I recently read a film review, which I’ll discuss more below, and wanted to jot down some thoughts that I’ll probably return to and expand later. A lot of this connects back to issues I’ve discussed before.
Do you know about Feng Xiaogang?
He’s widely referred to as the PRC’s “Box Office King,” with almost every one of his movies grossing a TON of money. He’s frequently got the backing of major producers the Super Huayi Bros. and his movies are often PACKED with product placements. He’s frequently credited with establishing the “New Year’s Film” genre in China which had already proven successful in Hong Kong. His films are huge blockbusters in the genres of comedies, actions, etc. He’s got huge budgets, huge movies, huge box office, but I think everyone still kinda agrees (consciously or unconsciously) that the movies themselves are not that great. In some ways this assessment is pointless, because as the Chinese film industry continues to emphasize profit imperatives and domestic productions to rival Hollywood imports, box-office is essentially all that matters. To help put him in perspective, I sometimes like to think of Michael Bay as his American counterpart.
Anyway, I bring him up because I’m very interested in his latest production, Back to 1942. The film just had a “surprise premiere” at the Rome film festival and so the reviews will be starting to come in. I just came across the first one I’ve seen via England’s The Guardian. Here’s the link if you’re interested: “Back to 1942 – review”. My interest in it lies in what I’ll refer to – fully aware of the historical implications of using this phrasing – as “a certain tendency of Mainstream Chinese cinema.” Or maybe, slightly less concise but more narrowly put, “a certain tendency of Mainstream Chinese cinema hoping to achieve crossover success outside of China but especially in Hollywood.” I’m still working on eloquently sorting out just what all of these tendencies are, but Xan Brooks’s review of 1942 above provides a good starting point:
“Feng Xiaogang’s sledgehammer epic wants the world to know just how dark, precisely, [the Henan province disaster was] and it leaves no arm untwisted, no emotion unmilked in its bid to drive its message home. Back to 1942, which screened as the “surprise film” at the Rome film festival, gives us history written in banner headlines and trumpeted by bugles. If it could bring itself to quieten down, it might be more successful.”
This quote already brings up a couple of elements, all of which – as this post’s title suggests – I believe it shares with Zhang Yimou’s Flowers of War (a movie I kinda wrote about here):
- Emotional excess
- A feeling that the movie is trying to give the audience “a message”
- A very particular telling of a version of history, nicely described here as written in “banner headlines”
- Epic proportions – budget, starpower, locations, international ambitions, etc
I believe the first three items on this list are closely tied to the changing relationship between film and society in the history of China: from pure entertainment to pure political/educational tool to a continuous tension between the two as the government tries to maintain control while simultaneously commercializing the industry. Any movie as epic in budget, scope, and ambition as Flowers of War or Back to 1942 essentially requires the support of the Chinese government in order to accomplish all of the production, distribution, and exhibition goals it needs to both recoup costs and increase its potential to achieve international box-office, recognition, and prestige. The caveat for receiving so much assistance is the increased likelihood that the content of the film itself falls more in line with, and becomes more easily equated – especially by international audiences – with the official Party line.
The star power is also important here. What I haven’t mentioned yet is the fact that Back to 1942 also stars Hollywood actors Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption) and Adrien Brody (The Pianist). The hope, of course, is that their presence will increase the film’s international appeal. I’m very interested in seeing how this film performs at both the Chinese and American box office, as well as how it deals with what I assume will be large portions of English-language dialogue. Chinese movies are not really known for their ability to seamlessly switch between Chinese and English dialogue while maintaining each language’s natural syntax, tones, and colloquialisms. A skill, which, as regular readers may know, I believe Inseparable did incredibly well.
Flowers and 1942 continue the Chinese film industry’s tendency to focus on historical epics, except the various forces of globalization have now made it possible to include Hollywood performers for an extra bit of prestige and appeal. The arrangement gives both parties (the Chinese film and the Hollywood actors) the chance to increase their international appeal.
We’ll see how this all pans out. One thing’s for sure: these international arrangements will only increase in the years to come. Which is fine by me, because I always need more things to write about.