A still from "The Pretending Lovers" [Photo: douban.com]
In America, it is known as an "Alan Smithee film," the name given when a director's dispute over final cut reaches the stage where they are no longer willing to be associated with their own film.
Now China is seeing its director-centric film tradition, where big names like Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Jiang Wen enjoy absolute power, give way to the whims of cash-rich producers and distributors, who are increasingly doing battle over how they want their films to look.
The Alan Smithee phenomenon is being replicated - with Chinese characteristics.
A differences of opinion
Take two curious cases as examples. First, romance comedy The Pretending Lovers, which began screening in cinemas nationwide late last month, with the unique credit "first-stage director" attached to Liu Fendou. Liu, initially credited as simply "director," has the dubious distinction of being the first in China honored with the puzzling new title.
The Pretending Lovers is produced and distributed by TIK Films Investment, a subsidiary of top entertainment company Hunan TV Group and was initially written and directed by Liu. Liu was the screenwriter for Spring Subway (2002) and then went on to make mainly low-budget films like Green Hat (2006) and Ocean Flame (2008).
According to Liu Shabai of TIK Films, director Liu was pulled during the later stages of filming on location in Norway. "We had different views with Liu Fendou, especially during post-production. He left and we found someone else [An Dong] to replace him for the editing," said Liu Shabai.
Director Liu refused to attend any of the film promotions and denied The Pretending Lovers was his work. "I wanted it to be a When Harry Met Sally-type of film. The producer wanted it to more My Sassy Girl [a 2002 Korean film]. I have to stay true to myself: I haven't and won't watch it and shall never consider it my work," Liu affirmed.
Rest On Your Shoulder, meanwhile, was withdrawn from competition at the Shanghai International Film Festival last month after similar problems. Directed by Hong Kong's Jacob Cheung (The Battle of Wits, 2006), the film was originally supposed to be a modern version of a famous folk story, The Butterfly Lovers, and edited by Cheung into a 120-minute feature. But after distributor Chengshi Xinyin Film cut it down to a 90-minute cinema version, a conflict erupted, at the end of which the distributor finally agreed to screen the 120-minute cut from last Friday "out of the respect for art."
Although Buddha Mountain, an arthouse film, made over 900 million yuan ($139 million) this year, it is very much an exception. Mainstream cinema in China is profit-oriented and directors' aesthetic considerations run second-fiddle to box office.
Integrity vs income?
For The Pretending Lovers, TIK films chose a 92-minute cut rather than the original 104 minute one by Liu. "92 minutes can tell a perfectly good story," Liu Baisha argued.
The reduction also makes it more possible for the film to be screened in up to 1,000 more slots nationwide per day. "As a distributor, why shouldn't I do so?" argued Liu.
Rest On Your Shoulder had its running length hacked for the same reason. "We wanted more showing times. The budget of 60 million yuan [$9.27 million] means we need 180 million at the box office just to break even," producer Gao Jun pointed out.
The arguments tend to split down party lines. Well-known producer Fang Li (Buddha Mountain, Summer Palace) believes the industry needs to rake into account market considerations.
"In [China], the most needed talents are not directors but producers. We are in great shortage... That's partly the reason why our film industry can't be better," Fang told the Global Times earlier.
"Films are made for audiences and the market, not for directors. If we need to develop the industry, we can't afford to play alone," Fang added, admitting that arthouse films would have fewer problems if China had independent cinema lines.
Famed director Jia Zhangke disagrees. "More freedom should be given to directors, since they understand their films better than others," he argues. Producer-director conflicts could be avoided if contracts made clear either the director or producer's right to final cut; both should focus on making good films, Jia concluded.
Many solutions and suggestion have been offered to resolve the debate. However, director Liu Fendou argues that neither the producer nor the director truly understand the box office. "No one can really predict the box office or decide the showing slot. The 90-minute cut doesn't guarantee a better box office, either," Liu said.
"Let's face it, after all, neither the director or the producer has the final cut: it's in the hands of [the government]."
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