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Monday, February 04, 2019, 12:51
Reel realism
By Xu Fan
Monday, February 04, 2019, 12:51 By Xu Fan

Cinemagoers in the world’s second-largest movie market have acquired a taste for real-life stories


Chinese films have risen to new heights, outperforming longtime competition from overseas and signifying a changing market.

Last year, domestic feature films grossed nearly 38 billion yuan (US$5.6 billion), a year-on-year rise of nearly 26 percent and accounting for over 62 percent of the nation’s box office receipts.

That portion is the highest since the Chinese film industry started to take off in the early 2000s.

As the world’s second-largest film market, China last year produced 1,082 movies, including 902 feature-length dramas, 51 animation titles, 57 documentaries and 61 scientifically educational movies, according to the China Film Administration, the top regulator for the sector.

This momentum will continue. Up to 13 new movies, the most for at least five years, will open on Feb 5 — the first day of the Year of the Pig — according to the China Film Distribution and Screening Association.

Movies shown during the weeklong Spring Festival holiday last year earned 5.65 billion yuan, topping the global box office charts in terms of a single day and a single month. Spring Festival is one of the country’s most lucrative holidays for box offices, the others being the National Day break and summer vacation.

Last year, admissions to movie theaters in urban areas reached 1.72 billion, up by nearly 6 percent year-on-year. 

As more people flock to theaters, their consumption habits become more connected to the internet. A report from the Maoyan Research Institute, which is backed by internet giant Tencent, shows that last year 84.5 percent of tickets were bought online, an increase of 2.8 percentage points from the previous year.

Zuo Heng, deputy director of the cinematic culture research department at the China Film Archive, said: “In recent years, watching a film during Spring Festival has almost become a new custom for Chinese families.”

Hollywood fare is dominated by superheroes, such as last year’s Aquaman. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Rao Shuguang, president of the China Film Critics Association, said the floods of Chinese moviegoers during Spring Festival have also been seen during the Dragon Boat Festival and on Qing Ming, or Tomb Sweeping Day.

But when speaking about 2018, which grossed 60.98 billion yuan, a year-on-year increase of 9.06 percent, industry insiders and researchers said it is not the figures that will stay in the mind.

Zuo said last year “will be remembered as a game-changing year in the history of Chinese cinema. Most of the successful films were based on real-life stories or explored social issues. It was a revitalization of cinematic realism.”

While Hollywood is dominated by movies about superheroes, China has seen a shift in tastes. Realistic themes — a rare formula for box office hits — attracted vast audiences who previously flocked to action blockbusters and domestic comedies.

Operation Red Sea and Dying to Survive, No 1 and No 3 respectively in the 2018 box office charts, are both based on true stories.

Operation Red Sea, a directorial hit for Hong Kong veteran Dante Lam, is loosely inspired by the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s evacuation of nearly 580 Chinese nationals from war-torn Yemen in early 2015.

Yin Hong, a professor of film and TV communication at Tsinghua University, said Operation Red Sea had raised the bar for military films, signaling the rise of Chinese filmmaking technologies.

Zhong Chengxiang, head of the China Literature and Art Critics Association, said the blockbuster’s main draw is that it demonstrates some of the Chinese navy’s cutting-edge weapons and new strategies.

China has produced many military-themed films, most of them set in the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45) or the civil war (1946-49).

Jiang Yong, a film industry analyst in Beijing, said that following the success of the 2017 runaway hit Wolf Warrior 2 — the country’s highest-grossing film — Operation Red Sea reinforced investor confidence that a realistic contemporary film could also be a commercial success.

In addition to epics studded with special effects, a string of social dramas reflecting changes in China or examining the lives of ordinary people have also won critical acclaim and market success.

Dying to Survive, starring A-list actor Xu Zheng, was the talk of the country when it was released in July.

Based on the true story of Lu Yong, a leukemia patient who illegally bought unlicensed anticancer drugs overseas for himself and many other patients, the movie touched Chinese audiences and triggered public recognition for struggling families who cannot afford life-saving medication.

