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December 7, 2000 2:00 AM
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BIZ: Taming the Dragon: Part I, No Longer Crouching or Hidden, China Enters the U.S. Market

BIZ: Taming the Dragon: Part I, No Longer Crouching or Hidden, China Enters the U.S. Market

Augusta Palmer




(indieWIRE/ 12.7.00) -- This Friday, Ang Lee's Chinese-language martial arts showpiece "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" will be unleashed in New York theaters, along with an Oscar campaign for Best Picture. Over the past year, American audiences have been treated to a smorgasbord of cinema from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the People's Republic. Zhang Yimou's "Not One Less" and Edward Yang's "Yi-Yi" marked the return of art-house titans, while Zhang Yang's "Shower" and Lou Ye's "Suzhou River" introduced new directorial voices to American audiences.


By early 2001, American audiences will have the opportunity to see even more: the prolific Zhang returns to U.S. screens with "The Road Home," Ann Hu's "Shadow Magic" recreates the early days of Chinese cinema, and Wong Kar-wai seduces art-house patrons again with his ode to 1960s Hong Kong, "In the Mood for Love." So despite predictions that China's emergence on U.S. screens was merely an art-house trend fed by the fires of outrage over Tiananmen Square (and stoked by the marketing of dissident auteurs), Chinese films have developed a major following here. Is this increased visibility for Chinese cinema simply part of a larger trend toward China's (long-delayed) entry into the mainstream of Occidental culture, underscored by this year's first-ever award of literature's Nobel Prize to a Chinese author? Have Chinese films gotten better? Or just more accessible?


China's cinematic foray into American mainstream culture is evident from the increasing recognition of Chinese stars and directors: "Crouching Tiger"'s Michelle Yeoh moonlights as a Bond girl, while co-star Chow Yun-fat shared screens last Christmas with Jodie Foster in "Anna and the King." Over the summer, Jackie Chan's "Shanghai Noon" consolidated its star's hold on U.S. box offices, while in the directing camp, Ang Lee and John Woo have become major players in American cinema while Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-wai have carved out niches on art-house screens and even made it onto Blockbuster's shelves.


While it would certainly be facile to say that Chinese cinema has either improved in quality or sold-out to American markets, the range of Chinese films being released in the U.S. has certainly grown. From the still very limited number of Chinese films one can see in larger film markets like New York, the breadth of style and subject matter is impressive. From "Suzhou River"'s arty, Hitchcock-inspired portrayal of Shanghai's nightclub underground to "Shower"'s populist family drama set in a disappearing Beijing, more and more new films feature urban settings. Though films like "Not One Less" still explore life in provincial towns and rural backwaters, the metropolitan settings of Chinese cinema are increasingly recognizable to American audiences who've never come closer to China than their local multiplex. Characters in Edward Yang's "Yi-Yi" frequent a New York bagel caf&etilde;, a version of which could be found anywhere from Taipei to Topeka. And now that there's a branch of Starbucks in Beijing's Forbidden City, perhaps even imperial period pieces will begin to feature Hollywood-style product placement.


On an extended trip to Beijing, Hong Kong, and Taipei earlier this fall, indieWIRE got a chance to investigate the current state of the Chinese film industries. Observing Greater China's film industries at the turn of the millennium is by turns exhilarating and excruciating. Three years after the uncertainty of the Hong Kong handover and two years after the devastation of the Asian Economic crisis, many observers feel Hong Kong cinema is on the upswing, despite depressed box office sales. Taiwan's cinematic output is still shrinking, but government subsidy and Japanese co-production keep the industry alive. In Mainland China, a broad spectrum of films is on the rise -- from independent productions that will never get past the velvet ropes of the festival circuit to popular entertainment that break domestic box office records. While the government-owned (but largely self-supporting) studio system becomes increasingly moribund. In short, it's an exciting time in Chinese cinema: chaotic, unsettling and filled with both possibility and a few premonitions of impending doom.


EXHIBITION AND DISTRIBUTION CHALLENGES


The film industries in the greater China region essentially face the same difficulties that many film industries in the world are now facing: box office returns are way down, piracy is an increasingly serious problem, and Hollywood gets the lion's share of the market. Even the Hong Kong film market (one of the few outposts in the world where local product used to consistently beat out Hollywood) is now largely dominated by American product.


