December 2018, UK filmgoers flocked to cinemas to catch two of the year’s final heavyweight releases in Aquaman and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It’s been a remarkable year for UK cinemas, with 2018 set to be the biggest box office year since 1971, despite films like Roma making the allure of the couch more appealing than ever.
However, one new film that arrived with a more muted fanfare was the limited release of Chinese film 大象席地而坐 (An Elephant Sitting Still). Written and Directed by 胡波 (Hu Bo), a filmmaker who completed this film aged 29 before taking his own life, the film itself is anything but small – it is a heart wrenching 4 hour spectacle that painfully unravels the misgivings of modern China and the personal struggles of young individuals left behind by the country’s economic progress.
It is suggested that Hu Bo committed suicide due to disagreements with his producers, and as is often the case with tragedy his death is tinged with irony. For all the messaging the film has about portions of Chinese youth being stunted by China’s development, Hu Bo is part of a new wave of young Chinese filmmaking talent that is at last making an impact both in China and on the world stage.
In 2018 alone, to complement the emergence of Hu Bo, some of the rising stars of Chinese filmmaking have included 31 year old 杨明明 (Yang Ming Ming), 33 year old 文牧野 (Muye Wen) and 29 year old 毕赣 (Bi Gan). There is also the 36 year old 赵婷 (Chloe Zhao), whose film The Rider is making many top movie lists for this year, though her path is much more rooted in the international film market having studied and worked in Europe and the US throughout her career.
For these mainland filmmakers however, their prominence feels significant. Much like the films of some of the more senior members of Chinese arthouse filmmaking – namely 贾樟柯 (Jia Zhangke) and Taiwanese director 侯孝贤 (Hou Hsiao-hsien) – they are unafraid to tackle real issues concerning China, in spite of the clear threat of censorship. In Yang Ming Ming’s 柔情史 (Girls Always Happy) the notion of the Chinese family ideal is fragmented as the film centres around a single mother raising her only child in Beijing. 我不是药神 (Dying to Survive) by Muye Wen traces the trafficking of untested cancer drugs from India into China to help treat 1,000 patients. Finally in Bi Gan’s 地球最后的夜晚 (Long Day’s Journey into the Night) audiences witness an artistic approach to memory and nostalgia as a man goes in search of a past lover. Bi Gan’s film, which releases in China on December 31st, has already made a huge 28.8 million RMB (£3.3m) in pre-sales. Its combination of 2D and 3D elements, in addition to it being marketed as “the last film of 2018” has seen a huge boost in young cinemagoers discussing the film’s release – using video sharing platforms like Douyin to showcase how they plan to watch the film when it releases.
It is of no surprise though that for film companies outside of China, the interest in the marketplace centres around reports that Chinese film lovers are seeking more international arthouse movies. Japanese Palme d’Or winning movie Shopliftersgrossed £9.5m at the Chinese box office, and according to an interview with Screen Daily, a Chinese film distributor cited the increase of European films being remade for China, such as Paolo Genovese’s Perfect Strangers or films like Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World being pre bought for the Chinese market.
The increased interest in international cinema in China should come as no surprise either. In other sectors outside of the entertainment industry, the allure of foreign or imported brands has for sometime now held a cachet amongst Chinese consumers. With the country prospering from urbanisation, a rapidly growing middle class and rising household incomes, increasingly Chinese consumers are seeking new experiences, products and services that allow them to showcase their prosperity. Sectors such as Travel are booming, and with greater exposure to foreign cultures, the thirst amongst Chinese filmgoers for more foreign films feels inevitable.
Unfortunately for the international entertainment industry, the desire for an increase in the exhibition of international product in China is hugely complicated, even more so thanks to the advent of a new State Council agency for television and streaming programming called the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), and the regulation of film under the central Publicity Department. Moving forward, foreign content during primetime television hours (between 7pm and 10pm) will be banned, and the volume of imported content on broadcast TV and streaming platforms will be limited to 30 percent. For films there is a quota for the exhibition of foreign films released on a revenue share basis which is currently set at 34 per annum. While the last couple of years has seen this number unofficially increase, leading some to believe a relaxing in the rules and therefore an increase in international films entering the market, there has in fact been a slowdown in imported films being approved for release which may suggest a tightening of the rules. Foreign films can also enter the market under a flat fee basis and according to IHS Markit, 59 foreign films were imported under the flat-fee model in 2016 and 49 in 2017. To further add to these complications China is still rife with piracy, and entertainment products seem to suffer as much as any when it comes to illegal distribution.
There can be no doubt that the increase in young Chinese arthouse filmmakers is occurring at a time when young Chinese audiences are gaining a taste for culture thanks to increasing prosperity and urban development in the country as well as overseas experiences. While audiences will find a way to access the best in international film in China – even if it means illegitimately – the impending success of films like Long Day’s Journey into the Night suggest the types of stories and filmmaking techniques Chinese audiences crave from their foreign counterparts can now be found closer to home.
For international distributors keen to show their films in front of Chinese audiences, exhibiting in China may still hold too many complications. Chinese tourists currently spend 3x higher than the average tourist spend, with visitors to Britain citing its cultural offerings as a key reason for visiting. There is surely an opportunity for distribution companies to market their films to visiting Chinese audiences while this demand continues to grow. While Chinese co-funded blockbusters like The Meg will contribute greatly to healthy UK box office returns, as Chinese arthouse filmmakers blossom further, film represents an exciting medium to discover and learn about modern China as the country exerts its influence on a global scale.