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How China Made Its Move, Beijing

25 July 2016

China has been making movies for well over a century, but it has largely been a domestic affair. Now, thanks to studios such as Yinchuan’s Western Film City, the industry is moving into the spotlight, and it’s only a matter of time before it beats Hollywood at its own game.

You don’t need to know an awful lot about cinema to be aware that, for all its wealth and sparkle, Hollywood isn’t the planet’s foremost movie powerhouse. Compared to its Californian namesake, Bollywood churns out movies the way a fast food joint serves up hamburgers. However, those patient enough to wait a decade or so could yet see the Indian subcontinent colossus eclipsed by one of its neighbours. China has finally got into the international movie business, and considering its wealth and resources, it could soon dominate the entire shooting match.

Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino and Ang Lee don’t only have the Oscar on their mantelpiece in common; all three have also shot movies in China. And while there are facilities such as the Western Xia Film City in Yinchuan, you can expect more and more overseas talent to shoot there, too. There’s even talk of Steven Spielberg not only setting the next Indiana Jones movie in China, but filming it there as well. The big question, of course, is why?

“China’s a great place to make a movie. Any movie,” says the aforementioned Mr Tarantino. “There was a time when it was a great place to make things like martial arts films. But now? Well, the sky’s the limit.”

Before we get ahead of ourselves, some history. Films arrived in China within a year of the Lumière brothers inventing the technology, and the urge to make them swiftly followed. Indeed, the 20th century was just five years old when Ren Qingtai shot The Battle Of Dingjunshan in Shanghai. Sound film would also be rapidly adopted, the breakthrough debuting in 1931 courtesy of the marvellously monikered Sing-Song Girl Red Peony.

The technology that first terrified and then entranced audiences in Europe and America was similarly received in the East. But like those other regions of the world, film production in China would be interrupted by a brace of world-shaking events. The difference was that, rather than two World Wars, Chinese moviemaking was hamstrung by eight years of Japanese occupation and Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. The first of these cataclysms sent the nation’s directors scurrying to Hong Kong to find work; the second led to a lengthy period of stalemate during which many foreign films were banned and few domestic pictures were produced. In between these catastrophes, China’s filmmakers produced pictures that, at their best, rivalled those being made anywhere else in the world [see The Chinese Way].

And in the years since China started to flirt with capitalism, the nation’s movie business has been in the very rudest of health. Besides pictures such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon enjoying box-office success the world over, directors such as John Woo – tired of trotting out fluff like Paycheck for the American market – returned home to work on pictures such as Red Cliff, a cast-of-thousands war epic of the sort that David Lean might have created had he been born in Chongqing rather than Croydon.

“The Chinese film industry of today couldn’t be in better shape,” explains film journalist Matt Goodwin. “And it’s every aspect of the business that’s booming. You’ve got Hengdian World Studios, the largest moviemaking facility on the planet, you’ve got a top 10 that’s regularly dominated by domestic product, you’ve got Chinese pictures raking in billions of yuan at the home box-office – whether you’re a director, a producer, a distributor or a studio owner, there’s never been a better time to be in the business of making films in China.”

If Hengdian Studios are the biggest in China, it’s Huaxira Western Film City that was crucial in keeping the local industry alive during leaner times. Befitting a facility dedicated to high art, Film City was founded by a poet. Zhang Xianliang had been writing verse since his early teens, his willingness to rock the boat securing him international acclaim and a lengthy jail term. Having been successfully ‘rehabilitated’, he not only served as a member of the prestigious National Committee, but was charged with transforming the Qing Dynasty fort in Zhenbeibu into a film studio.

Since its creation, Zhang Xianliang’s brainchild has birthed some 60 films and TV shows. The long life it’s enjoyed was in large part guaranteed by the success of the first picture made there. Red Sorghum was the debut movie of a former farm worker named Zhang Yimou. Adapted from Mo Yan’s bestselling book of the same name, it is the story of rural family upheaval during the second Sino-Japanese War. Starring Gong Li – who would become Zhang Yimou’s actress of choice – Red Sorghum was awarded the prestigious Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. With one – admittedly extraordinary – motion picture to its name, the Western Film City could lay claim to a directing wunderkind, an actress possessing true star quality and one of cinema’s most prestigious awards. A better advert for a new venture it’s impossible to imagine.

