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China's genre revolution

China's genre revolution

By Derek Elley

Tue, 23 July 2013, 08:30 AM (HKT)

Industry Feature

Over the past decade or so a movie revolution has been taking place in the world's most populous country that's largely gone uncharted outside its borders — and has certainly not been recognised by international film festivals beyond niche events. China's evolution from a relatively small movie producer (given its size) to one that now ranks alongside India, Japan and the US as one of the biggest by number of productions has been dominated by a single development — the emergence of a powerful commercial sector in which straight genre movies (comedies, horrors, rom-coms, action) now play the same role as in any other market.

Among other Asian countries, tiny South Korea has also seen a similar, if smaller, revolution that's been more internationally visible — partly thanks to the Koreans' canny use of marketing mechanisms like festivals as well as the creation of centralised bodies like the Korean Film Council (Kofic) 영화진흥위원회 to lead the overseas charge. China, by contrast, has a much less co-ordinated structure and way less fervour in proving itself to the rest of the world — at least where movies are concerned.

However, aside from major festivals pigeonholing China into political and "underground" slots, and the country's own lack of a centralised promotion agency, there are other reasons for the country's revolution passing the rest of the world by. Chinese-language cinema (Mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan) has been as much hindered as helped by its 40-year-old identification with action and martial-arts movies. Those genres were essentially developed "offshore" in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and burst upon the West in the '70s, at a time when it was hungry for exciting new genres. Apart from a brief spell during the 1920s, martial arts movies have never formed a major constituent of Mainland production in the same way — and certainly not in the PRC after 1949, when social and political-oriented fare dominated by government decree. As production in China started to diversify in the '80s and considerably loosen up during the '90s, those action/martial-arts film-making skills had long been lost to Hong Kong, and have only recently begun to be re-learned with the help of Hong Kong talent.

That left China with a big identity problem. When the Korean New Wave began in the late '90s, it was lucky to start with a cultural blank slate, with no western pre-conceptions of what a South Korean movie really was. China, however, was "Chinese" — but "Chinese culture" had basically been hijacked by Hong Kong back in the '50s and '60s. If China couldn't produce action/martial arts movies with a finesse and pacing like Hong Kong's, how could it distinguish itself commercially on the world stage, especially as western audiences had been schooled to think that these genres were all there were?

As much for political reasons than commercial ones, China became identified via western festivals with political, protest, socially-oriented and "underground" films — though the country, in fact, was rapidly changing back home. As film-making, like the rest of the economy, became less centralised and more market-driven, with private production companies blooming, China focused on developing its vast home market and to hell with its international image. As in any other national industry, that meant genre movies for its vast home audience — with no need, unlike tiny Hong Kong, to develop an export-oriented industry.

The past decade has been a gradual process of China redeveloping a broad film industry on a par with Shanghai's of the '20s and '30s and in line with other major Asian ones. It's been a period of "firsts", shouted from posters whether true or not: "China's first spy/war super-production" (The Message 風聲 (2009)), "China's first modern-day psycho-thriller franchise super-production" (Lost in Panic Cruise 密室之不可靠岸 (2011)), "China's first disaster movie" (Super Typhoon 超強颱風 (2008)), and even "Henan [province]'s first local super-hilarious film" (No Kidding 不是鬧著玩的 (2009)). Directors previously known for artier movies have climbed on the genre bandwagon. And though political biographies and war films still form around 5-10% of titles, under the canny leadership of HAN Sanping 韓三平 even state-owned China Film found a way of making The Founding of a Republic 建國大業 (2009) and Beginning of the Great Revival 建黨偉業 (2011) marketable by turning them into spot-the-star-cameo games.

As Film Business Asia's analysis of Mainland theatrical releases during the past decade reveals, Drama (including Melodrama and Romance) has always been the dominant genre, providing 40-50% of all production — way higher than Action or Comedy, two basic staples in neighbouring Hong Kong. As other genres like Rom-Com and Horror have developed in the past few years, they've basically emerged from Drama and taken some of its share.


Unlike in the West (which tends to focus on pure shocks and gore), but similar to other Asian countries, modern-day Horror has essentially grown out of the tradition of ghost stories, in which belief and acceptance of ghosts as a parallel part of life play a large part. The tradition is well-established in classical Chinese literature but was proscribed under the early PRC as a "feudal" tradition and is still officially encouraged to be presented as an irrational fear. That hasn't prevented film-makers in pushing the envelope to a point where it's hardly an impediment to making full-blown Horror: a final caption describing events in rational terms, or a scene (similar to earlier US movies, such as Psycho) of a specialist providing an explanation, generally gets round the proscription, but even those are becoming progressively rarer.

