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The Reel Story
The Chinese film industry's growth over seven decades
By Tang Yuankai  ·  2019-10-25  ·   Source: NO.44 OCTOBER 31, 2019
An exhibition of posters of domestic films produced over the past 70 years in Qingdao, a coastal city in east China's Shandong Province, on August 25, in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China (XINHUA)

When President Xi Jinping conferred national medals and honorary titles on 42 people on September 29 in the countdown to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC), one of them was from the film industry.

Qin Yi, who was awarded the title of People's Artist, has another distinction. At 97, she is yet to hang up her acting boots. Last year, she played an inspirational woman in the film Goddesses in the Flames of War, director Jiang Ping's commemoration of history with the story of a group of heroic Chinese women who defended their villages against Japanese invaders during the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45).

Though dubbed the Oriental Venus by some Western media because of her striking appearance, Qin has continued to move generations of theatergoers with her portrayal of ordinary women. Medical scientist Xiu Ruijuan, founder of the Chinese Society of Microcirculation and the Asian Union for Microcirculation, once said she owed her success to Qin. When she was 12, Xiu watched Qin play a heroine who resisted the Japanese invasion and the film changed her life.

Like Xiu, the patriotic films bringing to the fore tales of courage, dedication and sacrifice during times of adversity have inspired generations and continue to do so. For instance, Children of Troubled Times, a 1935 film, gave courage to people to fight against the Japanese invasion. Directed by Xu Xingzhi, it is about the transformation of an intellectual who wavers between choosing his country and a Western lifestyle. But after the death of his friend, who had joined the Chinese resistance movement to fight the Japanese, he too joins the movement.

Visitors at a museum at the old site of the Changchun Film Studio on October 1 for a glimpse of the history of the Chinese film industry since the founding of the People's Republic of China (XINHUA)

Every-day heroes

The first feature film made after the founding of the PRC was Bridge directed by Wang Bin, in which the working class became the protagonists of a Chinese film for the first time. During the People's War of Liberation (1945-49), a railroad factory in northeast China is commissioned by the Communist army to repair a bridge. Led by a skeptical engineer who does not believe the bridge can be completed in time, the factory workers lack enthusiasm and morale. However, the project is galvanized by Liang Ruisheng, who inspires his fellow workers to complete the project, a step in winning the war. Eventually, the work is completed in time and in the process, even the engineer begins to believe the war can be won.

For the film, Wang asked the actors to seek out similar figures they were to portray among ordinary people and learn about them and experience their lives before the shooting started. This kind of method acting has since become a tradition of Chinese films and artists. With Bridge, the aspirations, ability and heroism of the Chinese people became themes for the big screen, marking the adoption of realism in Chinese films.

In 1950, Wang co-directed The White-Haired Girl with Shui Hua. Based on a namesake opera that premiered in 1945, the film is about 17-year-old Xi'er, who is forced to become the indentured servant of wicked landlord Huang Shiren as payment for her father's debts. Xi'er's traumatic life makes her hair turn white. She is rescued after the Communist Party of China (CPC) launches a people's fight against the oppression of landlords and Huang is killed.

In 1951, the film was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Sixth Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, the largest film festival in Czechoslovakia, the first time a Chinese film had won an international award after the founding of the PRC.

In 1949, China, then an agrarian economy, had a population of 540 million, 90 percent of whom lived in rural areas. Most people had never seen a film as the around 650 cinemas were mostly located in coastal cities. The government began to work to bring films to more people and film projectionists were hired to run mobile cinemas. In the 10 years following the founding of the PRC, the number of rural mobile cinemas estimatedly increased from none to over 10,000. Besides, many films were made on subjects of mass appeal for the benefit of farmers, workers and soldiers.

"One of the biggest achievements of the Chinese film industry was that a national film distribution and projection network was established quickly after the founding of the PRC through the government's engagements and administrative means in a country with relatively backward economic and cultural conditions. Prior to this, films were mostly made and screened in Shanghai, which had been the center of the country's film industry. This changed the situation," said Rao Shuguang, President of the China Film Critics Association.

The Ministry of Culture established a film administration bureau, which focused on establishing a national film distribution and screening company and improving the national distribution and screening network. It also guided films to cater to the needs of workers, farmers and soldiers. The China Film Distribution Company founded by the bureau purchased copyrights of films made by film studios across the country and sold the copyrights to provincial, municipal and regional film companies.

After the founding of the PRC, the film industry initially followed a planned economy model as a result of the influence of the Soviet Union. In 1956, Chairman Mao Zedong proposed to boost the development of socialist culture. In the two years that followed, the number of films produced soared, with 97 feature films made and the genre of films diversifying. In 1957, 1.7 billion film tickets were sold.

From 1949 to 1966, a number of excellent movies hit the screen although Chinese filmmakers were embroiled in political campaigns and had to endure conflicting views and concepts. During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), many artists were sent to rural areas for "reeducation," where they had to do hard agricultural work. They were told that it was unclear when they would go back to making films again.

A still from Five Golden Flowers, director Jiayi wang's 1959 musical love story about a young man from the Bai ethnic group searching for his true love Jinhua (XINHUA)

A new start

When the "cultural revolution" was over in 1976, the film industry soon recovered its momentum and new films were released.

In December 1978, the reform and opening-up policy was adopted at the Third Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee, marking the beginning of a momentous change in China. It ignited filmmakers' enthusiasm.

In 1980, the Hundred Flowers Awards, which, together with the Golden Rooster Awards, are the most prestigious film awards in China, were resumed after being suspended for 17 years. Realistic films were especially in favor. In 1986, film director Xie Jin's signature work Furong Zhen (Hibiscus Town) won him the Hundred Flowers Award for the best feature film, the fifth time that Xie won the award.

Chen Kaige (right) wins the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1993 for Farewell My Concubine along with New Zealand director Jane Campion, who won the same award for The Piano (XINHUA)

Based on a novel by the same name written by Gu Hua, the melodrama follows the life and travails of a young woman who lives through the turmoil of the "cultural revolution." The film had a box-office earning of over 100 million yuan ($29 million, at then exchange rate). It meant 500 million to 1 billion tickets were sold for the film, with the ticket price varying between 0.1-0.2 yuan. In the 1980s, the film magazine Popular Movies had a circulation of over 9 million copies per month, which indicated people's love for films.

An increasing number of Chinese filmmakers began to win prizes at international film festivals. Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine, the story of two men who met as apprentices in a Peking Opera troupe and whose lives were linked by vicissitudes for over 50 years, claimed the Palme d'Or at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in 1993 along with New Zealand's offering The Piano. It was selected for the U.S. Academy Award as the best foreign film a year later.

The Ministry of Radio, Film and Television issued two documents in 1993 and 1994 for market-oriented reform of the film industry. The reform ended the monopoly China Film Distribution Company, which is a state-owned enterprise, enjoyed in distributing films and film studios were given autonomy to distribute the films. The reform also liberalized ticket prices.

Previously, filmmakers didn't need to worry about funding for films and their box-office performance. But since the reform, these have become some of the prime considerations. Also, first TV and subsequently online programs have begun to eat into the revenue of the film industry. In 1999, after the boom in TV programs, less than 300 million film tickets were sold, compared to around 29 billion before 1979.

Above: A projectionist shows a film in Zishan Town in Jiangxi Province in east China in 1967;
Projectionist Xie Pingguo (right) shows a film in a village in Jiangxi on July 2. He has been doing this for 41 years(XINHUA)

The foreign factor

In 1994, a quota system was introduced for foreign movies screened in China. Under it, 20 foreign films were allowed to be screened in China every year, with foreign producers allowed 13 percent of the film's box-office revenue. In 2012, the quota was increased to 35 films and foreign producers could claim 25 percent of the revenue.

Previously most imported movies were shown either through exchange programs for non-commercial purposes or by Chinese film distribution companies that purchased the screening rights. The introduction of more foreign films not only galvanized the sluggish Chinese cinema but also enabled domestic filmmakers to learn about the standards and operational model of foreign films and face competition.

In 2002, Zhang Yimou tried his hand at blockbusters. The period drama Hero, based on the assassination attempt on the King of Qin, who later became the first emperor who unified China in the 3rd century B.C., was released in October 2002. It had an investment of 240 million yuan ($30 million at then exchange rate), 100 times the investment of an average Chinese film at the time. It was a great commercial success, with its box-office takings surpassing 100 million yuan ($12.5 million at then exchange rate) within one week of release and total earnings that year accounting for a quarter of China's entire box-office revenue that year.

For a long time, a film with a box-office income of 20-30 million yuan ($2.4-3.6 million at then exchange rate) was considered successful. Now a film with a box-office taking of over 100 million yuan ($14 million) is no longer a rarity. International cooperation in filmmaking has also become more frequent. An increasing number of countries have film co-production agreements with China. Co-produced films are treated as domestic productions and are therefore not subject to the quota system, which can bring both sides better revenue. Chinese film producers are also starting to make films abroad through cooperation with overseas institutions in capital, talent, technology and market, expanding the horizon of domestic films.

A recent milestone was the Film Industry Promotion Law, which took effect in March 2017, indicating reform of the film industry had deepened.

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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