When Modern Korean film and Japanese film shock the world with its award winning ‘Parasite’ and ‘Drive My Car’, Chinese film seems to be missing from this East Asian Trilogy. What is the reason behind it? Why is contemporary Chinese (especially Mainland) movies unacknowledged around the world?
Film’s development is often positively correlated to the economic development, the burst of middle class, and the freedom of speech. 10 years after China’s open door policy in 1978, Yimou Zhang’s ‘Red Sorghum’ adapted from Nobel Literature Prize winner Yan Mo’s novel has won the 38th Berlinale, which is the first movie in China mainland to ever win a prize at international film festival.
Multiple talented directors thrived at that period, including Kaige Chen (the only and first Chinese director to ever win the Cannes Golden Palm Award with his ‘Farewell my Concubine’), Xiaogang Feng (‘Youth’), Jiang Wen (‘Let the Bullets Fly’ and ‘In the Heat of the Sun’). A lot of them have managed to put sensitive topics such as cultural revolution on the screen, which brings the audiences complicated understandings and diverse perspectives looking back at their history.
However, since the 2010s, Chinese film industry has gradually started to decline in quality, although the quantity is experiencing exponential growth due to the increasing entertainment demand from a massive population. Multiple reasons contribute to this awkward stagnation.
The political censorship from the government definitely plays a vital role. For each film to be released, the team will need to secure the ‘Film Public Screening Permit’ issued by the Chinese film censorship department. Quoted from regulations 25, chapter 3, from the ‘Regulations on Film Administrated’, films are prohibited from containing contents ‘advocating cults and superstitions, advocating obscenity, gambling, violence or instigating crimes, insulting or slandering others’.
The vagueness of the wording and the possibility that it can be applied both very broadly and narrowly confuses the film makers as well as the audiences. Since most of the investors do not want to see the movie which they invested go unscreened, many film makers start to internalize this censorship during the film making process, avoiding many themes or materials that could be intriguing and innovating.
Besides, China don’t have a serious motion picture content rating system. The movie must be considered appropriate to show to all the audiences in order to pass the censorship. Thus, nudity, sex scene, violence and crime scene, which are almost necessary throughout the film history, are virtually impossible to appear on the Screen. For instance, because of the exposed sex scene in Ang Lee’s movie ‘Lust Caution (2007)’, the state-run National Radio and Television Administration put a media ban on the main actress Tang Wei, leaving her with no advertising contracts or endorsements in several years.
As a result, Chinese are now stuck with nationalist narratives soldier movies or brainless New Year comedies with piles of awkward celebrities who got paid 10 billion rmb for one minute performance.
After the astonishing success of ‘Wolf Warrior 2’, the Chinese action film co-written, co-produced, and directed by Wu Jing, that basically casts a Chinese super hero completing a series of commissions, the market seeks the example and kept making the same type of heroic patriotic movie that requires no skill but only excessive emotions built up by heroes’ grand sacrifice and background music.
China’s streaming services is orientating under an oligopoly system. Due to the well-known internet wall, foreign streaming services such as Netflix, Youtube and Prime video are not applicable in China mainland. The domestic market is instead split between three largest online streaming companies: iQiyi, Youku and Tencent Video.
Out of economic concerns, those company would pay more amount of money to buy the exclusive streaming rights of the tacky films, which are acted by young stars with millions of fans that are willing to pay no matter how bad the movie is, than to import high quality foreign films. This further incites the already wavering film makers to focus more on how popular the actor/actress are than the quality of the film.
The Pandemics and China’s strict Covid-Zero Policy has also negatively affected the improvement of the film industry. This year, China’s most influential Film Festival, Shanghai Film Festival, has been forced to cancel due to the Covid-19.
This is the first time in a few years when the Shanghai Film Festival is canceled, and many movies express their anger towards not only this incident, but to the overall film difficulties in post-Covid China: if a Covid case is found, the whole film shooting setting faces the possibilities of being stopped and quarantined for a few months.
As a Chinese film lover, it is almost painful to see that Chinese mainland movie have almost no position in international competition, and when Iran movies, Indian movies, or even Bakistan movies are marching somewhere with a foreseeable bright future, Chinese films are still stumbling in the darkness, trying to find a way out.
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