'The Curse of the Golden Flower' and Two Trends in Chinese Cinema: The Release of Zhang Yimou's the Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) in Australia Provides a Timely Moment for Reflection on the Huge Schism in Chinese Cinema at the Moment

By Walsh, Mike | Metro Magazine, June 2007 | Go to article overview

'The Curse of the Golden Flower' and Two Trends in Chinese Cinema: The Release of Zhang Yimou's the Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) in Australia Provides a Timely Moment for Reflection on the Huge Schism in Chinese Cinema at the Moment


Walsh, Mike, Metro Magazine


IT is a schism born of two contradictory approaches. The first attempts to find textual forms that will serve as models for the economic consolidation of the cinema, domestically and internationally. The second views cinema as a mode of dissent for those who see themselves marginalized by a system which espouses economic liberalism without political liberalisation. Films are always read in terms of their context as well as their content, and so Zhang's film is much more interesting as an implicit assertion about the direction of Chinese cinema rather than as an aesthetic object.

At the outset, let me sketch out some of the statistics that provide a sense of the size and development of China's film industry. As with most statistics to do with contemporary China, the accompanying table shows a broad outline of rapid growth. The story is similar with domestic box office, which has grown from one billion yuan in 2003 to 2.6 billion yuan last year. This expansion shows no sign of plateauing, with predictions that box office will double again between now and 2010. (1) This commercial growth has come despite difficulties which include the lack of cinema screens (just over 3000 permanent screens for a population of 1.3 billion); the quota imposed on the number of foreign films which can be imported by distributors on a revenue-sharing basis; what the Motion Picture Association of America sees as insufficient efforts to combat video piracy, regularly estimated at over ninety per cent of China's DVD market (2); and the lack of a classification system for censoring films so that all films are subject to standards which assume an undifferentiated audience. (3)

Available figures over the past three years put China's share of its domestic box office at around fifty-five to sixty per cent. (4) This is certainly creditable by international standards. South Korea has been hailed for winning sixty per cent market share, and in Australia this year, we are currently running at 1.3 per cent. However, there have been suggestions this past year that Chinese government intervention has kept this figure artificially high, through means such as the delay in releasing J.J Abrams' 2006 film Mission: Impossible 3 (ostensibly due to the way it 'tarnished Shanghai's image' by showing laundry hanging out in streets) and the way that The Da Vinci Code (Ron Howard, 2006) was pulled from cinemas after a mere three weeks, while it was still drawing big crowds. (5)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Building a national(ist) cinema

The affair of The Da Vinci Code indicated the Chinese government's power to intervene in cinema, in line with policy aims that are not always clear or pursued with great consistency. The attempt to take a stand against the global power of Hollywood has emerged as a central theme. In the past two years, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation and Warner Bros.' exhibition arm have both stepped back from their China media investments, citing difficulties in working within such uncertain regulatory environments. (6)

Government policy is broadly aimed at producing a commercially viable national cinema. Jiang Ping, from the Film Bureau within the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), the major body which oversees the production, distribution, exhibition and regulation sectors of the film industry, indicated policy priorities when he said that:

We now urgently need film producers who are politically sensitive, aesthetically sophisticated and have a flair for marketing ... The system is ill-adapted to China's market economy, and we need more outstanding film producers. The advantage of the producer system is the producer's sensitivity to the market. (7)

Jiang's concern for bringing the political and commercial aspects of the production industry into alignment indicates significant problems underlying the otherwise impressive growth in film production. Of the 260 films made in 2005, only ninety were released theatrically in China, and the majority of those closed their run after only a single day. …

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