Two weeks after Dying to Survive was released on July 5, Premier Li Keqiang again urged government departments to speed up efforts to reduce the price of cancer drugs and the burden on families.

Miao Yue, a director known for realistic films such as the award-winning Hold Your Hands, said: “China will see more and more realistic films. Investors have become more interested in financing such stories and are willing to raise budgets.” 

Social drama Dying to Survive, based on a true story, was released in July and came third in China’s 2018 box office charts. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Orlogo, dean of the fine arts department at the Beijing Film Academy, who uses only one name, said his department recently received postproduction jobs for two serious films — one of them chronicling Chinese musician Xian Xinghai’s last years in Kazakhstan. Such work had been hard to come by in the past.

“Xian’s biographical drama required us to digitally re-create streets and houses in Kazakhstan ruined during wartime. In the past, few such films set aside part of their budgets for special-effect sequences,” Orlogo said.

A few years ago, star-studded casts and visual spectacles had a big impact on ticket sales, but now, audiences’ word-of-mouth recommendations play a more decisive role in a film’s market performance.

For instance, Lost, Found, a heartfelt story about child abduction that starred A-list actresses Yao Chen and Ma Yili, surpassed the highly anticipated comedy Hello, Mrs Money and award-winning director Zhang Yimou’s martial arts epic Shadow to become a sleeper hit during the National Day holiday.

Facing off against powerful Hollywood rivals including Wreck-it Ralph and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the Chinese movie A Cool Fish surprisingly beat them to dominate the box office charts in late November. A dark comedy, A Cool Fish tackles hot social issues.

Zhong Dafeng, a professor with the Beijing Film Academy, said: “Their success will encourage more talented people to join the creation of realistic stories. They can use their influence to boost the development of society.”

Last year, 129 imported films grossed 23.1 billion yuan, accounting for nearly 38 percent of total receipts. Avengers: Infinity War was the highest-grossing imported film, followed by Venom in second place and Aquaman third. But industry insiders have sensed changes.

With an uncommonly high 25 percent stake from Tencent Pictures, the film arm of internet giant Tencent, Sony’s Venom was given a rare 30-day release extension on the Chinese mainland, and earned more in the country than in North America, according to the Maoyan report.

Investing in potential Hollywood hits has become a new trend for China’s cash-rich film companies, according to observers.

Alibaba-backed Alibaba Pictures had a stake in Mission: Impossible — Fallout, starring Tom Cruise, which earned 1.25 billion yuan in the summer. The Beijing company, which has set up an office in the United States, said recently it also invested in Green Book, which won three awards at the 76th Golden Globes.

While the North American film market saw a 7.3 percent expansion in annual growth year-on-year in 2018, China saw a rise of 9.1 percent, showing that the country had narrowed the gap, the Maoyan report said.

In addition to the US, which released 23 films in China last year, Japan was the next highest with 15 — including Shoplifters, which won the 2018 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. But it was India that saw explosive growth, with nine Bollywood films released in China last year, compared with one in 2017 and two in 2016.

Jiang, the Beijing analyst, said: “Aamir Khan is the most popular Indian star in China. But the flop of his latest epic, Thugs of Hindostan, in China shows that domestic audiences are becoming more sophisticated. If they dislike the story, they will not buy tickets despite admiring the star.”

Now, with the Year of the Pig almost upon us, most researchers believe that 2019 will offer a better future for filmmakers in China and elsewhere.

“China will see an increasingly sophisticated film market in 2019,” said Rao, the China Film Critics Association president.

Yin, from Tsinghua University, said that with two highly anticipated sci-fi films — director Ning Hao’s Crazy Alien and Guo Fan’s The Wandering Earth — screening on Feb 5, the first day of the Lunar New Year, China will see a breakthrough in the creation of domestic sci-fi films, which Hollywood has dominated for decades.


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