Who’s the hottest movie director in China today? Is it Chen Kaige? Zhang Yimou?
Great directors both, but in commercial terms it’s Feng Xiaogang, unknown overseas. Feng has emerged from having several major works banned by the government to become the most reliable hit-maker on the Mainland.
Feng’s latest film, “Sorry, Baby,” opened in mid-December to strong box office. It may top his release of last year, “Be There or Be Square,” currently the second-highest grossing film of all time in China, after “Titanic.”
Unlike arthouse darlings Chen and Zhang, Feng is a new species in China: an out-and-out commercial filmmaker whose goal is to entertain the biggest audience he can reach. What’s more, the secret to much of his success has been shrewdly plugging into the average Chinese citizen’s intense interest in all things American.
In fact, his films are probably the most positive portrayal of American culture to register in Chinese pop media since the revolution of 1949. “Be There or Be Square” could just as well be called “You Too Can Make It In America.”
Consider the plot. Two immigrants from Beijing are living in sunny Los Angeles. Li Qing, a lissome and ambitious young housekeeper, has come to the U.S. in search of material gain. Liu Yuan is a roguish charmer who dawdles as a jack-of-all-trades, selling insurance and cemetery plots and living in a spartan though bucolic trailer park. He yearns for her; she writes him off as a slacker. Li Qing transforms herself from housekeeper to flower-shop proprietor to private-school operator; Her ascent is symbolized as she trades up, Los Angeles-style, from carlessness to a rusty ’70s Volkswagen Bug to a smart new blue Mazda Miata. Hoping to win Li Qing’s affection, the penniless Liu Yuan pretends to be blind and engages in other pathetic deceptions. Finally, though, he gets his act together and wins a lucrative contract to teach Chinese to the local police. Li Qing admits to the feelings she’s harbored all along: she loves him despite his scoundrel ways. At the end, all is lovey-dovey in the City of Angels.
What’s missing from this picture? Sacrifice for country. Sacrifice for society. Any hint of Communist philosophy.
Of course, it’s well known that Chinese pop culture has changed radically in the past decade. From Michael Jordan to Madonna, anyone who’s conversed with a few cab drivers in Beijing or Shanghai in recent years knows that Chinese people positively thirst for information about such icons. Communist philosophy is so passe that in the bigger cities even the word “comrade” has in recent months become a slang term for gay (following the usage in Hong Kong).
But in China, as all over the world, movies have a special magic — a power which reverberates through the rest of the culture. Lenin himself called film ”the most important of the arts,” and the Chinese Communist authorities have always watched the movie industry carefully and vetted its content with a political magnifying glass. As a result, until now, Chinese films have come largely in two distinct categories — the spectacular art-house works like ”Raise the Red Lantern,” which have won acclaim at film festivals around the world but are little seen (undeservedly) inside China, and a steady stream of stolid socialist propaganda films which are little seen (deservedly) outside it.
”Be There or Be Square” carved out a new category of Mainland filmmaking: entertaining, Hollywood-style fluff. The film took in 43 million RMB (US $5.3 million) at the box office, on a budget of 13 million RMB (US $1.6 million). Funding came from private and quasi-private Chinese sources. (“Titanic” took in $37 million.)
But the path to the success of “Be There or Be Square” has been a tortuous one for its creator, director Feng Xiaogang. His work has been banned repeatedly; once he was even shut down by the government in the middle of filming. His career shows that being a popular artist in China means an endless calculation of what is and isn’t possible under government censorship. And if he seems to have plugged with uncannily accurate instinct into the hopes and dreams of the typical Chinese, he also has to watch his step.
Wiry and fit, Feng Xiaogang has an amiable scrappy quality about him, and, in a way that is very Chinese, loves to talk and socialize. I met him one afternoon at his apartment in a high-rise in north Beijing and for the next 12 hours — through dinner with several friends and colleagues, rounds of bai jiu (the Chinese version of white lightning), and a visit to his nearby office (marked by more drinking and an extensive reading of Chinese horoscopes) he talked almost non-stop, telling stories about the Chinese movie world, discussing the Kosovo crisis, spinning dreams of working with American stars and displaying a winningly earthy and sharp sense of humor. Introducing me to his producer he joked that my Chinese name was “Pao” (which in fact, it is not), a mildly vulgar Beijing term for the act of sexual intercourse.
