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Will the Silver Screen Shine?

2013-01-04 16:20:43        China Daily
Foreign competition tarnished the luster of domestic films in 2012. What will this year bring? Raymond Zhou looks deeper.

The year 2012 has been a tumultuous one for China's film industry. It started with doom and gloom as the government took the abrupt action to open the market in February by raising the import quota from 20 to 33, with the new movies exclusively IMAX or 3-D features.

The first battalion of domestic films fell victim to two "unsinkable" Hollywood vessels, Battleship and Titanic 3-D, plus the assorted weaponry of The Avengers. However, these superheroes from across the Pacific did not fare as well, as they bumped into the invisible walls of import blackout months or head-to-head collisions, ensured by Chinese distributors or regulators.

Overall, Hollywood may still command an unprecedented market share of more than 50 percent, while Chinese films as a whole suffered a humiliating defeat.

The silver linings from this dense cloud emerged in the form of two runaway hits.

Painted Skin: The Resurrection is a sequel that fuses a lavish costume drama with a love-triangle fantasy. It was shown only in converted 3-D, a fact that riled a lot of moviegoers but pleased investors by raising the ticket price and plowing in 700 million yuan ($1.12 million) in box-office grosses. Lost in Thailand is a middle-level-budget farce that has reached the 1-billion-yuan mark by Jan 1 and is still going strong (it opened on Dec 12).

The two domestic blockbusters share a few traits: Both are genre movies that treat themselves seriously; neither harbor high artistic ambitions; and both had opening dates that essentially faced no competition, albeit more by chance than by design.

Opening dates are looming larger as one of the decisive factors of the fate of a new film. As domestic releases often have dates pushed and shoved by forces uncontrollable by their distributors, such as censorship, and foreign competition tends to be airdropped into set schedules, the science of film opening in China - which distributors are only beginning to grasp - is still a matter of luck.

This was also the year only half of China's quartet of star filmmakers unveiled new works, but both diverged into territories new to them.

Feng Xiaogang, known for his romantic comedies, put his heart and soul into a historical tragedy that was more a labor of love than an inducement for investment. (Huayi Brothers saw its stock price drop as the movie did not draw as big a crowd as a typical Feng laughfest.)

Chen Kaige scaled down his usual grand vision to focus on a Web-induced intrusion of privacy, but Caught in the Web failed to make the first round as China's submission to the Academy Awards in the best foreign language film category.

It was the second-tier filmmakers - those in their 40s - who collectively suffered the greatest setback. The Last Supper by Lu Chuan; Guns N' Roses by Ning Hao; 11 Flowers by Wang Xiao-shuai; Full Circle by Zhang Yang; Inseparable by Dayyan Eng; and White Deer Plain by Wang Quan'an - among others - were dealt financial blows. And most did not get a critical nod either.

If they were brought down by their overreaching ambitions to shoot for both art and profit, the younger generation has been more unadulterated in their goal. They grew up with Hollywood and Hong Kong fare, and showed dedication to telling a good story first and foremost.

Million Dollar Crocodile by Lin Lisheng, First Time by Han Yan and To Forgive by Zhu Minjiang are all debut features that glittered with potential yet were drowned out without making a ripple.

The movies of 2012 that enjoyed the best word-of-mouth turned out to be "outsiders": A Simple Life from Hong Kong and Warriors of the Rainbow from Taiwan opened in their own markets in 2011 and arrived in the mainland in 2012.

Ironically, the simple tale of a maid in her senior years achieved box-office gold while the bloody saga of aboriginals battling foreign colonialists was given the warm embrace but not the purse string.

The biggest surprise hit is from Hollywood. Ang Lee's Life of Pi rode a tidal wave of unparalleled reviews to put the director in a god-like pantheon.

Industry-wise, Chinese companies started to invest in Hollywood projects en masse. A sure sign of Chinese participation is supporting roles by Chinese actresses. The Expendables 2, Cloud Atlas, Iron Man 3 and Looper - among others - had Chinese money behind them. But they failed to be categorized as official co-productions (and therefore enjoy the much higher cut of box-office revenues), because their Chinese participation in cast and narrative was deemed insufficient.

In 2013, the Chinese market is expected to open even wider for imports.

Will official intervention in scheduling keep the domestic industry afloat (above the 50 percent watermark, that is)? Will more big-budget releases follow in the footsteps of the sequel of Painted Skin or Life of Pi in pursuing their 3-D dreams? Will genre projects chase bigger stars or better stories? Will the domestic industry shake off its image of shoddy quality for a quick buck?

And a crucial question not yet alluded to: Will small art-house films find a space for mere survival in this cut-throat environment?

The battle offscreen is often fiercer and more innovative.

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