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

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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.