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

ANTONIO OLMOS / EYEVINE
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How Ken Loach's radical vision won him a second Palm d'Or

In Loach's films, authenticity is everything, and when his quest for realism pays off, there's nothing as raw in all of cinema.

On 22 May, at the age of 79, Ken Loach became the first British director to win the top prize twice at the Cannes Film Festival. His previous Palme d’Or, in 2006, was for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which dramatised the British occupation of Ireland and the origins of the IRA. This time, he won for I, Daniel Blake, the story of an ailing carpenter wrongly declared fit for work by the callous UK benefits system. No wonder Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, could issue only the most grudging acknowledgement, alluding vaguely to “Brit success!” in a tweet that failed to mention either Loach or the film.

The actor and Cannes jury member Donald Sutherland, on the other hand, called I, Daniel Blake “an absolutely terrific movie that resonates in your heart and soul”. It was an incongruous delight to see Loach posing before swarms of paparazzi. He usually disdains such frivolities; he might be red but he’s hardly red carpet. “As a film-maker, you’re forever involved in things that constantly inflate their own importance,” he once complained. Artifice, hyperbole and celebrity hold no appeal. Even film-making itself is full of irritating impediments. “If Loach could make a film without a camera, he would,” said Trevor Griffiths, who collaborated with him on Fatherland (1986).

Authenticity is everything. Unusually, Loach shoots in sequence, even if it requires moving back and forth at great cost between locations. In the days of celluloid, he would forfeit much of his fee to buy more film stock so that his beloved improvisations could roll on and on. When I visited the set of Carla’s Song near Loch Lomond in 1995, Loach gave the actor Robert Carlyle a good-natured ticking off for speaking to me between takes. “I’d rather he didn’t talk to anyone,” he said, “because then he’ll start thinking about things in terms of technique and who he really is, and it’ll all become conscious.”

When the quest for realism pays off, there is nothing as raw in all cinema. Think of the chilling attack on a family home by loan sharks in his 1993 drama Raining Stones, one of the films that began his most successful period, or the climax of Cathy Come Home, made for the BBC in 1966 and arguably his most groundbreaking film. As Cathy (Carol White) has her children taken off her by social workers and police, Loach films the entire traumatic episode in a wide shot with a hidden camera to preserve the reality. The movie led directly to the founding of Crisis.

Conversely, Loach at his worst can be one of the most simplistic sentimentalists out there. The characterisation of the salt-of-the-earth heroes in recent films such as Jimmy’s Hall and Route Irish, or the pantomime-villain Brits in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, shows what happens when action is overpowered by agenda.

Born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, Loach read law at Oxford but became seduced by theatre directing and acting: he was in a revue for which Dudley Moore composed the music, and understudied in the West End in One Over the Eight. He joined the BBC in 1963, where he brought extra earthiness to Z-Cars before finding his ideal outlet in The Wednesday Play slot that went out after the news. “We were very anxious for our plays not to be considered dramas but as continuations of the news,” he said. He made ten TV films under that banner but it was with his second movie, Kes, in 1969, that he took flight, proving that the gritty and the lyrical need not be mutually exclusive.

His politics was fully formed by this point. Though he has rejected claims that he is Marxist or Trotskyist, he admits that the analysis to which he turned after his disillusionment with Harold Wilson in the mid-1960s was a Marxist one. “The idea of a class analysis was the one we identified with,” he said of himself and his collaborators the producer Tony Garnett and the writer Jim Allen. “What we realised was that social democrats and Labour politicians were simply acting on behalf of the ruling class, protecting the interests of capital.”

This stance was consolidated by a series of run-ins in the 1980s, when he saw his work banned and thwarted by political forces. The transmission of his four-part 1983 television documentary Questions of Leadership, which asked whether the trade union leadership was adequately representing its members’ interests, was delayed and blocked by Labour string-pulling. Which Side Are You On? – a documentary about the miners’ strike – was rejected because of footage showing police violence.

Since his full-time return to cinema in the early 1990s, acclaim has eclipsed controversy. Even if he had not won a Palme d’Or, his stamp is all over other directors who have won that award in the past 20 years. The Belgian social realists Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, The Child) have never hidden their debt to him, while recent winners such as Jacques Audiard (Dheepan) and Cristian Mingiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) exhibit his mixture of directness, compassion and realism.

If there is anything that defines him, it is his fight, which has made it possible for him to remain one of cinema’s angriest and most effective voices. “In the long term, I guess I’m optimistic because people always fight back,” he said. “The reason to make films is just to let people express that, to share that kind of resilience because that’s what makes you smile. It’s what makes you get up in the morning.”

“I, Daniel Blake” is released later this year

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad