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The Chinese cinema industry: China's cultural revolution

The new Merchant-Ivory production is the first Western film to be made entirely in the People's Republic. Meanwhile, Chinese stars such as Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li are becoming global household names in Hollywood. David Eimer reports on an astonishing movie-making boom

Friday 06 January 2006 01:00 GMT

When three members of the Redgrave acting dynasty - Vanessa, her sister Lynn, and her daughter Natasha Richardson - set about filming the final collaboration between James Ivory and the late Ismail Merchant, it looked like the culmination of a film career famed for its Anglo-Saxon pedigree.

But, despite its British and American cast, The White Countess, just released in American cinemas and due to open in the UK in March, is a Merchant-Ivory production with an Oriental twist. Set among the nightclubs and teeming streets of a city engulfed in political conspiracy and consumed by its own flamboyant decadence, where Chinese nationalists and White Russian aristocrats mingle with Jewish refugees and Japanese spies, it is the first Western film to be made entirely in China.

And, as the cast began shooting in a Fifties-era film studio in Shanghai's old city, the Chinese crew manning lights and cameras could have been forgiven for smiling. Until recently, they were mostly consigned to working on soap operas. Now, thanks to a recovery in which the Chinese film industry has blossomed into the third-largest in the world, they are back in serious work.

Only Hollywood and India's Bollywood produced more than the 260 films made in China last year, while many Western actors have headed east to work there. Tom Cruise was in Shanghai last November filming Mission: Impossible 3. Next month, Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor and Edward Norton arrive in Beijing to shoot Headhunters.

At the same time, Chinese actors are moving to Hollywood. One of the country's first internationally known actresses, Gong Li, is starring in Memoirs of a Geisha, the first mainstream Hollywood film to cast Asian actors in the main roles. Li, who will soon be featuring in a cinema adaptation of the television series Miami Vice, is playing alongside Chow Yun-fat, China's most famous male actor, who is himself due play the villain in sequels to Pirates Of The Caribbean.

She is supporting fellow Chinese star Zhang Ziyi, who came to fame at the age of 21 with her performance in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The three geishas are played by Chinese actresses speaking in English with Japanese accents, a decision triggered by a perception that, while Japan lacks many good actresses, China seems to be burgeoning with young talent.

With last year marking 100 years of film-making in China, the revival has come at an appropriate time. At a centenary celebration last week in Beijing, President Hu Jintao said, a little triumphantly: "You have shared the people's breath and the fate of our motherland."

Chinese films have never been as popular in the West, and domestic revenues last year passed £140m for the first time. The writer/director Wong Kar-Wai has made a reputation on the arthouse circuit, and films such as Kung Fu Hustle are measuring up to Hollywood competition in the United States. When Hero, a historical epic directed by Zhang Yimou, reached the top of the US charts in August 2004, the achievement was a source of national pride and provided a warning to Hollywood that a film with subtitles could out-perform homemade films.

The film industry is being marketed as part of China's modernisation process. With the world growing used to the influence wielded by the country's economy, the rise of what are domestically known as "cultural industries" is seen as the next step along a path from developing nation to world power.

That the ruling Chinese Communist Party backs film-making is ironic because the CCP under Mao Zedong came close to destroying Chinese cinema. Before the 1949 revolution, China had a vibrant film industry. Studios in Shanghai - known as the Hollywood of China - made comedies, romances and melodramas on an almost weekly basis which were very popular with domestic audiences.

Shots of the city's bustling, and usually romanticised, port were also used in Hollywood films from The Shanghai Gesture to Charlie Chan in Shanghai. The city had its place on the global cinema map - to the extent that its name was found in the titles of films that had not been shot there, such as Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai.

In the 1950s though, the purpose of the industry became propaganda rather than entertainment. Heroic tales of resistance against Japanese invaders and stern accounts of self-sacrificing farmers became staples. And this situation deteriorated further. During the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s leading film-makers were exiled to the provinces to make industrial-training films, or to become labourers in re-education camps. The film industry almost ceased to exist. Not one film was made on mainland China between 1966 and 1972.

But with Beijing due to host the 2008 Olympics, the next few years are being seen as offering China a chance to show that it is more than just the world's centre of manufacturing industry. Films will play a major part in that drive, but they are not the only focus. China has the world's fastest-growing book market and the English rights to last year's bestseller by Jiang Rong, The Wolf Totem, was acquired by Penguin Books in September for a reported $100,000 (£57,000).

Cultural industries have also expanded to include education. China has set up 26 Confucius Institutes around the world to teach Chinese languages and culture. And, as fewer Chinese students study overseas with home universities enjoying a wave of funding, more foreigners are arriving to study. A decade ago, the number of overseas students was 36,000, now it is 110,000.

But, as China peddles a softer side, life for those involved in cultural industries can still be uncomfortable. The China Film Museum in Beijing, the largest such institution in Asia, has just opened but stringent censorship, rampant DVD piracy, and a lack of cinemas and funding mean it is an uphill struggle for directors to make the films the museum is meant to showcase.

President Hu made it clear in December - at the event he used to publicise Chinese cinema's success - that he expects film-makers to steer clear of criticising his administration. "All those working with China's film industry should stick to the correct political direction all the time, and keep their sense of social responsibility to further the prosperity of China's film industry," he said.

Suchwords must have produced a wry smile for Zhang Yimou, whose presence was requested at the celebration but whose output has not always been welcomed by the authorities. His filmHero was selected by the government as one of the 100 greatest Chinese films for the centennial celebrations, but his most acclaimed films in the West - Ju Dou, Raise The Red Lantern and To Live - were all banned in China. Even when Raise The Red Lantern became the first Chinese film to be nominated for an Oscar, in 1991, he was not allowed to attend the presentation in Los Angeles.

Now that the government has realised that a film like Hero can boost China's image overseas, the situation is changing. "The Film Bureau is trying to treat cinema as an industry now and not just propaganda," says Zhang Xianmin, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, where Zhang Yimou and most of China's well-known film-makers trained.

"International influence, in terms of the money coming into Chinese film from overseas, has also led to a softer approach by the Bureau. But most important is the fact that a number of Chinese directors in their thirties are becoming famous overseas - if the authorities ignore them and continue to say 'as far as we're concerned their movies don't exist', it makes them look stupid."

Even when allowed to work legally, China's film-makers face the problem of getting their films seen. Cinemas are scarce, with only around 1,300 for a population of 1.3 billion. They are also expensive to patronise. Tickets in Beijing cost £1.50 to £4.30, which is far beyond the reach of ordinary Chinese. "Cinema-going in big cities is for the middle-classes. They're the only people who can afford to go," said Professor Zhang.

DVD piracy is also widespread and a drain on income for the industry. Ticket prices would have to drop below the average 50p cost of a bootleg DVD for people to start going to the cinema in the sort of numbers that would make audiences elsewhere seem tiny in comparison.

At last week's celebrations, as President Hu trumpeted the future of the film industry, a pay-per-view television station in Inner Mongolia was showing a bootleg version of The Promise, two weeks after it was released in cinemas. Costing $35m, it is the most expensive Chinese film made, but piracy and the lack of cinemas mean it will have to succeed overseas if it is to make a profit. Although eradicating piracy is unrealistic, building more cinemas is feasible. But until that happens, and the authorities further loosen their grip on creative talents, the dream of making a Hollywood in the Orient will struggle to become reality.

The White Countess may be set in the era of pre-war Shanghai, when creativity was encouraged and the city's imperial-era buildings were seen in films across the world, but Ivory and his star-studded cast will find that, for all its recent successes, China has some way to go before its film industry recreates its golden era.

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