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CULTURE-CHINA: Now Showing – Independent Films

Mitch Moxley

BEIJING, Aug 26 2010 (IPS) - While Hollywood blockbusters and state-funded historical epics continue to dominate China’s box office, a vibrant independent film scene is quietly growing.

Lacking distribution channels that lead to wide audiences, these films, which tend to focus on aspects of day-to-day life in China, are finding a home at the few independent cinemas that exist here and at film festivals dedicated to independent and documentary filmmaking at home and abroad.

“Although these kinds of films aren’t allowed to be screened at most theatres, independent film is developing well in China,” Cui Weiping, a film professor at the Beijing Film Academy, told IPS. “You can find people talking about them at university lectures, in art salons, etcetera. Independent film is an influential part of China’s film industry.”

China’s box office take is expected to hit 1.5 billion U.S. dollars this year, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency. Hollywood films, 20 of which are allowed to play in China per year, continue to be the biggest money makers. ‘Avatar’, James Cameron’s 3-D epic, pulled in 204 million dollars in China in 2010.

China’s home-grown, big-budget film industry is also growing. ‘Aftershock’, which focuses on the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, recently became the highest-grossing Chinese film in history after it earned 79 million dollars in ticket sales as of early August, overtaking ‘The Founding of a Republic’, a 2009 film that depicts Mao Zedong’s rise to power and pulled in 62 million dollars.

Film Bureau Director Tong Gang told Xinhua that China had made 288 movies in the first half of 2010 and is projected to complete 500 this year, which will make China the third largest film producer in the world, after India and the United States. Only a small number of Chinese films make it to theatres, and many of these are produced by the state-run China Film Group and often play on a swelling national pride to attract wide audiences.

The growing number of big-budget films playing in China’s multiplexes is not necessarily a bad thing for independent cinema in the country, said Wu Jing, programming and marketing manager at Broadway Cinematheque, an independent cinema in Beijing. As the audience for big-budget films grows, an interest in independent films will emerge accordingly, Wu told IPS.

“Cinema is growing very fast in China,” she said. “As the audience grows, they become eager to find other things to see.”

Broadway Cinematheque was founded 14 years ago in Hong Kong by Bill Kong, producer of films including ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ and ‘Hero’. The Beijing branch, which opened in December 2009, hosts a number of film festivals – including, recently, a tribute to Charlie Chaplin – and helps shine the spotlight on local talent. The cinema also hosts lectures and runs a library, bookstore and café.

More than half of the films screened at Broadway are made by Chinese directors. Even though these films all meet Wu’s definition of independent movies – they do not appear in commercial theatres – they are still subject to the country’s censors, as are all films played in China.

China currently has film festivals dedicated to independent and documentary films in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Chongqing, and some of China’s independent films are finding a small audience abroad. dGenerate films, a U.S. based distributor, carries 25 titles available for online streaming at five dollars per film, and for purchase, at varying prices.

Independent cinema in China emerged in the 1980s, when underground films were made outside of state funding. Some were screened at international film festivals. In the 1990s, national control of distribution was opened up, allowing filmmakers to cooperate with private businesses to see their films distributed.

Notable films representative of this period, according to Beijing Film Academy’s Cui, include Wu Wenguang’s 1990 documentary ‘Bumming in Beijing’, considered one of China’s first independent documentaries, and Zhang Yuan’s 1993 film ‘Beijing Bastards’, one of China’s first independently produced films.

Broadway Cinematheque’s Wu said that for independent film to truly thrive today and reach a wider audience, China’s censor system will need to be overhauled – something unlikely to happen anytime soon. She also worries about the aspirations of younger directors, whose goals are to make big- budget films destined for commercial theatres.

The weakened international film market, meanwhile, gives little incentive for Chinese directors to make controversial films that skirt the censors in order to appeal to an international audience, Wu said.

For some filmmakers, however, China is the land of opportunity.

Qiao Li, 24, was born in Jinan, Shandong province, raised in Melbourne, Australia, and in 2006 moved to Beijing, where he co-wrote and co-directed a feature film called ‘Ring Roads’ and has maintained a constant stream of work since then. He says the low cost of entry and the freedom he has as an independent director working outside the mainstream Chinese film industry have given him opportunities that do not exist in Australia.

“The reason I decided to work in China were the many, many opportunities available to a filmmaker here,” Qiao told IPS. “China to me seemed like a land of potential and where there didn’t seem to be many rules and for me, that was all I needed to know to make my mind up to be based here. The overall industry here is thriving and it’s free enough to let me do my thing and still be able to pay the rent, and that’s something I would have had a hard time doing back home.”

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