Feng is 41, a native of Beijing and the son of a Communist Party College professor and a factory nurse. His parents’ education put him in the upper reaches of Chinese society and, under normal circumstances, might have assured a stable future. But nothing in China has been normal, or stable, over the past four decades. In 1957, during one of China’s recurrent waves of government-led anti-intellectual fervor, his father, who taught philosophy (his specialty was dialectical materialism), endured the first of several stretches in prison. And Feng, like the rest of his generation, had the bad luck to reach college-age during the Cultural Revolution, when almost all universities were closed, and city youth were sent to rural villages to learn from the peasants.
”There were two ways to avoid being sent to the countryside,” he says. ”You could get a job in a factory, or join the army.”
Feng joined the People’s Liberation Army. After eight years as a scenic painter with an army theatrical troupe he found a job in the art department of a TV station, working on serial dramas. ”I always thought I could do a better job than the directors I was working with, and that annoyed them,” he says. ”I decided I should write my own scripts so I could become a director.”
Colleagues noted his intense ambition and his shrewdness. He formed an alliance with Wang Shuo — an insanely prolific novelist and scriptwriter who was already famous (and often banned) for his satiric portrayals of nihilistic Chinese who have no faith in anything other than personal pleasure and the effort to get rich. Wang helped Feng get his first script filmed. The two then collaborated on the teleplay for ”Stories of the Editorial Department,” a comedy series about the staff of a state-run magazine, which became a hit, fully establishing Feng in the Chinese film and TV world as a top screenwriter.
But Feng still had his eye on directing when an important opportunity arose. In the early 1990’s, Chinese TV was preparing its biggest budgeted TV series ever, a 20-part drama called ”A Beijinger in New York,” costing the equivalent of $1.5 million, extravagant by Chinese standards. Based on a hugely successful novel, it was going to be the first Chinese TV series shot entirely in the U.S. and was sure to attract attention from censors as well as audiences. Although he doesn’t speak English and had never been to America, Feng begged the director, Zheng Xiaolong, to take him on as a co-director. Zheng relented. ”I think he nearly cried he wanted it so badly,” Zheng says.
If ”Be There or Be Square” is a cultural bookend — the most influential Chinese view of American life at the end of the 90s — then its dark twin standing at the beginning of the decade is ”A Beijinger in New York.” The pulpy and unrelentingly bleak story by novelist Glen Cao tells the tale of a Beijing cellist, Wang Qiming, who immigrates to New York with his wife. They live in an unheated hovel and earn a pittance in the garment industry. Through thrift the pair manage to save and buy their own garment factory, but that turns them into exploiters. The husband has an affair with a Taiwanese restaurant owner. His marriage dissolves. Even the factory must be sold to cover gambling debts. Meanwhile, the couple’s neglected teenage daughter falls in with a rough crowd, gets hooked on heroin, and dies of gunshot wounds in a botched kidnapping.
In some ways, the TV series paints an even grimmer picture of life in America than the book. In one particularly powerful scene toward the end, Wang Qiming throws a fit on Park Avenue in front of the Hotel Rudolph, screaming expletives in Chinese at mystified passers-by while standing in the middle of the street and blocking traffic. The camera pans up, past an American flag, and settles on the grey skies and cold steel office buildings of midtown Manhattan, which symbolize his despair. In sum, this Chinese ”Midnight Cowboy” is a near-complete indictment of the depravity of American capitalism and individualism.
When the series first aired in 1993, China’s economic reforms were moving full-speed ahead. Despite the government’s post-Tiananmen Square clamp down, increased contact with Western goods and greater access to Western media had spurred an intense interest in life abroad, particularly in the U.S. In the context of Chinese censorship, ”A Beijinger in New York” revealed remarkable political canniness.
”This was the first series to please both the audience and government,” says Yin Hong, a film scholar at Beijing Normal University. ”It pleased the audience because it said New York can be heaven if you work hard — you can achieve your dreams. And it pleased the government because it said that America is a hell. The message was: stay where you are.”
The TV series was an even bigger hit than the book, breaking ratings records throughout the country and turning its star, Jiang Wen, into the hottest actor in China. The show also gave Feng Xiaogang what he had long wanted — it established him as a director.
