Far East moviemaking may seem to be well repped on the international map, but the reality is far different, with the West cherry-picking films that mirror either Euro-style art movies or out-of-date cultural cliches. No case is more egregious than that of Asia’s most populous nation — China — whose pic industry is still largely an undiscovered country.
Between the peaks of a handful of big-budget helmers (Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Jiang Wen, Feng Xiaogang) and the shoreline of “indie”-cum-“underground” hardcore auteurs (Jia Zhangke, etc.) lies a vast plain of midrange filmers whose pics are almost unseen outside Asia — except in specialist berths like Udine’s Far East Film Festival.
In 2006, China’s official production — i.e., pics that received exhibition certificates from the Film Bureau — totaled 260 features. The figure for 2007 is reckoned to be well over 300. For several years, the country has been going through a production boom, with finance easily available from cash-rich business concerns and a chaotic patchwork of companies springing up now that production has been deregulated.
The problem isn’t making movies, it’s getting them shown — even within China, where local exhibs tend to discriminate against quality commercial fare. In that respect, China is not much different from any other country, and certainly closer to the Yank model of pure market forces dictating distribution rather than the European one of distribution and exhibition subsidies.
Actor-turned-director Chen Daming wrote and directed his first feature, “Manhole,” an entertaining crime caper, five years ago. Pic was hardly released in China and almost totally ignored by overseas fests. Last year, his second feature, “One Foot Off the Ground,” a relationships dramedy set in a regional opera troupe, did OK locally thanks to Chen’s own promo efforts — but only snagged a low-key berth in one name Euro fest.
It’s a familiar story for mainland directors who just want to make regular movies that aren’t historical blockbusters or auteurist exercises. There’s now a generation of savvy helmers who feel disenfranchised by the local exhib/distrib system and ignored by the West.
Udine and a growing number of niche events have showcased these overlooked directors in recent years. As well as Chen, other names to watch include Dayyan Eng (“Waiting Alone”), Jin Chen (“Chrysanthemum Tea”), Guan Hu (“Eyes of a Beauty”), former d.p. Hou Yong (“Jasmine Women,” with Zhang Ziyi), Huo Jianqi (“Life Show”), Teng Huatao (“The Matrimony”), Zhang Jiarui (“The Road”), Zhang Yibai (“Curiosity Kills the Cat”), Cao Baoping (“Trouble Makers”), Li Hong (“Curse of Lola”) and Zhuang Yuxin (“Teeth of Love”).
Their movies encompass a broad range of styles and stories similar to any other country’s production, set in a familiar present and with slick production values. They’re the real future generation of China’s movie industry — and one day may be recognized as such by Western tastemeisters.