As Jia Zhangke held aloft the medallion for best documentary at the recent Venice Film Festival's Horizons sidebar competition - for Useless, a chronicle of how young mainland fashion designer Ma Ke conducts her business - he joined a select group of filmmakers who have brought home an award for the second year running from the Lido.
Last year, Jia surprised even the most seasoned critics by taking the festival's top prize, the Golden Lion, with Still Life, about the plight of those living in an area that will be submerged as part of the Three Gorges project. As if beating off the likes of Stephen Frears, Alain Resnais or Alfonso Cuaron wasn't enough, Jia's documentary on painter Liu Xiaodang, Dong, won two more awards at the festival.
So it's a case of another year, another mainland Chinese filmmaker climbing the steps of the Palazzo del Cinema's Sala Grande. Of course, it doesn't hurt that festival chairman Marco Mueller is an aficionado of Chinese cinema (he knelt down on stage in front of Zhang Ziyi two years ago to show his appreciation for her work) and that Zhang Yimou presided over this year's festival jury. Jia's elevation to star status on the international festival circuit could be construed as a sign of the rude health of the mainland's film industry, particularly in light of the growing international market for the likes of Still Life, Zhang Yimou's The Curse of the Golden Flower and Wang Quan'an's Tuya's Marriage, which won the Golden Bear at this year's Berlin Film Festival.
Although it's true that mainland films are gaining more exposure and acclaim around the world, the reality for most mainland filmmakers is far less rosy than successes at film festivals might suggest. Art-house aficionados might flock to specialist cinemas in London, New York or Rome to watch the latest edgy fare from mainland China, but audiences back home aren't showing a great deal of interest in their own filmmakers, according to Zhang Yan, a lecturer at Beijing Normal University's College of Art and Communication.
Box office takings for local films on the mainland last year amounted to 2.62 billion yuan, says Zhang - a drop of 900 million yuan compared with 1988. And according to her estimates, audiences have shrunk dramatically during the past 19 years, from 18.7 billion to 800 million last year. There are many reasons for this drop, Zhang says - the main one being a sharp rise in ticket prices in recent years. Most mainland theatres charge 30-40 yuan, which is too high for many workers, most of whom earn only a few thousand yuan a month.
Another reason for the change in fortunes at mainland cinemas is piracy, which enables people to see the lastest releases at home - far more cheaply.
The market has polarised as well. 'The country is too dependent on big blockbusters,' says Zhang. 'It's like what [South] Korea is like now.' In both countries, the bulk of the box office is split among big-budget movies, leaving smaller productions with little. Zhang says that almost 40 per cent of the total takings at cinemas last year was split between the three top earners - out of about 120 films released in theatres.
Given that box officer returns are uncertain, some smaller productions are given only the briefest screenings. Of the 120 films that were shown in mainland cinemas last year, only 70 made it to Beijing. Of these only 34 got more than a week's run. Although this might reflect a lack of vision by film investors, Zhang says main- land audiences simply aren't that bothered about mainland productions. 'There's just not that much interest in work done by local filmmakers,' she says.
There's a similar indifference to mainland-made movies in Hong Kong. Many cinema-goers here equate mainland films with the preachy propaganda of the past. It's understandable, given the offerings of the upcoming Chinese Film Panorama, a showcase presented by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and the state-sponsored South China Film Industry Workers' Union to mark the 10th anniversary of the handover.
Production values are often slick in films financed by the government - Jin Tiemu's Yuanmingyuan Park, for example, promises a meticulous recreation of the Summer Palace's splendour. However, characters and narratives are too often squeaky-clean (as in Two Women in Red Scarves, where conflicts end happily ever after) or heroic (as in Postman in Shangri-la, about a postman 'serving others despite all obstacles ... based on traditional virtues untouched for centuries', according to press blurbs). As such, they risk being dismissed as naive by audiences that are well aware of the ravages urbanisation and over-development have wrought throughout the mainland.
Films that glorify patriotic sacrifice remain a staple of the mainland menu. Among the Panorama offerings is My Long March, produced by August First Film Studio (the People's Liberation Army's filmmaking unit). It's a tale about a teenage Red Army soldier's experience following Mao Zedong's 'journey of faith'. Even a commercial thriller such as Panorama's festival opener Gun of Mercy shuns the moral ambivalence that's almost de rigueur nowadays.
Meanwhile, examples of more experimental mainland film- making can be found among the Chinese entries in the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival. Organised by Broadway Cinematheque and local independent collective Ying E-Chi, the festival has always emphasised less mainstream fare. This year, the mainland is represented by films such as Jia's Useless, Li Yang's Blind Mountain (about mainland villagers who abduct young women from urban areas as their brides), Li Yu's Lost in Beijing (a sex-heavy drama about complicated liaisons), Yin Lai-chuan's The Park (about the travails of dating in Kunming) and Hu Jie's documentary Though I Am Gone, which examines the lingering effects of the Cultural Revolution on mainland communities.
The Assembly - which was marketed as China's answer to Saving Private Ryan - and Jiang Wen's The Sun Also Rises will also feature in the Asian Film Festival, suggesting a possible overlap of mainstream and independent cinema on the mainland.
Chinese Film Panorama, Sept 17- Oct 14; Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, Sept 20-Oct 10