Hollywood's success may be more a factor of the basic economics of overseas film markets. It's generally still far cheaper to buy a Hollywood film that has already made back its investment domestically than it is to produce even the most low-budget local fare. Additionally, Hollywood blockbusters usually come to the table more fully packaged with internationally recognized stars and gaudy marketing tie-ins than their local competition. This is the reason why distribution quotas make sense to everyone outside the MPAA, who claim that quotas are unfair trade practices. The idiocy of this argument can be seen in statistics from Taiwan, where the market share for Chinese language films (including Hong Kong productions) has plummeted from 50% in the early 1990s to less than 9% in 1999 after the removal of the quota system. And China's entry into the WTO will flood the mainland's already tight film market with even more American product.


Mainland China's government-owned film studios have been struggling for years to hold onto their plummeting bottom line. In addition to losing government subsidy, they've also had to compete with a growing number of independent production companies ranging from China's first independent film company, begun by veteran studio director Xie Jin back in the 1980s, to more market-savvy additions like Peter Loehr's Imar Films. In between are a whole range of fly-by-night companies who may make only one film before they lose all their capital in shaky real estate investments. That these indies even start production is a kind of miracle in a PRC market plagued by financial losses. In 1986, only 20% of PRC films made back their investment. Four years later, Peter Loehr claims that number is down to about 1%. Facing these grim statistics, it's not surprising that when Loehr started Imar Films he pitched the company to investors as a kind of charitable donation to aid the ailing film market.


As if the economic crisis and the incursion of Hollywood films weren't a big enough problem, all three markets were simultaneously besieged by piracy. On the mainland, video piracy is still rampant. It's always cheaper -- and sometimes just plain easier -- to purchase pirate VCDs (video CDs) than the genuine article. While their quality may not be top of the line, buying a pirated VCD costs less than a third of what people pay to see a film in the theater. Even in Beijing (where centralized control of pirated merchandise is stronger than in the hinterlands), Loehr reports that he's often approached by people selling pirated VCDs of his own productions. "'Shower' is a great film, " the hawkers tell him, "It's won a lot of awards at film festivals overseas."


PROSPECTS AND CROSS-POLLINIZATION


On the margins of all three industries, a variety of independent films are being produced. In addition to popular fare like "Shower," highbrow art films like "Platform" continue to be made (usually with foreign funding) for the international festival market. And despite the difficulties of making independent films on the mainland, documentarists like Wu Wenguang ("Bumming in Beijing") continue to make personal video documentaries about the lives of artists and performers. The Hong Kong indie film scene also continues to produce a wealth of personal documentaries, avant-garde videos, and features by young directors like Fruit Chan ("Made in Hong Kong," "Little Cheung").


In addition, Taiwan has a lively documentary filmmaking scene (showcased in 1999's Margaret Mead Fest), which has turned its reflexive lens on everything from emerging queer subcultures (Mickey Chen's "Beauty for Boys") to the fate of a championship Little League team from 1968 (Chu-chen Hsiao's "Red Leaf Legend"). A surprising number of artfully crafted new fiction films like "Fluffy Rhapsody" (shown at Pusan this year) are being made on the meager budgets provided by government subsidy (and sometimes further subsidized by their directors' credit cards), but so far, Taiwan's government has failed to invest an equal amount in marketing and distribution, making it hard for these indies to make inroads at the box office.


Due to differences in dialect, local culture and modes of filmmaking, insiders still cite far more differences than similarities between the three film industries. However, communication between Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland film cultures is definitely on the rise. There's been an exchange of personnel, locations, and financing between the three regions for over a decade. In the past, these exchanges were often limited to the upper echelon of film production: well-known Taiwanese and Hong Kong directors using mainland locations or serving as executive producers for mainland films.


But now there is more exchange happening on a grass-roots level: some Taiwanese film students, for example, choose to study at the Beijing Film Academy instead of N.Y.U. Film School. They've started making films on the mainland (like "So-called Friend" which was shown at Taiwan's 2000 Golden Horse Film Festival) that explore cultural differences between the two regions. While such regional cross-pollinization and burgeoning independent filmmaking scenes may result in an even broader range of Chinese films, the continuing difficulties associated with piracy, reduced government subsidy, low investment levels and Hollywood dominance will continue to plague Chinese filmmakers in the future.


Read Part II of Taming the Dragon, in tomorrow's edition of indieWIRE: Two Approaches to China's Film Market, with a look at Columbia Pictures Asia's Barbara Robinson and Imar Films' Peter Loehr.


[Augusta Palmer is a freelance film writer and a doctoral student in New York University's Department of Cinema Studies currently writing her dissertation on urban Chinese cinemas from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the People's Republic in the 1990s.]

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