You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Feng Xiaogang, the Steven Spielberg of China, Pushes the Artistic Envelope and Sells Lots of Tickets

His films span genres, test boundaries, move audiences — and are great for the box office

The nickname “China’s Spielberg” seemed particularly appropriate for director Feng Xiaogang when he made “Assembly” in 2007. The film, which opened the Busan Film Festival, is an epic war actioner with opening scenes every bit as gritty and visceral as those in Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.”

“Assembly” was also an abrupt and darker turn for a man sometimes credited with inventing the Chinese New Year Celebration movie genre through a succession of comedies and satires.

Like Spielberg, Feng is a versatile director with the common touch, a skilled storyteller who is able to switch genres, push boundaries, subtly criticize, and make audiences reflect on themselves, while still selling huge numbers of tickets.

His 2002 hit “Cellphone” was a painfully funny sendup of male mores, China’s middle-class aspirations and emerging obsession with technology — all set in the world of TV executives. Even Feng’s occasional box office missteps would be the envy of most of his contemporaries.

Feng started out as a stage designer before establishing himself as a screenwriter and occasional actor. He directed his first movie in 1994, well before the structural reforms of the Chinese film industry that were initiated in 2000.

By the time of the reforms, which ushered in private capital and led to rapid expansion, Feng had enjoyed hits such as “Dream Factory” and critical acclaim with the likes of “Sigh.” They established him as one of the most reliable and approachable filmmakers ready for the challenges and diversity of the new era. A case in point: his 2001 comedy “Big Shot’s Funeral,” which cast Donald Sutherland as an ailing American director, with Feng’s straight-faced favorite Ge You as the man seeking sponsors for the Yank’s staged funeral.

“Funeral” was one of the first Chinese films backed by Columbia TriStar and was produced with the Huayi Brothers company, with which Feng has a long and mostly successful relationship. He now heads a talent incubation unit within Huayi’s corporate empire. In 2014 Huayi opened a theme park on Hainan Island largely dedicated to the themes and characters of Feng’s oeuvre.

Success has allowed Feng to speak out critically on matters such as censorship (“torment”) and the poor quality of Chinese film technicians (“farmers”). But Feng is at his most effective behind the camera, skewering the foibles of the middle classes and poking fun at the inconsistencies of the “China Dream.”

His “I Am Not Madame Bovary” is a social comedy in which Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing tries to repair her reputation as a slut by suing her detractors. Set for its world premiere in Toronto, the film pushes another boundary by featuring an innovative round screen that Feng inevitably had to fight his producers to approve.

Pictured above: “I Am Not Madame Bovary

More Film

  • Dragon Ball Super Broly

    'Dragon Ball Super: Broly' Scores Big First Day With $7 Million

    Funimation Films’ Japanese anime movie “Dragon Ball Super: Broly” has opened impressively with a dominant first-day total of $7 million at 1,440 North American locations on Wednesday. The English-language version of “Dragon Ball Super: Broly,” which screened at 180 Imax and Cinemark XD premium large format screens, generated by far the best per-location average among [...]

  • Shoplifters Cannes

    Box Office: 'Shoplifters' Hits $2 Million to Become One of 2018's Highest-Grossing Foreign Films

    Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” has become an unexpected box office success. The Japanese drama about a petty thief who adopts a young girl has earned critical raves and picked up the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. That translated into commercial success for Magnolia, the indie distributor that’s been overseeing the film’s rollout. “Shoplifters” [...]

  • C'est La Vie TIFF

    French Films' Overseas Box Office Revenue Drops 51% in 2018

    After bouncing back in 2017, the overseas box office revenue of French movies plummeted by 51% to 237 million euros ($270 million) with 40 million admissions sold, a 52% year-on drop, in 2018. The provisional box office figures were unveiled by UniFrance during a reception hosted at France’s culture minister during which Eric Toledano and [...]

  • Isabela Moner Shameik Moore Kiernan Shipka

    Netflix Casts Starry Ensemble for Adaptation of John Green's 'Let It Snow'

    “Dora the Explorer’s” Isabela Moner, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s” Shameik Moore, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s” Kiernan Shipka, “Lady Bird’s” Odeya Rush, Jacob Batalon, Miles Robbins, Mitchell Hope, Liv Hewson, Anna Akana, and Joan Cusack are set to star in the Netflix pic “Let It Snow.” The film is based on the New York Times bestselling [...]

  • Brian Tyree Henry Playback Podcast If

    Listen: From 'Beale Street' to 'Spider-Verse,' Brian Tyree Henry Was Your 2018 MVP

    Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. Emmy- and Tony-nominated actor Brian Tyree Henry is coming off a sensational year. A second, acclaimed season of FX’s “Atlanta” sent him headlong into a fall movie season that saw featured roles in Yann [...]


    How a Costume Designer Brightened M. Night Shyamalan's 'Glass'

    Paco Delgado’s costumes are as varied as his films. Contrast the drama “The Danish Girl,” the futuristic fantasy “A Wrinkle in Time” and the period musical “Les Misérables.” Now he’s in comic-book territory with M. Night Shyamalan’s newest superhero/supervillain thriller, “Glass,” which Universal releases Jan. 17. The costume designer’s career began in Barcelona and London, [...]

  • The Lego Movie 2

    'Lego Movie 2' Heading for $55 Million Opening Weekend

    Warner Bros.’ “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” is heading for an opening weekend of as much as $55 million at the North American box office on Feb. 8-10, early tracking showed Thursday. Chris Pratt is returning to voice Master Builder Emmet Brickowski along with new character Rex Dangervest. The unfailingly optimistic Emmet has [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content