On June 27th, I attended a forum of the China-British Film Festival. The forum was hosted by Isabel Davis, Head of International at the BFI, and the panel included Hu Guan, Haofeng Xu, Huilong Zhu, and Xia Li.
The grounds for the forum were, as highlighted by Davis, to identify the differences and similarities between Chinese and British filmmaking, storytelling and creative processes, and to discuss what common-ground can guide bilateral creative cooperation. In addition, Guan’s ‘Mr Six’ (老炮儿) and Xu’s ‘The Master’ (师父) were both screened during the festival and these movies were discussed.
When commenting on Mr Six, a film which sees the title character, played by Feng Xiaogang, grappling to hold on to his reign over the Beijing streets after being challenged by a group of hooligan youths that have kidnapped his son, Guan discussed the relevance of honour and moral code. Stating that, while the majority of Chinese cinema-goers are usually young people, the majority of people that went to see Mr Six were over 40. He put this success down to the enormous social change seen in China over the past 20/30 years.
For anyone that has seen Mr Six, the theme of decaying inter-generational relations is strikingly obvious. An apparent downfall of filial piety and loss of respect for one’s ancestors infuriate the protagonist and send him down a dangerous path. Money is also another aspect that plays a major role in the film; from the $100,000 Ferrari owned by the kidnapper of Mr Six’s son, to a crowd-member’s jeer that a suicidal man on a ledge of a high-rise must have owed someone money. Both of these themes point to the difficulty of coming to terms with monumental social changes in a very short space of time. To take the actor Feng Xiaogang as an example, born in 1958, he has lived through the Cultural Revolution, the death of Mao, the Deng-era shift to market capitalism, and the current uncertain ideology of capitalist-Communism. Supposing the character Mr Six is intended to be a similar age, it is not a surprise that the past and the present conflict.
The next film to be discussed was Xu’s ‘The Master’. Unfortunately, I still haven’t been able to watch this movie and so I cannot offer my own thoughts on it, however, I will recount Xu’s own comments. The Master is a wuxia (martial arts) film set in the Qing dynasty which sees a wuxia artist attempting to carry on the martial arts tradition. Xu stated that the film has elements of history, yet can reflect issues in modern society, such as job loss. In response to Davis comment that there are different rules for characters in Chinese cinema compared to Hollywood, Xu replied that in China superheroes are not necessarily physically stronger, rather they are those with the most knowledge. He related this to Confucian ideology in which moral strength is principal.
After the discussions of the two films, the forum turned to different strategies within the Chinese film industry. Xia Li, a TV presenter and producer of The Master, discussed the marketing strategies used in China in which the internet is used to find a target market by age group, as well as the way that they purchase tickets. Although Li argued that this strategy is very different to elsewhere, what she described as the ‘endless power of media’ seems to be a key tool in most successful means of film marketing.
Expectations of director versatility appeared to be very important in the Chinese film industry. Davis commented on the argument by Ken Loach that if you’re a director, you’re probably not also a writer. However, in China most directors are expected to be auteurs. Xu stated that at film school he was told that directors should be good storytellers. Guan added that the Chinese film industry is still mainly director-centred.
Finally, the panel took questions, and in my eyes one question held much weight in regards to Beijing Film Academy elitism. A female Chinese member of the audience asked how to overcome the lack of platforms for newcomers and how to make it in the film industry if you worked hard but could not find a break. To this, Guan replied that if you were hardworking and still could not make it, then you must be untalented. Aside from being surprisingly rude (yes, I’m aware that there are arguments for the cultural specificity of his comment but I think in such a formal environment and with a lack of familiarity that they do not suffice), it must be very easy for a graduate of the prestigious Beijing Film Academy to offer such unhelpful and discouraging advice. A lack of accessibility certainly appears to remain a key downfall of the Chinese film industry.