The Chinese cinema industry may be the second largest in the world, but its films have been absent from major competitions at the most prestigious international festivals in the past year.
Critics say pressure on directors to create commercially successful and politically safe products means less scope for artistic ambition at a time when China’s filmmakers are focusing on a booming domestic market.
The Venice Film Festival concluded last week and while the 80-year-old event has traditionally showcased Chinese cinema, there was no representative this year into the final list of 18 selected for its major competition, the Golden Lion.
It was a similar case at this year’s Cannes festival, with no Chinese films being selected for the Palm D’or.
“The shame is that the past 12 months have been an exceptional period for Chinese-language cinema,” said Stephen Cremin, cofounder of the influential Film Business Asia website tracking trends in Chinese cinema.
“Filmmakers are broadening the range of local genre cinema,” he said, referring to an increasing number of Chinese takes on traditional horror, fantasy and gangster film templates.
“Even if many of these experiments have disappointed at the box office, they should still be recognized in a festival context. There is no international festival outside China that has stepped up as a platform,” he said.
The last time a mainland Chinese film won the Golden Lion was 2006, when Jia Zhangke’s “Still Life” picked up the award, while Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine” in 1993 remains the only Chinese film to win the Palm D’Or.
Chen surprised many this week with his comments at the Toronto International Film Festival, in which he cited a “big cultural gap” preventing Western audiences relating to films “made in the East” and vice-versa.
But critics say his comments put him at odds with a growing trend of international cooperation on financing, production and distribution of films.
The situation in Venice this year prompted festival director Alberto Barbera to call an unprecedented press conference for mainland Chinese media.
At it, he stressed that the event remained supportive of Chinese cinema, despite the scarcity of its films screening there, something he explained as merely a “coincidence”.
Dominated by blockbusters
One film that did make it to Venice was “Xiao He” (Lotus), a look at the day-to-day life of a strong-willed woman in modern China that screened during the Critics’ Week sidebar program.
Its first-time director, Liu Shu, believes the lack of representation says much about the state of play in modern Chinese cinema.
“[It] has a lot to do with the Chinese government’s control on films,” she told AFP.
“Filmmakers simply can’t freely make films or express their ideas. The majority of Chinese filmmakers are now making big films to please the crowds. Art house movies just don’t have a market in China.”
China’s annual box office returns have now surpassed Japan’s and are expected to reach 18 billion yuan ($2.8 billion) this year, putting the country behind only North America’s $10.2 billion in receipts.
With the Chinese market growing at an estimated rate of 40 percent a year, the international film industry has been increasingly active in looking for avenues through which to not only screen productions in China but to enter the domestic market through co-productions.
In China, box office receipts have been dominated by big-budget blockbusters such as the fantasy-action film “Painted Skin: The Resurrection” which picked up an estimated $108 million after its release this summer, becoming the most successful Chinese film of all time.
Film Business Asia’s Cremin said the money that can now be made by Chinese filmmakers domestically has affected the industry in terms of what is being produced.
“Like Hollywood, China doesn’t feel the need to play the festival game,” he said.
“And in China, a handful of gatekeepers still determine how its cinema is presented to the outside world. Festival programmers lack the self-confidence to look at China’s films as films, and not as political statements.”
A trend for festivals to host world premieres has also meant the rejection of Chinese films that have already played at home, he added.
“The best Chinese films of recent years — for example Jiang Wen’s ‘Let the Bullets Fly,’ which made over $100m in China — were rejected by the world’s major film festivals,” said Cremin.
“We’re seeing Chinese films rejected because they’ve already played to their domestic audience, even if they’ve never shown outside China. It’s idiocy.”
Eddie Bertozzi, who programmed this year’s Critics’ Week at Venice, said an “obsession” festivals now had with screening world premieres made it harder for Chinese films to find an outlet, particularly larger productions.
“Sometimes these films are automatically excluded if already released or presented elsewhere,” he said.
A place for smaller films
But Bertozzi — whose program at Venice presents the works of independent new directors — said international festivals should not lose sight of their role in helping introduce Chinese films to the world, particularly ones made independently from the major studios.
“There must be a place for smaller films,” he said. “Film festivals should be supportive and do their best to promote alternative ways of conceiving cinema,” he said.
“And to be really helpful for these smaller films, film festivals have to change too: being less elitist islands far from the general audience, and more willing to include and stimulate the interest of the people.”
He pointed to Liu’s work as an example of what festivals can find if they look hard enough.
“As long as we manage to find and present little gems such as Liu Shu’s ‘Xiao He’, we cannot but think highly of Chinese cinematic production, especially when it brings us a genuinely independent new voice, like in this case,” he said.
Liu is certainly glad for the attention her film has received from being selected by Venice and said such festivals provided up-and-coming filmmakers with inspiration.
“That was the best recognition I could get for my work,” she said. “Before that I wondered if I was up to my job as a professional director, but now I have no more doubt.
“I will continue to make the films I want to make, and to freely express what I want to say, whatever difficulties this road may bring me.”