Horror jogged along in the early '00s with a couple of films a year, followed by a brief spike in 2005 and two movies by artier directors in 2007 (LI Shaohong 李少紅's The Door (2006), with stars CHEN Kun 陳坤 and HUANG Jue 黃覺, and TENG Huatao 滕華濤's The Matrimony 心中有鬼 (2006), with FAN Bingbing 范冰冰, Hong Kong's Leon LAI 黎明 and Taiwan's René LIU 劉若英). The last two made some money but it wasn't until 2010 that the genre really took off, with the surprise success of John CHIANG 蔣國權's Illusion Apartment 異度公寓 (2010) (with RMB19 million/US$3 million), Hong Konger LO Chi-leung 羅志良's Curse of the Deserted 荒村公寓 (2009), with China's Kitty ZHANG 張雨綺 and Hong Kong's Shawn YUE 余文樂 (RMB23 million), ZHANG Panpan 張番番's Lost in Panic Room 密室之不可告人 (2010), with Taiwan's Alec SU 蘇有朋 and Pace WU 吳佩慈 (RMB21 million), and especially ZHANG Jiabei 張加貝's Midnight Beating 午夜心跳 (2010), with Hong Kong's Simon YAM 任達華 and Francis NG 吳鎮宇 (RMB30 million). The code had finally been cracked: money could be made from Horror by employing Greater China casts and upping production values.

Zhang, who'd earlier directed the horror E-mail 信箱 (2007), followed Lost in Panic Room with Lost in Panic Cruise, set on a ship, to equally good returns. But it was the surprise (and lucky) hit of Hong Konger Rico CHUNG 鍾繼昌's Mysterious Island 孤島驚魂 (2011) in summer 2011 that really surprised the Mainland industry, with RMB90 million earned from combining slasher-horror with scantily dressed babes and a marketing campaign centred on sexy starlet Mini YANG 楊冪 in a soggy T-shirt. As was shown by the failure of Chung's Mysterious Island 2 驚魂2 (2013) early this year, Horror is still a fragile genre that's not to be taken for granted. But it's now an established part of China's genre fabric, in 12% of the country's theatrical releases last year, and has also been attracting foreign directors. The China-produced Bunshinsaba II 筆仙Ⅱ (2013) (pictured), by South Korea's AN Byung-ki 안병기 | 安兵基, has just broken the opening record of Mysterious Island.


Romantic comedies are the other most significant development of the past few years, taking elements from Drama (traditional romances and melodramas) and Comedy, and combining them with the emergence of a yuppie class during the '00s in prosperous New Urban China. The genre is an almost exact parallel with Hong Kong's '80s yuppie rom-coms from companies like D&B Films and Cinema City, plastered with band-name advertising, end-title logos, aspirational living and a new national confidence.

The template for the modern China Rom-Com can be traced back to New Year hitmeister FENG Xiaogang 馮小剛's Be There or Be Square 不見不散 (1998), with comedian GE You 葛優 and actress XU Fan 徐帆 playing two Mainlanders in Los Angeles. At the time, the film was practically ignored overseas, as it fitted into none of the Mainland pigeonholes established in the West. A subsequent precursor was Li Shaohong's Baober in Love 戀愛中的寶貝 (2003), an ambitious film that was ahead of its time when it appeared in 2004 and was met with mystification by general western critics (more used to Li's artier movies) when shown at some festivals that year. Locally, however, audiences were already ripe for the genre, which suddenly took off in 2007.

The episodic Call for Love 愛情呼叫轉移 (2007), by Shanghai-based ZHANG Jianya 張建亞, set things rolling, with comedian XU Zheng 徐崢 (who was to hit the super bigtime five years later with the comedy Lost in Thailand 人再囧途之泰囧 (2012)) trying to romance a bevy of women played by name actresses. Zhang followed it with the equally episodic Fit Lover 愛呼2:愛情左右 (2008), which earned a healthy RMB33 million, but it was the mega-hit later that year of Feng's If You are the One 非誠勿擾 (2008), which made 10 times the amount, that definitively announced the arrival of the glossy Rom-Com. Starring his favourite actor Ge and Taiwan actress SHU Qi 舒淇, the odd-couple rom-com combined Feng's trademark ironic comedy with glossy production values that reflected the changes in lifestyle since Be There or Be Square a decade earlier.

