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Bringing interactivity to film
By Xu Wei


THE past Qixi Festival, or Chinese Valentine’s Day, was a very special experience for high school student Amy Chen, who went with her friend last Saturday to Shanghai Grand Cinema to watch a danmu screening of the domestic 3D animated film “The Legend of Qin.”

Danmu, or barrage, is originally a military term that means a line or barrier of artillery. Now it refers to an emerging way of watching film and TV series with spontaneous comments from the audience on the screen. It is specially popular among the post-1990s generation in China.

“It’s very fresh for me. The atmosphere was heated up when the funny words appeared on the wall,” Chen says. “We burst into laughter from time to time. We also made friends after the screening. It is a casual, fun and light-hearted memory for us.”

The wuxia animation tells the story of a boy who grows up to be a martial arts hero in the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). Though the movie has already had a big fan base through the televised animated series version, it is still a courageous attempt for the producers as there is a high risk that on-screen audience commentary will largely distract the audience.

However, the screening was a huge success. While watching the movie, most of the 1,000 or so viewers used their smartphones to post comments about the characters and scenes onto the wall beside the silver screen.

They typed the names of their favorite cartoon characters and talked about the storyline. Some male viewers even shared their WeChat IDs on the wall for the girls they had a bit of a crush on in the theater.

Shen Leping, the film’s director and screenwriter, says he was not surprised at the success of the danmu screening.

“The animation film is produced for people aged from 12 to 29, and that’s also the main group of people who are familiar with danmu through video-sharing websites,” he told local press in an earlier interview.

There will be a total of 50 danmu screenings of the film this month. The film producers have developed special danmu technology, software and equipment for the theater screening.

“Our film aims to provide an interactive platform for the viewers to communicate,” Shen said. “We also try to explore a new viewing style in this Internet era. The director conveys his ideas in the movie while the audience also express their opinions freely.”

Danmu screening is thought to be an ideal format particularly for idol movies with heartthrobs, fashionable sets and costumes. It has made the viewing experience interactive, and thus more fun and exciting. Industry insiders anticipate that danmu is about to flourish in China’s theaters and start a new cinema-going fad.

“Tiny Times 3,” the third installment of the romance drama film series written and directed by post-1980s writer Guo Jingming, has included danmu in its second round of theater screenings.

The film, released on July 17, is about a group of young people’s delicate relationships and challenges from work after college graduation. The film recently got a danmu screening in Beijing. But different from “The Legend of Qin,” audiences’ spontaneous comments were projected directly on the film screen.

The screening attracted more than 200 viewers, mostly young people who didn’t care about the story because they had already watched the movie during its first round of showing. They cared about their idols and were curious to learn about what other people thought.

It didn’t take long for the film screen to turn into a “bullet curtain” with intensive comments. Some viewers considered it a game, a chance for levity.

During the showing, a viewer posted “where is my charger baby?” on the screen. Seconds later, another viewer with the ID name “charger baby” responded, “I am here. Who is yelling?”

Danmu screening was created by a video-sharing website in Japan called Niconico. After it was introduced to China about three years ago, this screening format prevailed rapidly among young animation lovers and idol drama fans.

In addition to Niconico, popular danmu websites include Bilibili and AcFun. All of them offer flexible screening alternatives — with or without comments during the showing.

Tony Yuan, an IT engineer in his 20s, expects danmu to develop as a trend for video-sharing websites because of its originality and interactivity.

“The comments have a lot of functions, such as translation, in-depth interpretation and original opinions,” Yuan says. “For the homebodies, danmu can also relieve loneliness as the screen filled with comments creates a feeling of company. The feeling gets stronger when watching a thriller movie.”

However, danmu is not favored by all movie buffs. Kelly Zhang, a high school teacher in her 40s, says it’s just a marketing strategy to promote a movie when its plot and artistry are not strong enough to enchant the audience.

“I prefer the traditional film-viewing experience — sitting quietly in darkness at the cinema,” Zhang says. “For me it is more immersive and the viewers can establish a closer connection with the movie and its characters.”

In the eyes of local theater managers, danmu screenings provide a huge business opportunity, but it will take time for the mass market to accept. In the future, a danmu screening hall could flourish at cinemas as a supplement to IMAX and 4D screening halls, they say.

Li Weijun, an official from the Shanghai Grand Cinema, says that danmu screening requires a lot more technological support and that professionals must monitor and sometimes censor the words because not all comments are suitable for posting on the big screen. In his opinion, this method of screening can be very well-received in cartoon film screenings.

Film experts note that danmu screening satisfies the emotional needs of the post-1990s generation, who grow up with the Internet.

“It is a new good attempt as Chinese cinema requires diversity and audience fragmentation,” says Professor Shi Chuan, vice president of the Shanghai Film Association. “However, it will not largely change the mainstream film-viewing experience. Danmu is more like a byproduct of film screening that is appropriate for second and third rounds of screening.”

Shi also notes that the light from smartphone screens and the comments will disturb other viewers. Therefore, film producers must carefully select the audience for danmu screenings, lest those who are not in favor of the danmu screening style will complain.

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