China has now emerged as the world’s third biggest box office surpassing $US2 billion, only marginally behind Japan. Online revenue streams are also taking off as the industry stabilises around a new release chain. The freshly technologised China may abandon DVD altogether, given that it is so hard to protect the format from piracy. Instead, online platforms like Youku have emerged as second markets after theatrical exhibition. People are increasingly prepared to pay for content delivered to mobile devices.
There are also signs that the Chinese government is more interested in reaching an accommodation with the international film industry, allowing more “enhanced” foreign films (3D Hollywood blockbusters) to be distributed under better revenue sharing conditions. A joint venture announced with Dreamworks Animation suggests that, after years of frustration, Hollywood now thinks it can participate in the Chinese expansion. Expect to see more Chinese names in the credits of Kung Fu Panda 3.
Strangely though, once the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) started a few days later, there was a distinct dearth of Chinese films. As the HK industry declined over recent years, HKIFF became the place to see alternative Chinese films. This year, however, it was clear that the alternative Chinese scene is in sorry decline. Maybe everybody wants to come up from underground and get a piece of the commercial action, or perhaps the festival stopped programming the films because local interest was lacking.
love is in the air
Tsao Jui Yuan’s Joyful Reunion was another example, where food—the new bourgeois religion—is the currency of romantic complication, and where the divisions between Taiwan and China are effortlessly effaced by young and old lovers. These romances might prove harder for Western audiences to embrace, as they are directed at women rather than the male cult audiences that have traditionally sustained Asian film in the West. There’s also a kind of lush coyness with which the subject is approached. Given that the characters rarely enact their passions, gimmicky gesture and fairly obtrusive music become inordinately important as a way of signalling emotion. The result can be rather cloying, as Love Is Not Blind demonstrates. A young marriage planner breaks up with her unfaithful boyfriend and ends up with her prissy co-worker in a triumph for mannered cuteness.
bye bye miserabilism
After years of watching miserabilist films full of seedy pimps and chain-smoking grunge, it takes a little readjustment to see that Chinese audiences might enjoy seeing beautiful stars and conspicuous consumption of name brands (a lot of Häagen-Dazs is eaten in Love). Since the time of the Fifth Generation, the Chinese government has charged that underground filmmakers “pulled down their mother’s pants so foreigners could see her arse,” but the new rom-commies present us with the challenge of expanding our preconceptions about 21st century China. Previously, the Australian media only wanted to know that China was not a nice place. As the consumerist economy flourishes and an entertainment cinema emerges, we may have to look at frivolous genre films with a fresh measure of respect.
On the other hand, gloom is in the air for Hong Kong filmmakers. The money and the audiences are all on the mainland, and the glory days look to be in the past. This is the best framework for watching the two films by Pang Ho-cheung in the festival. There are two options for HK filmmakers: go to the mainland or stay in HK and make cheap movies. Pang’s Love in the Buff and Vulgaria are responses to these two options.
love in the buff
|Love in the Buff|
Australians were thin on the ground at FilMart, which added a further layer of irony to the title of Wish You Were Here, one of the few Aussie films at HKIFF (see review). Asia features here as a place where Australians go to give in to their vices. It’s an inward-looking film about glimpsing the dangers of the world and retreating back to the family. Seen in Asia, this seemed a cogent statement on the limitations in the imaginative vision of Australians.
Hong Kong International Film Festival, March 21-April 5, www.hkiff.org.hk
This article originally appeared as part of RealTime's online e-dition May 22
RealTime issue #109 June-July 2012 pg. 13
© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to email@example.com