We recently celebrated Chinese New Year by exploring Chinese animation and the history of animation in the country, however, we had so much fun researching that we just couldn’t stop. So we also looked into how film and China’s relationship with its neighbouring countries have affected how Chinese film has been seen by the rest of the world.
China was one of the first countries to be introduced to cinema after Louis Lumiere sent a cameraman to Shanghai to film for a year. The cinema was introduced in 1896, and there are now an estimated 60,000 cinemas in China (There are just 775 cinemas in the UK and approx 40,000 in the USA). On top of this, it is believed that China is currently building 25 cinemas a day! The Chinese film industry is now the fastest-growing in the world surpassing North America as the world’s largest film market in terms of both office revenue and audience numbers.
Martial Arts are and have always been a huge part of Chinese cinema culture. The first martial arts film, The Burning of The Red Lotus Temple, was released in 1928 and was a silent movie. It was so successful at the box office that 18 sequels have been produced. It is amongst the longest films series ever produced and the longest major release, taking 27 hours to watch all of the films, for reference; it takes 19 hours to watch all of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films back to back.
1930 was considered the first Gold age of Chinese cinema. This was due to the rise in ‘progressive’ or ‘left-wing’ films, such as Spring Silkworms, The Goddess and The Big Road. These films often focused on class struggles or the threat of Japanese aggression and everyday life. But the golden age swiftly came to an end in 1937 when the Japanese invaded China which led several filmmakers to flee.
Getting your film released in China can be almost impossible as the government tightly controls foreign film imports and only distributed 38 per year. The state’s censorship is famously strict and is often unpredictable. Marvel had a string of successes in China, with the Avengers films, specifically Avengers: Endgame which grossed $629m in box office figures. (These box office figures aren’t unusual for China, in 2012 China became the second-largest marketing in the world by box office receipts.) But then Deadpool was banned for being too violent – despite perhaps not being compared to others in the series. Sex and even references to sex are often cut out: Brokeback Mountain was banned completely. Also, anything that criticises the current government or any past governments will be banned. One extreme example of this is Lou Ye’s 2006 film Summer Palace which was set in amongst the upheaval in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Lou Ye then sent the film to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival without government approval and as a result has been banned from filmmaking in china for 5 years.
However, some films have also been criticised for pandering to the Chinese Government to get their film brought out in China. Iron Man 3 specifically was criticised for adding superfluous Chinese characters to appeal to a Chinese audience.
However, despite some of these impressive box office statistics, the Chinese government has been accused of fiddling box office figures to ensure their domestic offering always generates more than the imported market. This includes unofficial blackout periods around national holidays where only homegrown films are shown. Often market subsidised tickets so that they were as low as 10.30 yuan (£1.15) to bring in huge numbers for opening weekend. The average cost of a cinema ticket in China is 38.8 Yuan or £4.35, whereas in the UK cinema tickets can range from £5-£13. As of Jan 2017, 5 of the top 10 highest-grossing films in China has been domestic productions.
One of the downfalls of Chinese animation and film is possibly its constant comparison to its neighbours. Japan and South Korea are seen to have a much more relaxed approach to importing and exporting and censorship. But Japan also seems to be miles ahead in the world of animation. When you ask many people to think about eastern animation they will likely think of Japanese. Studio Ghibli is one of the biggest producers of animation in the east and their films are loved all over the world. Japan has also won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature for Spirited Away in 2003 and Departures won best foreign language film in 2009. South Korean films have also reached international fame this year as Bong Joon-Ho’s film Parasite has been nominated for 6 Oscars and numerous others, as well as winning 2 Critics choice awards, and 1 golden globe. Despite being the first Korean film to be nominated for the Best Film Oscar, Bong Jong-Ho said that Korean films are very often overlooked and said that ‘The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local,’ thankfully that problem didn’t stop him winning 2 BAFTAs this weekend! In comparison to all of this China has only had 2 Oscar-nominated films for Best Foreign Film (Ju Duo 1991) and Hero (2002) neither of which it won.
We’ll be interested to see how the film industry will change to become more accepting of minorities, and with any luck, we could soon have a whole rafter of new and exciting Asian talent, like Bong Jong Ho.