Feng quickly capitalized on his success, directing a number of TV series and his first film. But in 1996 he began to run into trouble. Wang Shuo and he collaborated on ”I’m Your Father,” with Wang Shuo directing and Feng acting. The government banned it, fearful that the satire of the intellectual father in this father-son story implied some broader criticism of the government. Feng, directing a script he co-wrote with Wang, pushed on to “Living in Dire Straits”, which dared to portray an adulterous affair without moralizing. The film got caught in a dispute between national censors — uneasy about the subject matter — and the Beijing Film Studio, and ten days into shooting the government shut the film down.
Finally, Feng took on his most ambitious project, ”Dark Side of the Moon,” a TV series about a contemporary young couple who try to scheme their way into a fortune by deceiving a bank. Once again, the story is told Wang Shuo-style — not as a warning of the dangers of crime, but rather as a story of one man’s alienation from just about everything. In the end the main character is executed. This too was banned by the government. Too bleak and too serious, Feng was told.
The director was, understandably, despondent. ”Everyone thought he would never make another film” says Zhang Yue, a former writing buddy of Feng’s who is now the host of a well-known women’s issues talk show.
If you get to know some Mainland Chinese of a certain age, you begin to notice how important the Cultural Revolution was in forming their character. Many seem to have been broken by it, hopes sundered, energy leeched away. Others — like many of America’s Great Depression generation — became professional survivors, intensely hardworking, anxious to make up for lost time, unconvinced that any level of success is a guarantee of stability. Feng Xiaogang clearly belongs to the latter group.
I asked him how he felt during what friends call his “year of tragedy”.
”I’m a director, he replied. ”I have to keep working. If I’m not working then I’m just an amateur. So I quickly changed my style.”
Han San Ping, the head of China’s Film Bureau, told Feng that he would help him find investors if he ”made a more entertaining film and avoided sensitive subjects,” Feng says. So Feng dreamed up ”Party A, Party B” a gimmicky film about a company which fulfills people’s fantasies, much as in the old American TV show, ”Fantasy Island.”
Feng was still pushing the limits of what was politically acceptable; Americans might be surprised to learn that this film opens with the story of a Chinese man whose dream is to relive the life of Gen. George Patton. The fantasy-fulfillment company goes all out, hiring American tanks and jeeps and a battalion of Chinese soldiers dressed in U.S. Army uniforms. Feng was cleverly playing to his countrymen’s interest in all things American, while hearkening back to a time when the U.S. and the Chinese were allied militarily against the Japanese.
More audacious was the film’s concern for people fulfilling their personal, even selfish desires — which runs counter to the ham-handed messages of sacrifice (for communism and country) that the vast majority of government-funded films traffic in. What made ”Party A, Party B” acceptable was its light, comic approach; it was, finally, a satire that poked fun at the customers who want their fantasies fulfilled even as it indulges them.
The film, released in 1998, was Feng’s first big movie hit. And it cemented what has become his trademark style: a clever navigation between the material and romantic dreams of the average Chinese and the political demands of government censorship.
”Be There or Be Square,” for instance, does include several run-ins with robbers and muggers — a staple of TV and movie depictions of life in America throughout Asia. What is new, and what is so shockingly different in contrast to the dark tones of ”A Beijinger in New York,” is that the crime is merely a plot device to make the lovers seem star-crossed. No one is seriously hurt, or loses a child or a big sum of money, or endures any of the other tragedies that tend to befall immigrants to America in previous Chinese films.
Even more striking is the film’s liberal use of American iconography. Liu Yuan’s trailer is decorated with American movie posters and a set of miniature American flags. As well, throughout the film the heroine (played by Xu Fan, a well-known actress and Feng’s real-life wife) wears a locket with an American flag decoration. Far from being played for the ironic distance between American ideals and American reality, the locket clearly symbolizes Li Qing’s sincere hope of making it in the U.S. Where the film does offer its critique of American life, it is particularly telling. For instance, Liu Yuan tells a class of young Chinese-Americans, ”We Chinese put the family name first, and the personal name second because we respect our elders. It’s the opposite in America where people only respect themselves.” An even more pointed scene, which always seems to draw a roar of approval from Chinese audiences, has one of Liu Yuan’s classes of suburban L.A. police obediently repeating one of Chairman Mao’s pet slogans — ”Serve the People” — in Chinese. And the ending of the film — which struck many observers, including this one, as an odd non sequitur–involves a plot twist from out of the blue. Just as Liu Yuan and Li Qing have found their financial stability and fallen in love, word arrives that his mother in Beijing is sick. They decide to return to look after her. Liu Yuan’s last words to Li Qing as they are about to arrive in Beijing are: ”No more English, ok?” The question of whether they will return to the US is left open-ended, but after Mom passes away, it’s hard to see anything keeping them in China.
