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Hail! Hail! Hail! The State of Chinese Cinema, Part Three

This is the second part of a three-part essay by Zhang Xianmin on the state of contemporary Chinese cinema. Read Parts One and Two.

Translation by Yuqian Yan

IV. New Theaters

Another aspect of capital operation is the development of new theaters and their surroundings. A significant trend is that after international capital was fully withdrawn from China due to policy reasons, the newly raised major players are all domestic partnerships.

Megabox Sanlitun Theater, Beijing

Withdrawn capital is mainly from the States and Europe, but those from Hong Kong or Korea are allowed to stay. Even though according to government policy, Hong Kong and Korean capital can only account for a small proportion, their existence allows theaters to maintain their original status as international chain brands. For example, the new theater built in the middle of Sanlitun, Beijing uses a Korean theater brand. One reason is that Hong Kong and Korean investors sometimes agree to disguise international capital under the name of domestic capital through an intermediary, whereas European and American investors always hesitate to make such a suspicious deal. For instance, Warner has stopped expanding its business in China for years. But European and American giants are just waiting for new policies that will offer better opportunities. In the long run, more than half of the Chinese theaters will be controlled by American capital in the future.

Most domestic giants are tightly integrated with the reals state industry. Most noticeable is Wanda’s general success. They manage to cover almost all the new development zones which didn’t exist in the formal cultural map of China. In big cities, these development zones have hundreds of thousands population. Moreover, the residents are mainly young, white-collars, (Blue-collars don’t buy houses. Mid-age white-collars tend to choose better developed neighborhood, and they don’t go to cinema.) such as the North District in Kunming.

Broadway Cinematheque MOMA, Beijing

Broadway Cinematheque MOMA, Beijing

Another remarkable theater development is the establishment of the Film Culture Center (Broadway Cinematheque MOMA) by Anle on the second ring road of Beijing. This is an isolated incident and its uniqueness is worth careful analysis and expectation.

Some theater businessmen study the mode of film history again and again, and hope to apply it to their own cinema, but it is too difficult to realize in practice. Moreover, commercial blockbusters are still profitable at the moment (the payback period for new theaters is about 3 years, hardware deprecation is about 7 to 8 years, real estate contracts last about 10 years in general). There’s no need for business to take the risk to start a new path.

But since theaters have such high returns, and the ready-made experience is so attractive, investment in theaters are expected to continue to increase. How much is the room for growth? It depends on the community on the one hand, and programing on the other hand. Because of the shortage of theaters in the past 20 years, and the commercial operation mode for blockbusters in the past 10 years, investors and audiences have forgotten about the lack of programs. American blockbusters saturated the market several years ago, which widened the gap between blockbusters shown in China. Now there are only two or three super blockbusters each year. I’m afraid that domestic blockbusters will also reach its saturation sometime in the future. By that time, we merely have two or three films a year in a real sense.

The scarcity of programming, in my own anticipation, will result a considerable percentage of empty seats in new cinemas in three years. This percentage will reach an unacceptable peak in five or six years, and the development will start to reverse, such as converting cinemas into billiard halls.

Art cinema, which has been criticized as impossible to form, will be realized independent from the will of scholars and intellectuals, but on the reality of the high rate of empty cinema seats. Some cinemas will have to depend on blockbusters to make money, others will rely on cultural activities and artworks to survive. The relation between the two will probably be balanced and harmonious by the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Republic, if we can keep on developing “normally” in the next ten years.

Contemporary art has passed the Old Summer Palace period and is now in the 798 period. The polarization within the film industry means that film as entertainment can appear in the cheapest form, such as in parodies of big movies, or in the most expansive form. So it is very abnormal for film as culture or art to be always in the low-end state.

Anle’s Film Cultural Centre that started to operate this year would probably contribute to the elevation of film as an art form. Perhaps it’s just a beginning; perhaps policy and other investors would follow up in three or five years. Hopefully Anle’s experiment will survive until that point.

V. Ten Years of Independence

Spring Fever (dir. Lou Ye)

Among different ways of counting independent films, if we see the grassroots video movement as its starting point, this is exactly its tenth year of existence. That is to say it is not the same age as the Republic, but the same age as the new century.

How can I describe to you those films that you’ve never seen, my dear audience?

Our cultural map is the same as our elections. It’s a 99% vs. 1% relationship. How can I explain that this 1% is not self-marginalized?

So as a writer, what I should do is to arouse your curiosity. That’s all I can do. If you are interested, you can find details online. As for the must-see works, you can watch them at different independent film festivals. If you don’t want to travel beyond your own city, please wait for the travelling shows to arrive in your place.

I personally consider them to be among the best part of contemporary Chinese culture, and the only valuable thing in Chinese cinema.

I’ll list three narrative films and three documentaries here, as well as three informational websites.

Spring Fever, dir. Lou Ye: He loves her loves him loves her loves him … Bride, dir. Zhang Ming: An old cow eating tender grass (i.e. old man marries a young woman). Good Cats, dir. Ying Liang: Catching mice can make you rich. Petition, dir. Zhao Liang: Hasn’t the asylum policy been canceled? Wheat Harvest, dir. Xu Tong: About a goddess. Buried, dir. Wang Libo: About the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake (editor’s note 4/5/10: Fanhall’s site has been shut down)

Zhang Xianmin December 20, 2009


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