On the heels of China’s announcement that it’s planning 50 films to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Chinese Revolution, Newsweek‘s Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop reports on the rapidly changing face of the film industry there from the set of “Bodyguards and Assassins,” a big-budget, star-studded action film about a group of bodyguards hired to protect Sun Yat-sen from assassins in 1905 Hong Kong.
While, as Kolesnikov-Jessop points out, mainland China only has 4,100 movie screens (as compared to 38,834 in the U.S.), its domestic box office has risen from $117 million five years ago to a predicted $800 million this year, thanks to “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” That’s enough to make it so that Chinese filmmakers no longer have to consider the outside world as a major source of revenue; the homeland audience is big enough to support films like the $25 million “Bodyguards and Assassins.”
Used to be, “banned in China” was consider a reliable indicator of worth; major Chinese filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Jia Zhangke were once announced with the approving note that their work couldn’t be officially shown in their homeland. Now Zhang organizes the Olympics for Beijing and Jia withdraws his movie from festivals whose agendas don’t coincide with China’s. Clearly, the value of working within the system (and therefore getting shown on local screens) has shifted.
Critics wanting to give Zhang and his contemporaries (once rebels) the benefit of the doubt have never really figured out, this last decade, how to parse mandated propaganda from artistic expression. More and more, China seems to be giving notice that it no longer needs those viewers; it’s gotten its major filmmakers to join the pipeline, and a fair amount of the underground stragglers (like Lou Ye’s latest “Spring Fever”) are more notable for rebelliousness than talent.
It’s a remarkable consolidation of widely recognized talent into one monolith. And that an industry can be so self-supporting on such a lavish scale (and expand!) is new; even Bollywood films make an effort to target expatriates in the US and elsewhere. Will China build a capitalistically self-sustaining Bollywood? Will the underground persist or join? Stay tuned.
[Photo: “Bodyguards and Assassins,” We Distribution, 2009]