Add these elements together and you have a pretty good summary of the Chinese Communist Party’s current gambit aimed at hanging on to political support: encourage economic growth and allow entrepreneurship, while filling the gap left by the collapse of Communist ideology with traditional Confucian values (last names first; it’s important to take care of your Mom!) and good old Chinese nationalism (how annoying to have to speak English in today’s world!).
That political context is something Feng Xiaogang can never forget. Because of last year’s 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic, Feng postponed a potentially controversial project he has high hopes for (another Wang Shuo script about adultery called “A Sigh”) in favor of his just released “Sorry, Baby”, a wacky comedy about a kidnapping gone awry. As he sat in an editing room of the Beijing Film Studio several weeks ago trying to liven up the pace of the film he seemed a bit worn-out (though he said that was mostly owing to a drunken wrap party the night before). “This type of film is really not that interesting to me,” he said. “But the possibilities for what you can do are very narrow because of the government. You really have to use your imagination to make it entertaining for the audience.”
Nevertheless, censorship is not as monolithic as Americans sometimes perceive it to be, and Feng is always calculating those possibilities. A TV series dealing with adultery broadcast last summer was a big hit and didn’t draw strong criticism from the government. Feng is taking this as a sign he can go ahead with “A Sigh” and hopes to make it this year. Even his “Dark Side of the Moon”, previously banned, has finally been released on video disk.
It’s tempting to see Feng Xiaogang as someone who has sold out (rather brilliantly) to the twin Gods of support from government censors and the average Chinese’s illusions of material wealth — and in fact, many intellectuals in China do see him that way. Feng comes in for harsh criticism from those in and around the Chinese filmmakers responsible for China’s film renaissance of the past 15 years — the arthouse types more familiar to American audiences. Feng Xiaogang ”is brilliant at taking piles of rubbish and turning it into a delicious Coca-Cola” says Wang Bin, who does what in Hollywood would be called ”development” — searching for
material to adapt into films — for the great director Zhang Yimou (”Raise the Red Lantern,” ”To Live,” among others). ”It’s a tragedy for the culture.”
But, as someone once said, if pandering were that easy, we’d all be millionaires. The truth is that Feng Xiaogang is the type of artist — canny, opportunistic, flexible, undoubtedly talented — who succeeds quite handsomely under capitalism.
At a time when China’s economy is in upheaval and literally hundreds of millions are out of work, a film like ”Be There or Be Square” plays much the same social role that films like Frank Capra’s ”It Happened One Night” played for America’s Depression audiences. Capra’s masterful fantasy entertained, but also salved the emotional wounds of economic hard times. It at once satirized the rich by showing how they were just as troubled as regular folks, but it also showed how a lower-class newspaperman could, with nothing in his bank account but charm, leap class barriers to win the heart of a rich and beautiful woman.
Similarly, ”Be There or Be Square” at once indulges the average Chinese’s dream of going to the ”heaven” of America (while letting them know that it’s okay to stay at home and be Chinese). It shows that Liu Yuan — who, in many ways, stands in for a generation of Chinese men whose economic future is so uncertain — can still get the girl.
That this very Hollywood-style fantasy has become the biggest Chinese movie hit ever is one of those paradoxes that defines the end of communism in our time. In his recent book, ”Confucius Lives Next Door,” the journalist T.R. Reid expresses skepticism about the current conventional wisdom that American culture and values are inexorably sweeping the globe. He persuasively argues that Asian societies where the Confucian influence is strongest and most explicit — such as Japan, South Korea, and Singapore — are in fact quite philosophically opposed to many of the basic tenets of American-style individualism. But in China, the birthplace of Confucius and the behemoth of Asia, the situation is different.
The chaos and corruption of the past 40 years — in particular the Cultural Revolution campaign to wipe out Confucian values — have practically wiped the slate clean ideologically in China. Ironically, China is the Asian country whose population (if not its government) is perhaps most open to the individualistic and often selfish influences of American culture. As the U.S. continues to work out its tortuous relationship with China, this may well be the message that Feng Xiaogang has for us.
As for Feng Xiaogang himself, he is looking forward to making another film in the U.S. “Ah, America,” he sighs. “Shooting there is so comfortable.”