Given Zhang Xianliang’s appetite for political controversy, it’s fitting that Zhang Yimou should have been the first director to flourish under the auspices of the Western Film City. For though he has claimed to have no interest in politics, Zhang Yimou – whose body of work takes in everything from Bafta award-winning dramas like Raise The Red Lantern and To Live, to period wuxia masterpieces such as Hero and House Of Flying Daggers – is undeniably a child of the Cultural Revolution. As he told a journalist in early 1990, “[The Cultural Revolution] was a special period of Chinese history, unique in the world. It was part of my youth – it happened between when I was 16 and when I was 26. During those 10 years, I witnessed so many terrible and tragic things. For many years, I have wanted to make movies about that period.” Thanks to Zhang Xianliang’s studio, he had the canvas upon which to paint his tragic tales.

Now a fully-fledged international filmmaker, you’re more likely to find Zhang Yimou making movies at Hengdian’s movie metropolis, but as Matt Goodwin is keen to point out, the Western Film City continues to thrive. “Since it’s one of Yinchuan’s most popular tourist attractions, I’m sure some people assume that Film City is a museum. They couldn’t be more wrong. This isn’t like going to Almeria to visit the location where Sergio Leone shot For A Few Dollars More and his other spaghetti westerns. Though it might look like a relic, Film City is thriving, which is only fitting since there was a time not so very long ago when it pretty much was the Chinese film industry.”

And then the Americans arrived.

For years, the filmic relationship between China and US was a frosty affair with the former frequently getting upset over movies such as Red Corner and Kundun, both of which were made by prominent campaigners for Tibet (Richard Gere and Martin Scorsese, respectively), with the latter being a biography of the Dalai Lama’s younger years. Although it’s hard to pinpoint the precise picture that helped thaw things out, there’s no denying that a certain American director’s wuxia celebration did plenty to improve the relationship.

“I had to make Kill Bill in China,” blurts Quentin Tarantino, his enthusiasm for this topic causing him to speak even more quickly than usual. “I didn’t want digital effects – I wanted to do everything in-camera so that it had that cool 1970s look. We even did the blood the Chinese way, filling condoms with fake blood to get these great eruptions of gore.”

Shot in Beijing, Kill Bill is Tarantino’s love letter to the Shaw Brothers and their bloody brand of martial arts cinema. A trio of siblings from Shanghai, the Shaws gifted the world such brilliantly named movies as Five Fingers Of Death and Lady Exterminator. “I loved their stuff,” continues the creator of Reservoir Dogs and Django Unchained. “The way they shot action – the way guys in China and Hong Kong still shoot action – is really loose. There’s no schedule or shot list. Sure, I’ve a pretty good idea of what I want, having spent so long with the script, but with Kill Bill, me and [martial arts instructor] Woo-Ping Lee were coming up with new things all the while we were shooting. We’d add gags, we’d alter stuff at the last minute – because it’s so cheap to shoot in China, you’re under no pressure to get everything done yesterday. It’s like I said, I could only have filmed Kill Bill in China. If I’d made it anywhere else, it wouldn’t be the movie it is.”

On the back of Kill Bill, all manner of American productions headed across the Pacific. And while the execs took advantage of China’s cheap manpower and seemingly limitless resources, they were careful to make sure their products had universal appeal – hence the villains in the remake of Red Dawn being changed at the last minute from Chinese to North Korean and local actors such as Jingchu Zhang being added to the casts of epic productions like Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation to enhance their appeal to Asian moviegoers.

If all this sounds incredibly cynical, it’s worth remembering that the only romance the movie industry has ever been interested in is that which takes place on-screen. Furthermore, the pursuit of cold hard cash often has pleasant side effects – in this case being that Chinese film directors, for so long in the movie wilderness, now enjoy access to a new audience and extraordinary opportunities.

The cosh of communism slowly giving way to the vicissitudes of capitalism – the history of the Chinese movie industry is a microcosm of the history of China. Likewise, the opening up of the People’s Republic to western individuals and ideas corresponds with the way in which an entity formerly known only to the most ardent of movie buffs is now on the cusp of becoming the most lucrative film market in the world.

It might have taken the better part of a century, but at last the dragon has roared. Now it’s surely only a matter of time before it fully takes flight.

Words: Richard Luck / Illustration: Ralph Mancao