The Chinese film authorities like to call 2006 a “healthy” year for movie production on the mainland, with B.O. receipts up and 330 feature films made (70 more than in 2005). Though the numbers might look like another sign of the success of China’s obsession with central planning, they are perhaps also the result of a healthy rivalry.
Beijing — home of the country’s most prestigious film academy, the all-powerful government-run film bureau, bustling Beijing film studios and some of the most influential production companies in the country — takes much of the credit for the good news. But southern neighbor Shanghai continues to make claims on the Chinese filmmaking crown, despite having made only around 30 films out of the 2006 total.
“Everything about the film industry is different in Beijing and Shanghai,” says Andrew Cheng, a director who has worked in both cities. “The crews and equipment are different — which really affects shooting styles. And the cultures are very different. I find that Shanghai audiences like my films more than Beijing audiences. But Beijing critics seem to understand my work more than Shanghai critics.”
The showcase coastal city offers up as evidence the Shanghai Intl. Film Festival (China’s only globally recognized film fest); the Shanghai Film Group, with its growing portfolio of film production and exhibition facilities; and Chinese film history. Shanghai was the home of China’s movie industry in the first half of the 20th century, complete with its own stable of troubled starlets and dozens of small, independent studios.
But prestige events, investment and ancient history aside, whether 21st-century filmmakers can be persuaded to make Shanghai their home remains to be seen.
Shanghai native Peng Xiaolian — a Beijing Film Academy grad — worked in that city for years before returning to her hometown, but has mixed feelings about both cities. “There is a genuine film industry in Beijing, but I always feel like an outsider there. Shanghai people are very hard-working and honest, so it is easier to make films for less money here — but the truth is that there aren’t many real films made here.”
So, does Shanghai have any hope of competing with Beijing as a production base? Lou Ye’s “Suzhou River,” with its underground feel, did a lot to bring street cred back to Shanghai in 2000. And several of China’s hippest filmmakers have been developing Shanghai connections since. Sixth Generation helmer Jia Zhangke has made his last two films (“The World” and “Still Life”) with the help of Shanghai Film Group. Compatriot Wang Xiaoshuai has recently returned to Shanghai themes (“Shanghai Dreams”). And fest fave Beijing-based Lu Chuan (“Kekexili: Mountain Patrol”) is planning Shanghai-centered projects.
Shanghai’s star seems to be on the rise, but in China’s most fashion-conscious city, no one knows whether this is a trend that will last.