FFY3: Film Festivals and East Asia

January 8, 2011 at 11:52 am

I am pleased to announce the publication of our new volume from the Film Festival Yearbook undertaking, the third one in a row. Co-edited by myself and Ruby Cheung, this one is dedicated to Film Festivals and East Asia and is available to order from our web-site; it is also possible to order it in combination with our previous volumes, Film Festivals and Imagined Communities and The Film Festival Circuit, at a special price. Working on this volume was extremely engaging and exciting. The collaborators were based all over the world, as usual, and we managed to gain insights into a little known but thriving area for film festivals.

The table of contents features:

FILM FESTIVALS AND EAST ASIA

East Asia: ‘New Localism’, ‘Full Service’ and Film Festivals
Dina Iordanova

Part I: Contexts

Asian Film Festivals, Translation, and the European Film Festival Short Circuit
Abé Mark Nornes

East Asian Film Festivals: Film Markets
Ruby Cheung

Japan 1951-1970: National Cinema as Cultural Currency
Julian Stringer

News for Whom?: Critical Coverage of the 10th Jeonju International Film Festival
Adrian Martin

Washington, Pusan, Rotterdam, Udine and Back: Programming East Asian Films for American Audiences
Tom Vick

Comrades and Citizens: Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals in China
Ragan Rhyne

Part II: Case Studies

Bulldozers, Bibles, and Very Sharp Knives: The Chinese Independent Documentary Scene
Abé Mark Nornes

Programming Southeast Asia at the Singapore International Film Festival
Felicia Chan and Dave Chua

Taipei Film Festival: Creation of a Global City
Yun-hua Chen

Tourism and the Landscape of Thai Film Festivals
Adam Knee and Kong Rithdee

North Korea’s Pyongyang International Film Festival
James Bell

Between Europe and Asia? A Chronicle of the ‘Eurasia’ International Film Festival (Kazakhstan)
Birgit Beumers

Part III: Resources

The Resources: Necessary Groundwork
Dina Iordanova

Interviews
1. ‘I believe in “film as art”’An Interview with Li Cheuk-to, Artistic Director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF)
Ruby Cheung
2. A Platform to the World: An Interview with Kim Ji-seok, Executive Programmer of the Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF)
Seunghee Lee
3. ‘It’s very simple. We like to give the audience the chance to see good films’ An Interview with Hayashi Kanako and Ichiyama Shozo of Tokyo FILMeX
Chris Fujiwara
4. Do Vodka and Sake Really Mix? An Interview with Natalia Shakhnazarova, Executve Director of Pacific Meridian: Vladivostok International Film Festival of Asian Pacific Countries
Alex Fischer

Tables
Location Map (Alex Fischer)
Table 1: The Asia-Pacific Film Festival (1954- ) (Sangjoon Lee)
Table 2: East Asian Festivals by Decade (Ruby Cheung and Alex Fischer)
Table 3: Festivals Featuring Significant East Asian Cinema Content (Andrew Dorman and Alex Fischer)
Table 4: Film Festivals in Mainland China (Ma Ran)
Table 5: Film Festivals in Hong Kong (Ma Ran)
Table 6: Film Festivals in Taiwan (Yun-hua Chen)
Table 7: Film Festivals in Japan (Alex Marlow-Mann)
Table 8: Film Festivals in South Korea (Yun Mi Hwang)
Table 9: Film Festivals in Singapore (Dave Chua)
Table 10: Film Festivals in Central Asia and the Asian Part of the former USSR (Birgit Beumers)
Table 11: Documentary Festivals in Asia (Abé Mark Nornes)
Table 12: GLBT Festivals in Asia (Ragan Rhyne)
Table 13: Monetary Value of Awards at Top Festivals in East Asia (Alex Fischer)

Bibliography: Film Festivals and East Asia (Alex Fischer)

