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When art house meets commercialism
By Xu Wei

In recent decades, almost all Chinese films that have won recognition at European film festivals have featured a strong art-house style — Chinese elements, slow pace, long shots and the director’s own artistic self-expression.

However, the domestic film “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” which won the best film at the 64th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin last Saturday, has surprised many people with a contemporary new, combined style.

The winning film is a blend of the art-house genre and lots of commercial elements. Industry insiders expect the movie’s success to inspire Chinese cinema in many ways.

The efforts to bridge the gap between pure art-house cinema and multiplex fare may also set a good example and a more creative mechanism in the pitching, production and marketing of films.

The noir thriller by Chinese director Diao Yi’nan won the Golden Bear and its leading actor Liao Fan received the Silver Bear for Best Actor. It has been seven years since Chinese love story “Tuya’s Marriage” won the Golden Bear in 2007.

The jury’s decision was deemed “respectable” by Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel, which said “the film is a bloody genre piece, a social portrait of the Chinese backwoods and a passionate drama all in one.”

The newspaper also said, “it represents Chinese cinema, growing in aesthetic strength, that is successfully charting a new path between small films made below the censors’ radar and the bombastic hero epics in a booming domestic market.”

Set in the frosty reaches of northern China, the film with a 12 million yuan (US$1.97 million) budget is about a detective’s investigation of a series of mysterious murders. He later finds himself falling in love with the murder suspect, a beautiful young woman who works at a dry cleaners.

Actor Liao said he put on 20 kilograms to play the alcoholic, suspended police officer. The suspect is played by Taiwan actress Gwei Lun-mei, known for a pure girl-next-door image in many movies.

According to Shen Yang, the film’s producer, ever since the movie took the highest honor in Berlin, foreign distribution companies from more than 30 countries and regions have approached them.

Though it already has passed censors, the film’s release date in China has yet to be decided. But it probably will be in March while the movie’s star still shines among the public.

Producer Shen says that it took director Diao eight years to write and revise the script. The final version that was filmed was the third draft.

“Diao has impressed me with his amazing storytelling capability,” she tells Shanghai Daily. “The script has a very clear and solid structure, and Diao, who is also a talented writer, is adept at portraying the delicacy of humanity and human emotions.”

Observers consider that “Black Coal, Thin Ice” bridges the gap between art house and multiplex elements. Director Diao believes that Chinese productions have matured in recent years, as art and commercial films learn from each other.

Producer Shen agrees. She says she encouraged Diao to make sure the film appealed to a global audience. They merged a lot of commercial elements in its production, such as a star-studded cast and a solid plot that includes plenty of twists and turns.

In addition to domestic investors, the film also attracted American NBA player Carmelo Anthony and popular rapper Eminem as investors.

Since the murder story is told through enigmatic flashbacks, some viewers have compared it to famous Japanese film “White Night,” which is based on Keigo Higashino’s mystery novel.

But director Diao has said that the film is more heartwarming than other movies since he wanted to portray the emotions lying beneath the surface to help people “feel less alone with our dark side.”

But he has also admitted that he had taken the counsel of the producer of his last film, “Night Train” (2007), that “cold films don’t sell.”

Local movie critic Li Tian attributes the success of the film to the sincerity and long devotion of the film crew, adding that it will provide a big boost to Chinese cinema.

“It proves that filmmakers can achieve a very good balance of self-expression and commercial elements,” he says.

Li expects to see more domestic film directors tell thought-provoking Chinese stories with common techniques used in commercial film production. But in his opinion, only honest ones will stand out, and there is no shortcut to great success.

Film experts also notice the world’s greater enthusiasm for Chinese cinema and a more diversified perspective at the Berlin festival, one of the oldest and most prestigious film showcases in the world. Stories about the lives and destinies of ordinary Chinese people are expected to be better received.

However, despite the film’s critical acclaim, its future box office performance in China is still considered a challenge as very few award-winning art-house Chinese films are commercially successful.

Wang Quan’an’s “Tuya’s Marriage” grossed only around 1.3 million yuan when it was shown in China after winning the Golden Bear.

Jia Zhangke’s previous film “Still Life,” which garnered the top Golden Lion award at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, took in only around 2 million yuan nationally.

Shen, the producer of “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” notes that while the film market in China is growing very rapidly with ever-increasing movie screens in the country’s smaller cities, domestic audiences still need to refine their tastes in film.

“Very few outstanding and inspirational Chinese pictures came out last year because the filmmakers had made concessions to the market,” she says. “Currently, easy-to-understand commercial movies are still the favorite for Chinese cinema-goers, particularly those in small cities and towns.”

Shen says they will spend a large sum on the film’s marketing and promotion in China. An experienced marketing team will analyze the film’s market values and execute a plan based on all its commercial elements, such as cast and storyline.

She adds that they also are trying to make the film’s title a popular term on the Internet to describe a group of people who are dedicated to a clear goal in life, just like the characters portrayed in the movie.

Dai Guoping, deputy general manager of Yonghua Cinema, says that the film with some distinctive commercial elements will perform much better at the box office than former pure art-house offerings that won awards at international film festivals.

“But it still largely depends on the marketing strategy of the film and how strong its competitors are in the same slot,” Dai says. “We will give the film enough space for screening, and make timely adjustments based on the market feedback.”

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