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The Golden Rock - September 2, 2011 Edition

(Note: This entry was edited on September 4th to fix a link. Also added one small paragraph about SEEDIQ BALE and an additional line about Zhao Baohua and the rating system)

- In the entertainment industry, you should always watch what you say publicly, especially when it might offend the powers that be. Of course, when you become one of those people, you can say whatever the hell you want, as long as it doesn’t offend the people above you.

Feng Xiaogang is one of those people. China’s most commercially successful director and a Huayi Brothers shareholder, Feng Xiaogang has always been an outspoken man, and this time, he is taking on China’s State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television

(Note: The following report is sourced and translated from multiple articles, which you will be able to find at the bottom of the entry. Yes, you will have to read Chinese to know which is which)

Remember when I blogged before about how many people get a share of total box office gross in China? I wrote that it is split (never evenly) amongst cinemas, distributors, and investors. However, what I didn’t know was that the SARFT takes 5% from the theatrical gross of any film that is publicly exhibited in China, in addition to the 3.3% revenue tax. The 5%, which goes to a government film fund that aims to help build film screening infrastructure in rural areas, fund children’s films, and fund “Main Melody Films” (I’m gonna have to start a glossary for these terms soon).

At least that’s what they say the fund does. Anyway, Feng, who is a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, recently attended a conference on the Chinese cultural industry and spoke about problems in the Chinese film industry. One of the problems, he said, is the way the film fund makes money.

He used the example of Huayi Brothers. The box office revenue for their films in 2010 was 1.7 billion yuan. After taking away the cinema’s share, money spent on promotion, production, taxes and various fees, the company made a profit of 80 million yuan. On the other hand, the film fund collected 40 million yuan from Huayi, which is already half their profit. Huayi is one of the most profitable film companies in China, so imagine how much this 5% hurts the smaller companies.

To help production companies and investors find an easier way to profitability, Feng suggests that the government should be paying for the work of the film fund, and SARFT should abolish the 5% tax. Yes, he went there.

And he didn’t just stop there, either.

Feng then went on to criticize the SARFT’s censorship process.  Essentially, what he says is that the censroship process has come under heavy scrutiny by the audience, to the point where “SARFT examines films, while the people examines SARFT”. He also points out that the pressure from SARFT’s censorship ends up on the filmmakers, as the suggestions for cuts have reached the point of becoming laughable. Also, the audiences ends up blaming the flaws caused by these censorship cuts on the filmmakers.

Feng said even his AFTERSHOCK, which underwent changes from censorship, was heavily criticized for things that were ordered to be there due to SARFT censorship. In such an environment, directors have all flocked to historical films in order to avoid censorship troubles. As a result, Feng noted that there has only been a few “game changer” films in the Chinese film industry. As a result, he requested that the SARFT examines the negative effects of film censorship.

And then came the responses.

A representative for the film fund defends its tax, saying that 1) The film fund is designed to improve the Chinese film industry, and 2) This is a practice that has been done around the world, including France and Korea. In fact, according to the rep, some countries take even more than 5%! In other words,we do what we’re supposed to do, and it’s OK for us to do it because foreigners do it, too!

Still, the most useful thing this spokesman said was the five main functions of the film fund: 1) To renovate old cinemas, 2) Assist in the construction of cinemas, 3) Install digital projection in cinemas across the country, 4) Screen films in rural areas, and 5) “prepare for new technology in cinemas”.

Meanwhile, industry people like Huayi’s head Wang Zhonglei and Starlight’s Song Guangchang are naturally for abolishing the tax. Meanwhile, others have included alternatives like waiving the tax for films that cost less than 10 million yuan, or waiving the tax for Chinese made films and collect only from imported films. Good luck making that latter one work for co-productions.

As for the censorship comment, the head of LeTV suggests being more lenient on cuts for mid-to-low-budget films to “encourage creativity and explore unique topics”. On the other hand, director Fei Xing (of THE MAN BEHIND THE COURTYARD HOUSE) recounted the four months he dealt with censorship and ended up hearing audience criticized him for awkward SARFT cuts. He suggests that the censors should skew younger and take part in more communication with filmmakers.

Film critic/scriptwriter/SARFT censor Zhao Baohua defended SARFT’s work (though he insisted he does not speak for SARFT, but only for himself), saying that films are only undergoing “bottom-line examination”, meaning that as long as the film’s content don’t violate any laws, it will pass. As for films with sensitive topics and violence, SARFT will give their “suggestions” as a responsibility to film fans and the Chinese film industry.

Zhao said that the media is currently demonizing SARFT and the censorship committee for their work, because the films SARFT has halted productions on are bad films anyway. “When a film deviates from mainstream societal values and the market, the fault should not go to the censorship process. Instead, they [the filmmakers] should examine what went wrong with the film,” said the censor. He also felt that China is not ready for a rating system because it would mean that deviant category III films filled with violence and sex would make its way into Chinese cinemas. He even compared category III films to opium, saying “How can opium enter the market? That is absolutely unacceptable.”

Of course, being the SARFT, that fund is not likely to go anywhere, and censorship will be just as heavy, even if there’s a rating system. The government is intent of maintaining its authority over people, and it’s not about to lose the film industry’s influence over people for petty things like artistic integrity. Then again, maybe I’m just pessimistic like that.

-  In other news of directors speaking out, Gordon Chan recently expressed his own concerns about the Chinese film industry at a recent event for his latest film MURAL. Chan was asked whether his film is truly worth watching, or is it just another bad film trying to force its way into cinemas to cash in on the emerging industry. He admits that there are many films with a higher budget for promotion than production to hype the film to death, only to disappoint audiences in the end. This is why he vows not to play that kind of game for MURAL. Yes, it’s quite obvious that Chan never played that game, especially since the production budget for KING OF FIGHTERS couldn’t possibly go any lower.

Anyway, the rest of is promotional fodder, so we’ll just skip all that.

- The 150-minute international version of Wei Te-Sheng’s SEEDIQ BALE (referred to as a “Chinese language film” in most mainstream Mainland Chinese media, by the way, without any regional label, despite what some western media say) had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and review has been fairly mixed. Two Chinese-language review pretty agree that while its budget is clearly on the screen, the film in its current form lacks something to earn its “epic” label. One review even call it a live-action attempt at AVATAR (though Wei began developing the project long before anyone knew what AVATAR was).

Meanwhile, reviews on Variety, Hollywood Reporter, and Film Business Asia are also mixed, pointing the film’s violent and bombastic nature.

So SEEDIQ BALE may not be very good, at least in the form of a 150-minute film. But how is the media in Taiwan, where the film may become a game changer for its commercial film industry, reacting to all of this?

The Liberty Times and Yahoo News are focusing on the positive, reporting that the film was well-received at the festival screening with a 10-minute standing ovation, and that the producer proclaimed the price for North American rights immediately went up after the screening. They also reported the full, 4.5 hour version has been screened for the Taiwanese media, and that version was also very well-received, with applause heard at the very end of part two.

Meanwhile, Christian alternative media Awakening News Network and NOWNews reported that the film wasn’t well-received at the festival screening, and that applause was very scattered, as opposed to the 10-minute standing ovation many Taiwanese media reported.

It would appear that SEEDIQ BALE is being used as Taiwan’s own propaganda tool, promoted as the pride of the nation with a film industry trying to pick itself up from its previous failures. Is it great that SEEDIQ BALE can revive the Taiwanese film industry? Of course. It’d just be great if those news were true.

While one news report point out that 140,000 pre-sale tickets (amounting to a NT$40 million gross) has already been sold, film producer Lorna Tee told me on Twitter that the film is being opened on less screens than YOU ARE THE APPLE OF MY EYE and MONGA opened with. Meanwhile, a blog of someone who works in the Taiwanese film industry reports that the women seem to have no interest in the film. Considering Taiwanese blockbusters in recent years (APPLE, CAPE NO. 7, NIGHT MARKET HERO, and even the pretty boys-filled MONGA) all had to appeal to mainstream Taiwanese culture, and in a way, the female audience, a film about aborigines in what is essentially a foreign language filled with war, death, and destruction may not have the wide appeal it needs to become a hit.

Of course, with somewhat lowered expectations, the positive (and possibly inaccurate) news reports can simply be a last-ditch effort by producers to drum up hype for the film ahead of its opening. China does this all the time, to the point of planting stories in the media via underpaid journalists.

Part one of SEEDIQ BALE opens in Taiwan on September 9th. We’ll know what happens then.

- The excellent Hong Kong Film blog paid a set visit to the Patrick Kong-Wong Jing horror double feature HONG KONG GHOST STORIES recently, and the report revealed that the film will feature Chrissie Chau, Him Law, Bau Hei Jing, Juno Leung, and pretty much everyone else who was in Kong’s MARRIAGE WITH A LIAR. The film will feature two 45-minute horror films - one by Wong Jing and one by Kong - and it’ll be opening in Hong Kong around Halloween. I don’t imagine it’ll play in China, though. And if it does…well, we know what films about ghosts made for China are like.

-  It’s not over yet. China is still rolling out some more propaganda films to celebrate the Chinese Communist Party’s 90th anniversary, and the latest one is TONG DAO ZHUAN BING. This one has attracted some attention because there have been reports that pointed out part of the cast is made of real-life government officials, which means the attention on the internet is mostly negative.

The film finally opened on August 30th, and a report on Sina Entertainment found that no one is watching the film. The reporter found that the film is being placed in early morning or late night shows in cinemas, and that some shows are even being cancelled due to low admissions. This means it’ll probably beat THE SMURFS this weekend at the box office.

When asked about how the film will make its 8 million yuan budget back, director Zhao Qi insisted that the film will ultimately succeed on word-of-mouth, and that the film essentially needs only 1000-2000 admissions per city to break even. He has also denied that the film features any government officials as actors, insisting that everyone in the film are professional actors.

- Under I read Weibo so you don’t have to news, legendary actress Brigitte Lin has joined both Tencent and Sina Weibo (I only use Sina). In one day, Lin has already attracted over 320,000 followers on her Sina Weibo. You can follow her here

Next time: The Golden Rock at the 2011 Hong Kong Summer International Film Festival.

Sources

Awakening News Network
Cinephilia 1
Cinephilia 2
Hong Kong Film blog
The Liberty Times
Mtime 1
Mtime 2
Mtime 3
Mtime 4
Mtime 5
Mtime 6
Now News
Radio Taiwan International
Sina 1
Sina 2
Yahoo Taiwan

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