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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

I Am Not Madame Bovary Feng
Courtesy of TIFF

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”