Mainland pix try quirky themes

'Peacock,' 'Beautiful' hope to win over mainland auds

BEIJING — Rebounding from the production slump of recent years, the current slate of Chinese films produced outside the state-run system includes some showing the quirkier side of mainland life. The productions include above-ground features by formerly underground filmmakers Zhang Yuan and Jia Zhangke.

Gu Changwei, famed fifth-gen d.p. of classics “Red Sorghum” and “Farewell My Concubine,” has completed post on his directorial debut, “Peacock” (aka “Kongque”; Asian Union Films). Drama, set in a small city in the early 1980s, centers on three misfit youths born to utterly average parents, with compelling up-and-comer Zhang Jingchu as the reality-challenged, accordion-playing sister who dreams of jumping from airplanes but must work as a bottle washer instead.

Jia Zhangke is currently in production on “Shijie” (The World), a Hong Kong-Japanese-French co-production with Shanghai Film Studio. Modern-day musical tells of an amusement-park security guard who falls for a showgirl, marking a departure from the 34-year-old director’s previous gritty, neo-realist films. Pic is largely set at the theme park Window of the World, known for its concrete re-creations of world landmarks, such as the Pyramids of Egypt, India’s Taj Mahal, and Manhattan.

Zhang Yuan’s “Beautiful” (“Kan shang qu hen mei”; Century Hero Film), is based on the semiautobiographical novel by author Wang Shuo. Odd biopic, to be filmed from a child’s perspective, will tell of a precocious 5-year-old sent to foster-care kindergarten whose tall tales of a child-eating monster soon wreak havoc among his 300 classmates. The 12 principal actors are ages 3-5, including the director’s daughter.

Industry-watchers wait to see how China’s arthouse filmmakers will transition to domestic box office success. Underground status in the past meant films could not be legally distributed in China and were not widely seen by the theatergoing public.

Average independent film budgets are now in the low millions of dollars, fueled in part by needing production values to compete with domestic and foreign blockbusters.

Other challenges to the industry include rampant piracy, the rising costs of stars and crazy-quilt distribution lines. Legislation changes effective late last year have allowed independent production companies to receive film production licenses. Prior to that, only state-run studios could legally make films.

Co-productions, especially with Hong Kong companies, are also encouraged under the new rules. Co-productions are the model often favored by independent filmmakers. The total number of films produced nationwide at the midyear mark averages about 40% over last year at the same time.

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