China's mediocre movies miss out at Cannes Film Festival

With large ticket sales certain in the domestic market, Chinese directors have little reason to take creative risks and stand out globally, some say

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 May, 2014, 3:04am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 May, 2014, 12:01pm

China is the world's second-largest film market, but its major productions are criticised as being out of step with global cinema currents.

They point to the nation's weak presence at this year's Cannes Film Festival, which opens today. China has only three entries, none of which are in the running for the prestigious Palme d'Or.

Critics say part of the problem is that mediocrity is rewarded at home. Domestic films, no matter the quality, usually earn millions of yuan, and the lure of easy money, coupled with censorship, ends up stifling creativity and critical perspectives.

Hong Kong-based critic Freddie Wong said films in China were tightly focused on profits. “They can still rake in more than 100 million yuan [HK$126 million] at the box office no matter how bad they are,” Wong said.

For instance, last year, the 3-D action flick Switch starring Andy Lau Tak-wah was deeply disliked by critics and movie-going audiences alike. Its poor quality became a selling point, however, and it eventually raked in 300 million yuan.

Wang Chao, who was an assistant director on Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine, is competing in Un Certain Regard section with his drama Fantasia.

Visual artist Huang Ran's 15-minute conceptual film The Administration of Glory was selected to compete in the short film category.

The market in China is flourishing and there's no need to think about ... outside
Huang Ran, visual artist

"I'm an outsider of the film industry," said British-trained Huang, who will be showing his works at Art Basel in Hong Kong this week before heading to Cannes.

"The market in China is flourishing and there's no need to think about competition outside … maybe that's the problem."

Director Jia Zhangke , whose A Touch of Sin won best screenplay at Cannes last year, returns as a member of the main competition jury, which is being chaired by Jane Campion, director of The Piano .

Zhang Yimou's latest offering, Coming Home, which reunites him with actress Gong Li, is showing in the out of competition section.

China is the largest movie market outside of the United States. According to government figures, the mainland last year saw a 27 per cent increase in box office takings, hitting 21.8 billion yuan, nearly half of which was generated by domestic films.

But films like A Touch of Sin, which explores violence in China, do not get released on the mainland because the content is deemed sensitive.

Hong Kong-based critic Freddie Wong said there was still a demand globally for a creative and critical Chinese perspective, noting Jia had been invited back after his win last year.

Huang's Administration of Glory was intended only to be part of his upcoming solo exhibition at London's Simon Lee Gallery in September. He was able to convince the Domus Collection, a Beijing private art institution founded by collector Richard Chang, to back the short film.

He said competing at Cannes was a surprise. He enjoyed the freedom of being a visual artist and not having to worry about the market or answering to others. "When I make my work, I only focus on what I like," he said.