24 May 2016
Chinese Films Off the Radar at Cannes, but Korean Movies Flourish
In a poor showing for mainland cinema, no Chinese movies were featured at this year's Cannes Film Festival, while Korean movies continued to prove their ability to appeal globally, with many finding success far beyond their domestic box office.
This year's Cannes Film Festival, it has to be said, was not a high point for Chinese-language cinema, at least not in terms of critical acclaim. For the first time in many years, there were no features from mainland China, Hong Kong or Taiwan as part of the official selection, the Directors' Fortnight or the Critics' Week sidebars.
While this could be regarded simply as a case of bad timing – perhaps films weren't ready or submitted in time – it's really a reflection of the current state of Chinese-language filmmaking. With the massive domestic market on the mainland – on course to hit US$10 billion in box-office takings in 2016 – many local producers are focussed solely on making mainstream movies that work with Chinese audiences. As a result, they are not hugely concerned with overseas distribution or critical plaudits.
The films that work with local audiences in mainland China tend to be comedies, romantic dramas and nostalgia-soaked stories set during the early days of China's economic reform. None of these are obvious festival fodder or likely to appeal to audiences in the West.
Michael J. Werner, Chairman of Fortissimo Films, a Hong Kong and Amsterdam-based international sales agency, believes that things have changed considerably over the last 10 years. Back then – a time before the China film market started its exponential growth – the international sales of Chinese films were often much bigger than their domestic box office.
Assessing this change, he says: "Now the China market is so significant and the revenue from overseas markets is much lower. The films that are successful in China are not necessarily relevant in other countries or for other audiences. This, though, could just be a phase and we may be moving towards the production of films that are relevant for both China and the international markets."
In line with this, Fortissimo has recently started working with Zhang Wei, a Chinese entrepreneur-turned-filmmaker. Typically, he produces socially conscious and, occasionally, daring films, tackling such subjects as autism, sweat shops and transgenderism. Many of these are seen as having the potential to work overseas as well as to strike a chord at home. Destiny, one of his earlier works, told the story of a mildly autistic boy and received a strong response at the Far East Film Festival in Italy, just prior to this year's Cannes event.
The stories and themes explored by most mainland Chinese filmmakers, however, are unlikely to be embraced by the West. Even Jia Zhangke, previously an art-house stalwart, is now looking to move more mainstream.
He chose this year's event to announce the launch of Fabula Entertainment, a production company with a distinctly commercial remit. Perhaps reassuringly, though, he has asserted his intention to raise the quality of commercial cinema through an increased emphasis on strong acting and scripts. He is not alone in believing that the wide availability of finance has seen too many Chinese movies rush into production before their scripts are properly developed.
In contrast to the solely domestic focus of their mainland counterparts, Hong Kong filmmakers continue to enjoy a modest amount of international success, particularly when it comes to action movies. During the course of this year's festival, Hong Kong's Media Asia Films announced a string of sales, including Johnnie To's Three and a number of other titles. The city's Pegasus Motion Pictures found similar success with the sale of Terra Shin's Bounty Hunters, a co-production between Hong Kong, China and Korea, while Young Live Entertainment sold SPL2: A Time For Consequences, its latest action title, into the Japanese market.
According to Bryce Tsao, director of international film sales for iQiyi, the Chinese streaming giant, other Asian territories remain the strongest markets for Chinese films. In the case of North America, there are now a small number of consistent buyers, notably Well Go USA and China Lion Film Distribution, but Europe remains a tough sell.
He said: "Chinese films work best in countries with large Chinese communities, so there's a big population to tap into in North America. Europe, though, is more difficult, except in the case of art-house films.
"The strongest markets for mainland films are obviously Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. Japan and Korea like action movies, but seem to prefer the smaller, romantic films with xiao xian rou [young and fresh] talent, such as Our Times and You Are The Apple Of My Eye."
While Chinese filmmakers remain focussed on local markets, their Korean counterparts enjoyed one of the strongest Cannes in recent memory. The country had three films in the official selection – Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden premiered in the official competition, Na Hong-jin's The Wailing played Out of Competition and Yeon Sang-ho's Train To Busan screened in an official midnight slot.
