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The Survival of Art House Film Within the Chinese Film Ecology

Much like the world of Contemporary Art, the sphere of Chinese cinema is characterised by several distinct and local and transnational ecologies: a) commercial film, b) arthouse film and c) “main melody” or “official films” which tend to be nationalistic or propagandistic in nature. They differ in terms of their funding strategies, the content, film aesthetics, and target audiences. But they are by no means completely distinct categories, rather more of a Venn diagrams which overlap with each other. While at the same time, these patterns are being disrupted by both private and government forces.

The Transnational Roots of Independent Film in China

The ecology which is probably the most familiar to Western followers of Chinese film is the arthouse ecology, the international film festival circuit, and the kinds of directors known for lush or if not, at least thoughtful cinematography. Their films are characterized by subtle characters and the plots may revolve around some form of social injustice. This ecology used to be synonymous with a kind of orientalism—a focus on ancient China—Zhang Yimou Judou, or Raise the Red Lantern or Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine. Critics say that this early generation was merely selling orientalist fantasies to a willing Western public, but despite the realities that Western viewers probably preferred a comprehensible fantasy of feudal China over the then-unfathomable realities of the 80s and 90s PRC emerging from a planned economy, it’s important to recognise that the films of these Fifth-generation directors were not all set in the temporal reality of ancient China. It’s also important to note, that classical epics and period dramas have always been an important element of indigenous Chinese literary and cinematic culture, so to say call these works “film for export” is somewhat disingenuous.

By the Sixth Generation, western viewers had already become accustomed to views of contemporary China, with films such as Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards, turning a lens on Beijing’s punk subculture, or Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle—a shockingly honest portrayal of the emerging class dynamics of the time—told through the story of a migrant worker working as a courier who has his bicycle stolen and later purchased by a middle-class schoolboy. Some Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke and Wang Bing—known for their subtle and hard-hitting cinematic social practice have a much stronger following abroad than they do at home. Despite the deep social relevance, and high artistic quality of their films, they had trouble gaining screen time, and unlike Zhang and Chen, refused big-budget special effects. The element of trans-nationality was quite important to the Sixth Generation directors, not only were their films welcomed abroad, (while ignored at home) but they also were the recipients of transnational capital, for instance Jia Zhangke benefited from the help of foreign financiers, as did Li Yang (Blind Mountain), Lou Ye (Summer Palace), and Zhang Yimou (Ju Dou, Farwell My Concubine). In fact, scholar Li Fengliang describes the “exit to the global cultural market . . . [as] a strategy of survival and renewal for Chinese filmmakers . . . through their use of transnational capital.”

In terms of commercial cinema, here are directors such as Feng Xiaogang and Ning Hao who are widely-loved at home but have limited traction in the West, given that their scripts may appeal more to local audiences, with China-specific humor and references.