Stealing the market: “Hollywood directors can do what they want. It’s not a fair competition”
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Feng Xiaogang: the Chinese Spielberg

With new cinemas in China popping up at the rate of ten a day, Feng Xiaogang is the Chinese answer to Steven Spielberg: a reliable box office hitter.

Every Chinese New Year, a huge migration takes place. Families reunite, they eat dumplings, they set off firecrackers – and they watch a Feng Xiaogang film. Often dubbed “the Spielberg of China”, Feng has become a national institution. While his early years as a film-maker were defined by family-friendly comedies poking fun at China’s materialistic culture, recently he has turned to weightier, big-budget epics, produced by the Wang brothers, China’s answer to the Weinsteins. With 15 box office triumphs in 20 years, Feng is unquestionably the best-known – and most beloved – director of mainstream cinema in China.

Abroad, he is virtually unknown, despite Donald Sutherland, Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins starring in his films. It’s an oversight that the BFI hopes to address with this month’s retrospective, part of its “Electric Shadows” cultural collaboration with China. And it’s one that the Chinese government, aware of the poor ratings of the country’s films at foreign box offices, hoped to rectify by backing Feng’s Back to 1942 as the country’s official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film this year.

Yet, while the director seems sanguine about the ambivalence of audiences abroad, he has become increasingly fed up with unwanted scrutiny at home. “In the past 20 years, every Chinese director [has] faced a great torment,” Feng said last year at the China Film Directors’ Guild Awards, “and that torment is [bleep].” The censors bleeped out the word “censorship” – no irony intended. His speech went viral. Many declared that, at last, someone had “painted eyes on the dragon”, a phrase used to describe the moment a work or idea takes on a life of its own.

China’s long list of cinematic no-nos (any­thing from ghosts and Kate Winslet’s boobs to police brutality and corruption) are justified internally by the absence of an age-rating system – adults are, in effect, treated as children. Feng believes that Back to 1942, a film about a devastating famine in Henan in which nearly three million people died, was the best film he could make, given the restrictions: “I would have made it darker, more cruel, if I could have.”

But darkness isn’t an easy sell, with Chinese audiences thirsting for lightweight movies. “Entertainment on its own is just a glass of water with sugar,” says Feng. When Back to 1942 was beaten at the box office by Lost in Thailand, a Hangover-inspired comedy and the highest-grossing movie ever shown in China, Feng took to Weibo (China’s equivalent of Twitter) and wrote: “I am not proud of my nation any more.”

What may have appeared to be professional sour grapes was, Feng insists, a lament for the modern Chinese audience’s unwillingness to confront the realities of their history: “It took me ten years to be able to make this film, because this isn’t what we learned at school. We were always taught we were a great nation. But the more you learn about society and yourself, you can’t be so blindly happy about everything.”

Feng’s artistic ideals seem at odds with his previously unabashed commercialism. During the 1990s, while art-house films struggled to get past the censors and “main-melody” films (those in tune with orthodox socialist ideology) failed to connect with audiences, Feng believed in the market and entertainment. “Business is first, art is second,” he said back then.

It paid off. Feng’s hesui pian or New Year comedies helped start a “back to the cinema” wave that has been growing ever since. When his career began, the Chinese box office took 100 million yuan ($16.5m) a year. It now takes 20 billion yuan ($3.3bn). Last year, it overtook Japan to become the second-largest market in the world. Some estimate that it will surpass the US by 2018; there has been a 30 per cent annual growth in box office takings in the past decade. Cinemas are popping up at the rate of ten a day.

“The Chinese government is always reminding us that there are more and more foreign films being imported and that they are stealing the market,” Feng says. “But because of censorship, we have so many things to consider. Hollywood directors can do what they want. It’s not a fair competition.”

While all films – foreign and domestic – are subject to the same scrutiny in China, the size of the market is irresistible. Max Michael, an American talent agent in China, summed it up: “Where there is money, there’s co-operation.” Although seven of the top-ten highest-grossing Chinese films were homegrown last year, many Hollywood producers are more than happy to tweak or reshoot their films to appease Chinese distributors and secure screen time.

Feng has come full circle with his latest film, Personal Tailor. Like his first hit, Dream Factory (1997), it involves a group of actors who make people’s dreams come true. One of the characters is a successful director who, tired of winning awards such as “Sell-Out Screenplay of the Year”, craves critical recognition over popularity. Personal Tailor generated one of the most lucrative openings in Chinese history.

It is this tension that defines Feng’s career. “I want to make films because I’m interested in the subject, not to make money. I’m past all that now,” he says, before adding: “But you still have to think of the investors and producers. They need to make a profit to keep the market going.”

Feng Xiaogang is in conversation at BFI Southbank, London SE1, on 21 February

The BFI’s “A Century of Chinese Cinema” season starts in June

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

All photos: BBC
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“You’re a big corporate man” The Apprentice 2015 blog: series 11, episode 8

The candidates upset some children.

WARNING: This blog is for people watching The Apprentice. Contains spoilers!

Read up on episode 7 here.

“I don’t have children and I don’t like them,” warns Selina.

An apt starting pistol for the candidates – usually so shielded from the spontaneity, joy and hope of youth by their childproof polyester uniforms – to organise children’s parties. Apparently that’s a thing now. Getting strangers in suits to organise your child’s birthday party. Outsourcing love. G4S Laser Quest. Abellio go-carting. Serco wendy houses.

Gary the supermarket stooge is project manager of team Versatile again, and Selina the child hater takes charge of team Connexus. They are each made to speak to an unhappy-looking child about the compromised fun they will be able to supply for an extortionate fee on their special days.

“So are you into like hair products and make-up?” Selina spouts at her client, who isn’t.

“Yeah, fantastic,” is Gary’s rather enthusiastic response to the mother of his client’s warning that she has a severe nut allergy.

Little Jamal is taken with his friends on an outdoor activity day by Gary’s team. This consists of wearing harnesses, standing in a line, and listening to a perpetual health and safety drill from fun young David. “Slow down, please, don’t move anywhere,” he cries, like a sad elf attempting to direct a fire drill. “Some people do call me Gary the Giraffe,” adds Gary, in a gloomy tone of voice that suggests the next half of his sentence will be, “because my tongue is black with decay”.

Selina’s team has more trouble organising Nicole’s party because they forgot to ask for her contact details. “Were we supposed to get her number or something?” asks Selina.

“Do you have the Yellow Pages?” replies Vana. Which is The Apprentice answer for everything. Smartphones are only to be used to put on loudspeaker and shout down in a frenzy.

Eventually, they get in touch, and take Nicole and pals to a sports centre in east London. I know! Sporty! And female! Bloody hell, someone organise a quaint afternoon tea for her and shower her with glitter to make her normal. Quick! Selina actually does this, cutting to a clip of Vana and Richard resentfully erecting macaroons. Selina also insists on glitter to decorate party bags full of the most gendered, pointless tat seed capital can buy.

“You’re breaking my heart,” whines Richard the Austerity Chancellor when he’s told each party bag will cost £10. “What are we putting in there – diamond rings?” Just a warning to all you ladies out there – if Richard proposes, don’t say yes.

They bundle Nicole and friends into a pink bus, for the section of her party themed around the Labour party’s failed general election campaign, and Brett valiantly screeches Hit Me Baby One More Time down the microphone to keep them entertained.

Meanwhile on the other team, Gary is quietly demonstrating glowsticks to some bored 11-year-old boys. “David, we need to get the atmosphere going,” he warns. “Ermmmmm,” says David, before misquoting the Hokey Cokey out of sheer stress.

Charleine is organising a birthday cake for Jamal. “May contain nuts,” she smiles, proudly. “Well done, Charleine, good job,” says Joseph. Not even sarcastically.

Jamal’s mother is isolated from the party and sits on a faraway bench, observing her beloved son’s birthday celebrations from a safe distance, while the team attempts to work out if there are nuts in the birthday cake.

Richard has his own culinary woes at Nicole’s party, managing both to burn and undercook burgers for the stingy barbecue he’s insisted on overriding the afternoon tea. Vana runs around helping him and picking up the pieces like a junior chef with an incompetent Gordon Ramsay. “Vana is his slave,” comments Claude, who clearly remains unsure of how to insult the candidates and must draw on his dangerously rose-tinted view of the history of oppression.

Versatile – the team that laid on some glowstick banter and a melted inky mess of iron-on photo transfers on t-shirts for Jamal and his bored friends – unsurprisingly loses. This leads to some vintage Apprentice-isms in The Bridge café, His Lordship's official caterer to losing candidates. “I don’t want to dance around a bush,” says one. “A lot of people are going to point the finger at myself,” says another’s self.

In an UNPRECEDENTED move, Lord Sugar decides to keep all four losing team members in the boardroom. He runs through how rubbish they all are. “Joseph, I do believe there has been some responsibility for you on this task.” And “David, I do believe that today you’ve got a lot to answer to.”

Lord Sugar, I do believe you’re dancing around a bush here. Who’s for the chop? It’s wee David, of course, the only nice one left.

But this doesn’t stop Sugar voicing his concern about the project manager. “I’m worried about you, Gary,” he says. “You’re a big corporate man.” Because if there’s any demographic in society for whom we should be worried, it’s them.

Candidates to watch:


Hanging on in there by his whiskers.


Far less verbose when he’s doing enforced karaoke.


She’ll ruin your party.

I'll be blogging The Apprentice each week. Click here for the previous episode blog. The Apprentice airs weekly at 9pm, Wednesday night on BBC One.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.