The Handmaiden – based on Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith, but with the action relocated from Victorian England to 1930s Korea – is a beautifully crafted erotic drama. In stark contrast, The Wailing is the tale of a deadly outbreak of a mysterious disease, while Train To Busan is a zombie apocalypse movie.
All three titles demonstrate that Korean cinema is clearly doing a far better job than mainland movie-makers when it comes to producing high-quality genre movies that appeal to domestic markets and the international film festival circuit alike. As with China, Korean producers benefit from a robust domestic box office, but they also have government support programmes. Tellingly, they also prioritise developing new directors, screenwriters and VFX talent, rather than just packaging known material with big-name directors and stars.
The results are apparent not only in festival selections and domestic box office, but also in terms of international sales. The Handmaiden, for instance, recently became Korea's most widely distributed film of all time. In total, it was sold to 175 different territories, outperforming Bong Joon-ho's English-language Snowpiercer (2013), which sold to 167. The Wailing has also sold well, picking up distributors in France, Benelux, Switzerland and mainland China.
While China may not be selling its films into international markets, the country was still having a huge impact at Cannes in a number of other ways. Despite China's import quotas, Chinese distributors were busy acquiring a range of films, including Steven Soderbergh's Logan Lucky and a French animated take on Robinson Crusoe. Several Chinese players also continued to flex their muscles as financiers of Hollywood movies, as well as a number of other international films.
Over the past few years, a slew of Chinese private and state-owned companies have invested in big-budget international productions. This has either been through one-off deals for individual pictures, as with Alibaba's investments in Paramount Pictures' titles (including the upcoming Star Trek: Beyond), or by bankrolling entire companies and slates.
Since the beginning of this year, the Dalian Wanda Group has bought out Godzilla producer Legendary Pictures; Shanghai-based Bliss Media has acquired a stake in Insiders, an LA-based sales company; Beijing-based Perfect World has invested $500 million in a slate of movies from Universal Pictures; and Hangzhou-based Film Carvnival has invested $500 million in Dick Cook Studios, an eponymous start-up venture by the former Disney chief.
The money continued to flow in Cannes, with Wanda announcing it was co-investing in Paramount's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows alongside Alibaba. At the same time, Bliss Media launched a $150 million fund to invest in international film and TV projects. In other moves, just prior to Cannes, Hong Kong producer Philip Lee and US producer Markus Barmettler launched Facing East, a vehicle for producing and financing international movies. The duo had earlier helped finance The Revenant, a subsequent triple Oscar winner.
Many of these companies are also producing Chinese movies in the hope they can find a way of making them internationally appealing. Highlighting his own company's approach, Wei Han, President and Chief Executive of Bliss Media, said: "We're creating a unique model for both Chinese and international films. We have a distribution platform within China, but we are also working with our partners to also recoup outside of China." At present, LA-based Insiders will handle the international sales of Bliss Media's China projects.
The company has also taken an equity stake in the worldwide performance of a number of Western films, including Pablo Larrain's Jackie, the Kennedy widow biopic starring Natalie Portman. It is also producing an English-language movie – S.M.A.R.T. Chase: Fire And Earth. This will be entirely filmed in China with a mixed Western and Chinese cast and crew, thereby pushing the definition of a Chinese film.
Taking into consideration the North American audience's resistance to reading subtitles, it may only be projects like this that have any chance of propelling Chinese cinema onto a world stage. Success here is far more likely than with any of the Chinese-language films that are blockbusters at home, but travel badly, or even with the smaller art-house films that are still made by several filmmakers, notably China's Jia Zhangke, Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-hsien and Hong Kong's Wong Kar-wai. Even these new hybrid projects, though, have a long way to go in terms of script development, dramatic performance and production values before they can hope to match the quality of the current crop of truly international films.
Until such films emerge, for many of those Beijing, Hong Kong or Taipei-based sales agents handling Chinese-language movies, the irony of Cannes will remain the fact that they travel to the south of France only to end up doing most of their business with other Asian companies.
Any veteran of the businesswould, however, agree that it's important for producers and sales agents to maintain a presence on the international film festival and market circuit. Summarising the thoughts of many, Werner said: "It's still worth going to Cannes and other events in order to try to gain a deeper understanding of the international market and to look at just what can be done differently."
Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Cannes