Rebecca Catching

The Good the Bad and the Heavily-Ideological: The Survival of Art House Film Within the Chinese Film Ecology

By Rebecca Catching, originally published in China Now, the British Council platform for the arts and creative industries in China.

Much like the world of Contemporary Art, the sphere of Chinese cinema is characterised by several distinct and local and transnational ecologies: a) commercial film, b) arthouse film and c) “main melody” or “official films” which tend to be nationalistic or propagandistic in nature. They differ in terms of their funding strategies, the content, film aesthetics, and target audiences. But they are by no means completely distinct categories, rather more of a Venn diagrams which overlap with each other. While at the same time, these patterns are being disrupted by both private and government forces.

The Transnational Roots of Independent Film in China

The ecology which is probably the most familiar to Western followers of Chinese film is the arthouse ecology, the international film festival circuit, and the kinds of directors known for lush or if not, at least thoughtful cinematography. Their films are characterized by subtle characters and the plots may revolve around some form of social injustice. This ecology used to be synonymous with a kind of orientalism—a focus on ancient China—Zhang Yimou Judou, or Raise the Red Lantern or Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine. Critics say that this early generation was merely selling orientalist fantasies to a willing Western public, but despite the realities that Western viewers probably preferred a comprehensible fantasy of feudal China over the then-unfathomable realities of the 80s and 90s PRC emerging from a planned economy, it’s important to recognise that the films of these Fifth-generation directors were not all set in the temporal reality of ancient China. It’s also important to note, that classical epics and period dramas have always been an important element of indigenous Chinese literary and cinematic culture, so to say call these works “film for export” is somewhat disingenuous.

By the Sixth Generation, western viewers had already become accustomed to views of contemporary China, with films such as Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards, turning a lens on Beijing’s punk subculture, or Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle—a shockingly honest portrayal of the emerging class dynamics of the time—told through the story of a migrant worker working as a courier who has his bicycle stolen and later purchased by a middle-class schoolboy. Some Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke and Wang Bing—known for their subtle and hard-hitting cinematic social practice have a much stronger following abroad than they do at home. Despite the deep social relevance, and high artistic quality of their films, they had trouble gaining screen time, and unlike Zhang and Chen, refused big-budget special effects. The element of trans-nationality was quite important to the Sixth Generation directors, not only were their films welcomed abroad, (while ignored at home) but they also were the recipients of transnational capital, for instance, Jia Zhangke benefited from the help of foreign financiers, as did Li Yang (Blind Mountain), Lou Ye (Summer Palace), and Zhang Yimou (Ju Dou, Farwell My Concubine). In fact, scholar Li Fengliang describes the “exit to the global cultural market . . . [as] a strategy of survival and renewal for Chinese filmmakers . . . through their use of transnational capital.”

In terms of commercial cinema, here are directors such as Feng Xiaogang and Ning Hao who are widely-loved at home but have limited traction in the West, given that their scripts may appeal more to local audiences, with China-specific humor and references.

Red Cinema and Main Melody Films

These two categories of commercial and main melody films are not necessarily exclusive, rather they differ more primarily in their objective—the first aims to entertain and turn a profit—the second aims to entertain and also to indoctrinate viewers on the subject of proper ethical values and ideological standpoints. But like commercial films, main melody films are facing increasing pressure to turn a profit. These films may not be wholly-viewed as propaganda by their audiences. In fact, prior to the more recent surge in main melody films, there was a deliberate attempt in the early 2000, to attempt to re-frame the Maoist “golden oldies” through the lens of a grand cinematic history and cultivate a genuine cinephilic culture, and a sincere artistic appreciation of these films according to scholar Yomi Braester. Braester cites the 2004-2009-television series Film Legends, which helped re-cast Maoist films such as the Heat of the Sun, (Jiang Wen, 1994) and Electric Shadows (Xiao Jiang, 2004) as an important form of indigenous cultural heritage, rather than mere propaganda a—“re-canonisation” of red cinema for new audiences, which results in some cases, what Geremie Barmé has identified as a form of “totalitarian nostalgia.”

The red cinema of today, the “main melody” films tend to be patriotic and nationalistic in nature, either solidifying state interpretations of previous historical events (various battles, or events such as the Nanjing Massacre) or alternatively actions or thrillers which seek to position China as an important global player. Many of these films are funded by the August 1st Film Studio, (formerly the PLA film studio) and receive government funding. Though some of these main melody films are legitimately popular, their “ticket sales” are aided by the distribution of free tickets to military personnel and the quality of films is greatly variable. For instance, films such as Peacekeeping Infantry Battalion, by Director Ning Haiqiang, might seem like a poorly-disguised PLA promo reel—Chinese forces win a peacekeeping medal for their efforts in a conflict in South Sudan—meanwhile Wolf Warrior II, by Wu Jing attracted a genuine willing audience, drawn in by the special effects, elaborate war choreography, and amped up testosterone-driven pacing—think soldiers doing parkour over shanty-town rooftops, basically using the city as a personal war adventure park. Wolf Warrior II also placed China in the role of saviour, this time in Africa—a Chinese soldier defects from the army, then risks his life to save the Chinese nationals caught in a civil war and grossed 5.6 billion RMB at the box office making it the third-highest-grossing film of all time in a single market. This year, the government promised to double down on the number of patriotic films, producing 100 films a year with the aim of becoming a “major film power” by 2035, according to the director of the National Film Bureau Wang Xiaohui. These main melody films will benefit from extra screenings, with a pronouncement from the party that a new network of 5,000 cinemas will be tasked with screening these main melody works and Wang stipulated that these patriotic films must “equally generate social impact and financial profits,” and promote “the Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” adding that directors should not challenge the political system.

Changes in the Structures of Regulatory Bodies

This attitude is symptomatic of a recent clampdown that has seen the door of creative freedom slowly inching shut. Major changes to the governance body which controls music, art, film, radio, television, and media have led to a centralisation of state power under the Publicity or Propaganda Bureau. The State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television—SARFT—was replaced by a new body, SAPPRFT in 2013, (the additional “p’s” stand for “press” and “publications”). SAPRFT was then disbanded in 2018, to enable the party to pull the regulation of media closer to its chest, splitting SAPPRFT off into a cluster of acronyms SAPP (State Administration of Press and Publications) lead by Zhuang Rongwen, SART (State Administration of Radio and Television) lead by Nie Chenxi, and the China Film Administration (a.k.a. Film Bureau) lead by Wang Xiaohui. While SART falls under the jurisdiction of the State Council, SAPP and the China Film Administration (Film Bureau) fall under the jurisdiction of the CPC Propaganda Bureau. This would imply that arts, culture, and media will be brought closer in line with party propaganda objectives.

Increasing Rates of Film Censorship

The state-sponsored film ecology works through a carrot and stick mechanism, stifling independent film through the regular closure of China’s few independent film festivals (Beijing Independent Film Festival and the China Independent Film Festival in Songzhuang, Beijing), the dismantling the archives of the Beijing Independent Film Festival, and the denial of “exit visas” for Chinese films to be screened in foreign festivals including One Second (Berlin Film Festival), Better Days, (Berlin Film Festival) and the remarkably fresh, and unabashedly cynical animated film Have a Nice Day, which was pulled from the Annecy Film Festival in France. We are also seeing frequent instances of cancelled screenings within China, for instance The Eight Hundred, a seemingly “melodious” film which tells the story of a battle against the Japanese in 1937, was criticised for portraying the nationalists in too favourable a light, and pulled as a headlining film at the state-run Shanghai Film Festival; its release in national cinemas was also cancelled along with other spurned films such as The Last Wish, a film about a teenager with a terminal illness, and his wish to lose his virginity, (hilarity does of course ensue) and The Hidden Sword, a kungfu style epic which has Chinese soldiers defeating Japanese forces on the Great Wall. It is no surprise that challenging material such as the short-lived Chinese version of SNL would get the axe, with its skits about the materialistic nature of matchmaking, smothering helicopter parents and the siege of the dancing aunties occupying public squares. But for these films which promote a kind of steroidal patriotism to face censorship indicates an entirely new level of government control. The dragon seal, issued by the China Film Administration (Film Bureau) offers an imprimatur of legitimacy. Failure to obtain it has cost even major studios, such as the Huayi Brothers, millions of RMB due to the last-minute cancellation of films. While in the past, independent films could be screened abroad without the dragon seal, it has now become a requirement in order to obtain an exit visa, a fact which has greatly changed the economics of independent film production. Typically these “un-approved kinds of documentaries and films could be screened in more private venues, finding a small space to breathe in galleries, museums, and other independent spaces such as the Goethe Institut, but in the past few years certain museum venues such as Shanghai’s Power Station of Art have had to curtail their screening programmes due to strict government controls.

Improved Funding Opportunities for Independent Films

Given the limited options to screen films without the dragon seal and the problem with “exit visas,” the influence of international financiers (those who funded the films of many Sixth Generation directors and who would shepherd films onto the international festival circuit) is waning. But in its wake, we are seeing a larger pool of investment capital, compared to the situation two decades ago. Rebecca Davis describes the situation as being one of too many financiers chasing too few films.

For instance, “Hero [Zhang Yimou] was made on nongovernmental investment by Zhang Weiping’s film production company,” writes Lu, “In this case, Zhang Yimou did not have to rely on the international market; the domestic market guaranteed his profit. Feng Xiaogang gradually builds up his box office numbers by raising capital directly from society.” But Lu cautions that the domestic market can be something of a golden cage, and directors need to be wary of “losing their edge,” working in an environment of limited creative freedom. This fear is reiterated by Rebecca Davis, who worries that this influx of capital will gradually suck the soul out of Chinese independent film as directors move more towards mainstream topics, making decisions based on box office potential and funding opportunities, rather than creative merit.

National Arthouse Movie Screening Alliance

While on one hand, the government has set up a network of patriotic cinemas, which are pressed into service screen red films, the National Arthouse Movie Screening Alliance, has employed the same strategy to try to carve out a space for arthouse films in Chinese cinemas. Even Chinese films which have won awards at foreign film festivals tend to produce dismal box office earnings at home due to a small number of screenings, often scheduled at inopportune times. Producer of Song of the Phoenix, Fang Li was so frustrated by this situation that he made a video pleading for wider cinematic release and posted it on a streaming platform. The video went viral and he was granted his plea. Song of the Phoenix earned 86 million RMB in ten days captivating fans for its touching story about a young boy who engages in Shaolin-like training with his master order to learn how to play the “suona” (a traditional folk instrument), only to find as an adult that there is no demand for his skills. The success of the film proved what many knew to be true was that indie films suffer from a lack of marketing and placement, but when those problems are solved, success is within easy grasp.

This sparked the creation of the National Arthouse Movie Screening Alliance, spearheaded by the China Film Archive (which is affiliated with the Film Bureau), with the support of directors such as Jia Zhangke, and cinema chains such as Wanda, Poly, Lumière Pavilions, as well as Huaxia Film Distribution—one of the country’s main film distributors. The network of cinemas has grown from several hundred to over 3,000 with almost 4,000 screens now devoted to arthouse films. So far, the Alliance has succeeded in enlarging the space for arthouse films, but in a similar way to the Shanghai International Film Festival, without ruffling too many feathers, featuring half domestic and half foreign films. Since its founding in 2016, the Alliance has screened films such as Manchester by the Sea, Maria Callas, Bohemian Rhapsody (gay references removed), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Roma and Jinpa (a stunning magic realist film Pema Tseden)It also included old classics like Red Sorghum (Zhang Yimou), Days of Being Wild, (part of Wong’s In the Mood for Love Trilogy), Summer is Gone (Zhang Dalei), a quiet film about a young boy growing up in the 1990s, and Absurd Accident (Li Yunhe’s stylish comedy, thriller which takes place in rural China exploring topics of face, materialism, and filial duties). 

But despite the advocacy of the Alliance, UK filmmakers hoping to promote their films in China will still bump up against the challenge of the quota system, which last year allowed in 40 foreign films, with modest expectations for an increase in 2019-2020, due to a slowdown in the domestic industry rather than a relaxation of state control.

A.R.T. Project

Arthouse cinema has also seen a push with the creation of A.R.T. Project, an alliance of several film production and distribution companies—Edko, Perfect Village, Irresistible Films, Irresistible Films, ticket platform Maoyan Media and distributor Huaxia—which plan to fund 15 of arthouse projects to encourage the next generation of film producers. 100 million RMB will be set aside to invest in low-budget films of high artistic value. A.R.T has funded some critical work, with Li Ruijun’s Walking Past the Future, a daring film about the hardships of migrant workers working in an electronics factory in Shenzhen, who, when they finally return home to the farm in Gansu, find that their farm has been “redistributed” to its previous owner. The film focuses on the grinding poverty and hopelessness which follows the family everywhere they go like a dark cloud. Other A.R.T projects include Yao Chen’s Send Me To The Clouds and Liu Hao’s The Poet, which explores a similar trajectory of Song of the Phoenix, following the rise and fall of a coal-miner-turned-poet, as he achieves literary fame only to find himself bereft of opportunities in his twilight years as the art form begins to lose its shine, no longer holding the same sway over civic and political life as it did in the past.

Theatre on Demand—the Potential of Elemeet

Complementing these new efforts to increase arthouse film production is an innovative, social-media-powered “theatre-on-demand” platform. Elemeet works to unite disparate constellations of arthouse cinema fans by bringing them together for dedicated screenings. “Elemeet” is using the power of the WeChat to completely disrupt the cinematic distribution model moving from a top-down “these are the films we will show” model to a bottom-up, crowd-supported model which says “these are the films we want to see.”

The platform works through a model of “organisers,” promoters who may be critics or cineastes who organise and promote screenings through their own WeChat networks in exchange for ten percent of the box office earnings. Not only do most screenings achieve an attendance rate of at least 80%, but they also create a “film festival” atmosphere uniting like-minded people and often feature a post-film chat in order to build community. One organiser, a film promoter and publicist Jiexiao Ying writes that her experience of organising a few Element screenings turned into a forum for lively community events:

The screening of Still Life [Jia Zhangke] was very vigorous: my cousin baked beautiful cookies and gave them to viewers for free; my uncle took many photos of the event; my mother’s high school classmate forwarded the event information around, turning the screening activity into a class reunion in the cinema.

The platform has over 2,000 cinema partners and 300,000 registered users. Applicants apply to the platform to host a screening, explaining why they are a suitable organiser; they promote the film through their network and viewers can purchase tickets directly through the app, but there is a catch. If ticket sales are too low, the screening does not go ahead and tickets are refunded.

Beyond the financial potential for directors and organisers, Elemeet can also be seen as an incubator for the cinephile community as a whole, by taking what is a typically solitary activity, or at most an online community, and turning it into a lively off-line activity which has the potential to create more momentum for arthouse films.

Streaming Video on Demand

In the 1990s and 2000s Chinese cinephiles satisfied their cravings for arthouse film through an abundance of pirated DVD purveyors and online torrenting, but today that landscape has changed. DVD stores are rare, and legitimate SVOD platforms offer a variety of films to both free and paid subscribers. While China’s SVOD market is still dominated by three major SVOD platforms backed by the country’s three tech monoliths—iQiyi (Baidu), Youku-Tudou (Alibaba), and Tencent Video (Tencent), these platforms represent three of the world’s top five platforms in pure subscriber numbers (the other two are Netflix and Amazon), with one out of eight SVOD users now willing to actually pay for online content. While much of the content available on these platforms tends to lean towards the mass market, we are starting to see a movement towards more niche offerings. For instance, FilmNation Entertainment—the New-York-based film production company and distributor—has joined forces with iQiyi offering their 421 million active users and 51 million paid subscribers access to their content.

Despite the large demand for international arthouse films, collaborations between international streaming services have been fraught with regulatory snags. In 2016, the government tightened regulations on online content providers and both Apple’s iTunes Movies and Books and the DisneyLife streaming services were blocked. Huanxia Media Group shelved a plan to invest 40 million in MUBI China—a Chinese expansion of the UK streaming service—when MUBI began to crash up against regulatory hurdles just as the deal was ready to be signed. The two firms then re-negotiated a much smaller deal of 2 million dollars which involved MUBI providing consulting services to Huanxi about setting up their own subscriber service. And certainly, the fact that Netflix has not stepped into the fray, after expanding to 130 countries worldwide, is an indication that SVOD market in China must be approached with caution.

Market Protectionism

The brief window which opened during the early 2000s, when the government was somewhat unsure of how to regulate online content, has now closed, with the government announcing new restrictions on the airing of foreign content. SVOD services and television stations can allocate no more than 30% of their content or airtime to foreign programming, with television stations facing an all-out ban on airing foreign programming from 7-10pm. All foreign programming must pass censorship and be “submitted for editing and re-packaging,” creating a huge hurdle for foreign content providers. Beyond that, even products which have passed censorship have no guarantee, as even innocuous content such as Sponge Bob Square Pants and Peppa Pig, were recently banned, Peppa supposedly for her slacker attitude but more likely because of an interest in protecting the domestic animation industry. Just as The Croods was yanked from theatres because it was bringing in too much revenue compared to locally-produced films; Chinese animation producers wanted the film gone, so they could screen their films before the lucrative Children’s Day holiday began.

It’s clear that China’s film market is certainly not a level or open playing field and under-the-table measures are often carried out in order to protect local productions. Navigating this territory, even with the help of a local partner for instance, Alibaba (DisneyLife) and Huanxia (Mubi) can be extremely difficult, and often fruitless.

Perhaps what remains to be seen about the potential of SVOD platforms is whether they will follow the path of what is happening in America with Netflix and Amazon, which is that instead of sourcing content from indie directors, they have begun to “studio-ise” themselves, bringing directors in house and producing Amazon or Netflix-branded content. They are becoming increasingly clever about analysing viewer data—a process which turns film-making into more of a science, or carefully-calculated business decision rather than an art form.

We are already beginning to see the local SVODs lend their financial support to arthouse films, for instance, Youku’s backing of the Thai film Manta, which despite not being released in Chinese theatres, went on to success on the festival circuit. If they move from funding projects into the production of in-house content and audience data analysis, as many of them are beginning to do, we could see an increasing homogenisation of indie content. As with everywhere in the film world, the balance between creative freedom and commercial success is a constant process of negotiation and compromise—one prone to disruptors—both of political and of a commercial nature.