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Independent Arthouse Films Are Making Headway in China

The numbers don’t lie.

While it may be true that Chinese audiences’ passion for blockbusters has not dimmed, with the list of this year’s top box office earners dominated by big-budgeted actioners and assorted star vehicles, the makers of arthouse fare can see light on the horizon.

Quality product and support from domestic and international festivals is seeing a slow — but steady — growth that suggests tastes across the world’s second-largest market are becoming more inclusive.

“Things are changing,” says award-winning actress and arthouse champion Zhao Tao (pictured above in “Ash is Purest White”). “It has taken time and you can never really and consistently compete with the blockbusters, but we are finally seeing there’s a place for these films in the Chinese marketplace.”

Zhao was speaking on the sidelines of the Oct. 23 Busan Intl. Film Festival, where she had screened her most recent collaboration with husband-director Jia Zhangke. The crime-and-love drama “Ash Is Purest White” has enjoyed critical acclaim and wide release across China — another promising sign, since its focus is on the underworld, a subject matter that often draws the attention of Chinese censors.

With B.O. returns of around $10 million, it has also been the most commercially successful film yet produced by Jia, who in 2006 won the Golden Lion in Venice with the gripping rural drama “Still Life.”

“What we saw with the release of our latest film was that the audience was getting younger,” says Zhao. “The scope of their interests seems to be getting larger and the number of cinemas screening such films is growing as well. This is encouraging for all of us all, and especially for young filmmakers who want to try new things.”

Jia and Zhao — along with the likes of film festival veteran Marco Mueller — have been the driving forces behind the Pingyao Film Festival, set in central China each October and designed to showcase the best in independent Chinese cinema. Zhao says that because smaller-budget, often independent films can now often find both audiences and distribution deals in China, future generations of filmmakers will be emboldened.

“The festival was set up to show audiences the quality of work now being produced in China, and to give filmmakers a chance to be seen,” says Zhao. “Previously it has been hard to find places to screen such films so we wanted to help, and the response in China has been positive and encouraging.”

That the reach of commercial Chinese filmmakers is now extending beyond patriotic-themed actioners and period epics has recently been highlighted by the surprise success of the comedy-drama “Dying to Survive,” based around such one-time-taboo subjects as China’s illicit trade in medicine.

Among the first productions to stretch the boundaries of what was accepted in China, and of what could be commercially successful, was director Diao Yinan’s gritty thriller “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” which picked up a Berlin Golden Bear in 2014.

That film went on to make around $17 million globally after being picked up by Fortissimo Films, which was at Busan this year with director Song Wen’s sweeping coming-of-age drama “The Enigma of Arrival.”

Its producer, Gao Yitian, says festivals — and the attention generated by films once they have screened there — have played a vital role in helping alert Chinese audiences to the kinds of film that might not have previously found wide cinematic release.

“These works represent a variety of artistic attempts and explorations, and have also expanded the form of independent low-budget [Chinese] movies,” says Gao. “This has been due to the rapid development and expansion of the film industry during the same period of time. The development is accompanied by a scene of capital prosperity [in the industry].”

Gao cites such fests as the very first Intl. Film Festival in the western Chinese city of Xining as being vital to the expansion of the Chinese industry’s artistic horizons by “pushing the blending of various cultures in cinema, popularizing the value of low-budget films.”

And while Gao says the landscape for such productions in China is not exactly ideal, it’s definitely getting better. And that counts a lot in a market that pulled in an estimated $4.77 billion in box office receipts across the first half of 2018.

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