The Rom-Com immediately became the genre of choice, especially for actresses, with Eva JIN 金依萌's Sophie's Revenge 非常完美 (2009), produced by and starring ZHANG Ziyi 章子怡, with South Korea's CJ Entertainment as a production partner, clocking up a handsome RMB94 million, and actress-director XU Jinglei 徐靜蕾 acing that the following year with Go! Lala Go! 杜拉拉升職記 (2010) (RMB114 million), an office rom-com with a Greater China cast that oozed confidence and great clothes. The genre took advantage of marketing hooks (Valentine's Day, White Day, Singles' Day) and since then has produced several skilfully written and played movies, none better than Teng Huatao's office rom-com Love Is Not Blind 失戀33天 (2011), Xu's reteaming with Taiwan-American actor Stanley HUANG 黃立行, Dear Enemy 親密敵人 (2011) (which takes the China rom-com into global high finance), and not least SUN Zhou 孫周's I Do 我願意 (2012), with terrific lead playing by SUN Honglei 孫紅雷 and LI Bingbing 李冰冰.


And Also...
Unlike Horror, which remains one of the few exportable genres in Asian cinema, Rom-Com remains a tough genre to sell to the West, however well-made or enjoyable as entertainment. Comedy is an even trickier overseas proposition, and in China has always played considerable second fiddle to Drama.

Pure Comedy, rather than Comedy-Drama, is more often found on TV than on cinema screens, though in the past five years it's been taking a rising share of film production and showing considerable inventiveness beyond just slapstick. A spate of money-chasing comedies, partly sparked by NING Hao 寧浩's Crazy Stone 瘋狂的石頭 (2006), has revealed a local gift for multi-character, criss-crossing scripts that make good use of the country's vast supply of character actors, give chances to younger actors, and throw up unlikely stars in goofy comics like HUANG Bo 黃渤, WANG Baoqiang 王寶強 and Xu Zheng. Black comedies, like GUAN Hu 管虎's Cow 鬥牛 (2009) and Design of Death 殺生 (2012), ZHAO Tianyu 趙天宇's Deadly Delicious 雙食記 (2007), and YANG Shupeng 楊樹鵬's The Robbers 我的唐朝兄弟 (2009) and An Inaccurate Memoir 匹夫 (2012), have continued to blur genre lines in an inventive way, while genre spoofs like Big Movie 大電影之數百億 (2006) and Two Stupid Eggs 兩個傻瓜的荒唐事 (2007) by Ah Gan 阿甘 (aka Kiefer Liu) have broadened the comic spectrum.

Pure Action, with no Comedy elements, remains surprisingly low on the Mainland genre scale, partly because of a traditionally Chinese preference for interweaving the two and partly because crime movies largely remain the preserve of TV drama series. Hard-driven action dramas set in China's deserty landscapes, like GAO Qunshu 高群書's Wild East-style Wind Blast 西風烈 (2010), have begun to appear, though Ning Hao's reportedly very dark No Man's Land 無人區 (2013) remains on the shelf, a victim of a censorship system in which all films must be suitable for all audiences. South Korea's notorious propensity for ultra-black, ultra-violent movies doesn't look as if it will be replicated in China soon — partly because there's little taste for such fare among Chinese audiences.

Despite that, the sky is pretty much the limit in Mainland genre cinema at present. As China's reliance on Hong Kong imports decreases as its own star system grows and filmmakers learn their own tricks, genre cinema looks set only to grow and diversify further, to feed the ever-expanding home market and a huge, diverse population with very different tastes in the north and south. The revolution continues.


The graph above reflects the percentage presence of five key genre elements in locally produced, theatrically released features. (Hong Kong and Taiwan films with a considerable non-Mainland constituent have been excluded.) As many films feature more than one genre element, the graph records the genres as an overall percentage, not by numbers of titles.

Production in China has mushroomed during the past decade. The number of films certified by SARFT currently runs at around 700 a year, though only some 20% ever get a wide theatrical release and many of those last only a few days due to intense competition for screens. The majority of smaller films go straight to DVD or TV, or receive special screenings, regional showings and so on. For 2003, FBA surveyed just over 30 local productions; for 2012, the figure was over 180.

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