Hooray for Huairou: Chinese film comes of age

Just an hour away from Beijing, the film industry is booming, with new investment and some of America's biggest stars.

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The Independent Online

About an hour's drive from Beijing, you can find armies of kung fu fighters being put through their paces, Nationalist Kuomintang soldiers marching across 1920s Shanghai, and a full-sized replica of the capital's Gate of Heavenly Peace. Welcome to Huairou Film Base, which in a few short years has emerged as the centre of the Chinese film industry and home to some of the biggest productions in a rapidly expanding market.

In the thick of it is Keanu Reeves. His latest project, Man of Tai Chi, is a £20m contemporary kung fu and tai chi action film and it is being shot here at Huairou, with a cast including Tiger Hu Chen, Karen Mok and Reeves himself as the bad guy. And it's in Chinese.

Getting a big-name star such as Reeves to shoot here marks a major coup in the development of the Chinese film industry, but these days everyone wants a piece of the business. Box-office takings at Chinese cinemas surged past £1.25bn for the first time in 2011, nearly a third more than the previous year, according to the government's film bureau. This has been driven by an explosion in the number of cinemas, being built as part of the wave of shopping malls springing up around the country.

Last year, the number of screens exceeded 9,200, up 33 per cent on 2010, while the number of cinemas increased by 29 per cent to 2,800, most of them in first-tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and designed to satisfy demand from the increasingly moneyed middle classes.

The Communist Party recently declared that culture was a "pillar industry" to be nurtured and promoted. The official seal of approval means all kinds of projects are now getting off the ground. Nearly 800 films were made in China last year, but only a tiny percentage make it to the screen, and an even smaller share of those make a profit.

But this has not put off some of Hollywood's biggest stars. Arguably the most successful of last year's locally-made films was the famed director Zhang Yimou's The Flowers of War, starring Christian Bale, which Chinese audiences went to see in their droves. The film did poorly overseas, however, and the challenge remains to crack the export market, particularly in the West, where Hollywood films still rule. Chinese directors complain privately that over-zealous domestic censorship makes it impossible to make films that work for both domestic and overseas viewers.

But the government has promised to adopt a more relaxed attitude and Huairou is set to become a pivotal to that policy. It is also likely to get more attention after the Chinese government said it was prepared to open up more to Hollywood – allowing more foreign films in and giving overseas producers more of the takings.

Huairou Film Base is the largest studio complex of its kind in Asia; it covers 131 acres and cost £184m to build. It is cleanly landscaped and provides facilities for all aspects of production and post-production, with 16 studios, a digital production studio and a prop and costume warehouse. You drive through a gate proclaiming "China Film" and to your right is an arrangement of artillery weapons. Since it opened the fortunes of the facility have reflected the boom in the Chinese film business. Revenues last year were around one billion yuan (£100m).

"Every year we have 200 projects, including television shows and films. This year we had around 120 feature films, and the rest were television shows," said Zhang Hongtao, a spokesman for the Huairou Film Base. "This is the first stop. All the projects made here come here first. We organise not only shooting, but also development, catering, and hotels and services for producers."

Such is the growth that it is now not just Chinese backers that are flocking to Huairou to throw money at new projects. After James Cameron's 3D smash Avatar made £130m at Chinese box offices, Hollywood names such as the Village Roadshow Entertainment Group Asia and Universal, as well as Wanda Media, which is an offshoot of a property conglomerate, have all been considering investment.

Nearby, the village of Xiantai is undergoing a boom too, because it provides extras for the studios, and its inhabitants also work as security guards and cleaning staff. About 2,000 people make their living at the studio. They include Lu Hongxu, a 25-year-old law graduate who is employed to guide people around the site. She says the Hong Kong film legend, Chow Yun-fat, is the most famous actor she has spotted at the studios.

But for some local people, regular employment is the least they expect for having their farming land taken away by the government to build the complex. Indeed, there may be more jobs available to local people residents plans to expand become a reality. Traditionally, the post-production process has gone to Hong Kong, Australia or to the US, but the operators of the base are keen to keep all aspects of the business at Huairou and are investing heavily. This includes spending 1.5 billion yuan (£150m) on a "producer headquarter base".

"In the future we want to get more involved in more projects, and we will provide more training for the local people," Mr Zhang said. "This is a studio for producers with all the services from the development side to post-production."

Just outside Huairou Film Base there some serious property development is taking place, too, including the construction of a Netherlands-themed housing estate complete with windmill. Although it may look like a film set, it is an authentic villa development.

In China these days, it seems, life is constantly imitating art.

Film figures

$2bn Takings at Chinese box offices last year, projected to top $5bn by 2015

3,000 The number of new screens opened in China last year, a 50 per cent rise

$6 The amount an extra in China's film industry earns per day

34 The number of foreign films a year given national release in China