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

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism