s thirst for blockbusters worries country’s filmmakers

Oct. 11, 2011 - 19:43 By
BUSAN (AFP) ― The growing power of China’s cinema industry is on show at Asia’s top film festival, but some filmmakers worry that a thirst for blockbusters is hurting quality and creativity.

“It’s a big population and a big market and a lot of opportunity to increase that market,” independent Chinese filmmaker Wang Xiaoshuai said on the sidelines of the 16th Busan International Film Festival (BIFF).

“The problem is that people are doing the one type of film ― the big budget, commercial type of film ― and there is not much left for the rest of us.”

China has a major presence at the festival with 14 films in the main program, studios strongly represented at the concurrent Asian Film Market and Chinese directors and acting talent out in force.

China’s box office receipts grew by 64 percent in 2010, to touch on $1.5 billion. This year, official figures showed ticket sales from June to August alone at US$640 million, a year-on-year rise of 77 percent.

With China adding about 1,400 cinema screens this year and estimates that the total will more than double to 13,000 within four years, it is little wonder that the international film community is looking to the east with envy.

But director Peter Chan ― at BIFF with his blockbuster “Wu Xia,” along with its stars Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tang Wei ― includes one caveat to all those impressive figures.

Chan said while there seem to be more successful lower budget films being made in China, there were still far more blockbusters ― and they were the productions taking up all the screens.
Actor Takeshi Kaneshiro (left) and actress Tang Wei, the stars of blockbuster “Wu Xia” by Chinese director Peter Chan, which made its gala presentation at BIFF at the Busan Cinema Center on Monday. (Yonhap News)

“If there are 10 screens, eight will be blockbusters so it doesn’t mean if you get more screens you get more choices,” said Chan.

He said the diversity of film was suffering, with people going to the cinema to watch “really big movies” while watching smaller productions at home, making it difficult to get lower budget movies made.

Chan was among the first filmmakers to recognize the trend for Chinese blockbusters, taking to Beijing talents he had honed in Hong Kong through films such as “Comrades, Almost a Love Story” (1996) and during a stint in Hollywood, where he made “The Love Letter” (1999).

Since then Chan has been responsible for a string of hits including one of China’s biggest box office and critical successes of recent times in “The Warlords” (2007).

The Hong Kong-China co-production pulled in eight Hong Kong Film Awards, including those for best director and best film.

Wang, whose latest production “11 Flowers” has been screening in Busan, believes it might take some time for the success of the blockbusters to spread throughout the Chinese film industry.

“A lot of directors and filmmakers both young and old are happy that they have jobs and they can make money,” said Wang. “But in terms of different films being made, of different themes being explored, it is getting worse.”

Despite having previous success with the likes of Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear winner “Beijing Bicycle” (2001), Wang turned to France to raise the funding for “11 Flowers” because the money wasn’t available to him in China.

Such co-productions have increasingly become a way for Chinese filmmakers to get their projects made.

While China allows a quota of just 20 international films to be screened in the country per year, international film companies can still become involved in the market if they co-produce a film with a Chinese partner.

That’s how Taiwanese director Tom Lin Shu-yu hopes to get his latest production ― the whimsical “Starry Starry Night” ― into China.

The film had its world premiere in Busan and is competing for the major prize, the New Currents award for Asian directors.

Lin said he was able to make his film what it is thanks in part to the boom times Chinese cinema is experiencing.

“It certainly helped this project have a bigger budget,” said Lin, whose film is a co-production with China’s Huayi Brothers studio, one of the country’s most successful in recent years thanks hits such as “Aftershock”(2010).

“I was able to dream bigger because my main producer asked me if we wanted to try and get the film into the Chinese market. So when we decided to do that, we were given a bigger budget.”

Meanwhile Wang, after seeing “11 Flowers” screen at BIFF, will now turn his attention not only to finding an audience for his film back home but to finding a place for them to watch the film.

“There are many people who want to watch films like mine ― we know we have a good audience,” he said. “But it is very hard to find cinemas willing to screen them when everyone is concentrating on the big films.

“But we are hopeful that in time, the more success the Chinese film industry has means the more success there will be for everyone.”