What is New in Film Festivals Studies Thematic Bibliography on Film Festival Research: Update 2010
Marijke de Valck and Skadi Loist

Tadjik Baimurat Allaberiyev (37) sings Jimmy Adja

May 3, 2010 at 11:09 pm

The song is from the popular Indian film Disco Dancer (1983), a response of sorts to Saturday Night Fever; the original clip from the film can also be seen on YouTube. A Tadjik citizen of Uzbek origin, Baimurat is a guest worker in Russia, where, in 2008, he became a local viral sensation that has been compared to the Susan Boyle phenomenon in the UK. Born near the Afghan border and having worked as a cotton picker, he now works in a storeroom in a shopping centre in Kolomna, central Russia. His overnight celebrity status secured coverage in The New York Times and other high profile media around the world; he also had the opportunity to state his opinions on the enormous popularity of Indian cinema in the former USSR.

Why is this clip of particular interest to me? Because
– first, it shows a cinema viewer from a remote country; we know very little of the film viewing habits of the audience in Tadjikistan.
– second, the subject is a migrant worker who lives in diaspora. We thus learn what film material has been available for him to view. I would speculate he may have seen the 1983 Indian film in a cinema and perhaps, later on, on a DVD. He says he learned the song from listening repeatedly to a cassette.
– third, it points at the fact that his popular culture preferences are not as commonly believed and in this case reveal that a Bollywood product is definitely more popular than, say, a Hollywood blockbuster.
Thus, it is yet one more example that feeds into my interest toward Cinema at the Periphery. In Korea, there is even a dedicated Migrant Worker Film Festival, which caters to this type of Gastarbeiter audiences.*

© Dina Iordanova
4 May 2010

*Hwang, Yun Mi, ‘Under the Migrant Lens: Migrant Worker Film Festival in South Korea,’ In:Film Festival Yearbook 2: Film Festivals and Imagined Communities >, 2010.

Screen International: International Blockbusters

November 23, 2009 at 1:51 am

I am wondering what the magazine is actually covering by way of reviewing international films. Indeed, there are a number of articles discussing the dynamics in international and particularly Asian film industry lately. When it comes to reviewing concrete films, however, there is a strange discrepancy to be observed. There are always reviews of the American films that are at the top of the international box office, as well as of some of those from Europe. However, almost none of the Asian films that appear in the top forty (or, for that matter, even in the top ten) listings, are being reviewed. Over the past several months, for example, Screen International offered a somewhat belated yet adequate coverage on the Nordic hit The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a Danish-Swedish co-production, but barely any coverage on the other top-40 European films, which in most cases originate from countries like Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Turkey and Russia. One of the few box office hits from Asia to see a more detailed review was Hachiko: A Dog’s Story, the tale of the fateful dog that waited on the city train station in Shibuya for his dead ‘salaryman’-owner every day for a number of years after his dead. It is a beloved Tokyo story; the statue of the dog can be seen at this most famous intersection in the city.

However, except the brief ‘capsula’ reviews of some of these titles, endurable 2009 box office hits from Asia, such as South Korean Haeundae and Take Off, Indian Kambakkh Ishq, Kaminey, Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani, or the Japanese 20th Century Boys and April Brides were not written about.

The most endurable Asian presence in the global top ten box office of this past summer (2009), the Japanese baseball drama Rookies, which made nearly a hundred million from its very limited territorial distribution, was not covered either. It is interesting to note that at the time of this writing it appears there is no entry for the film at the IMDb, either. It only lists the TV series on which the film is based.

In my view, the function of the magazine which bills itself as ‘trade’ would be to serve the trade by bringing information on what is hot and what sells. If I am a distributor, I may be particularly interested in knowing more about films that made tens of millions of dollars elsewhere, as they clearly have got commercial potential. Instead, the review section of Screen International offers reviews of small festival films that are regularly assessed as lacking adequate commercial potential. On the one hand, there is information on the performance of global blockbusters but no information on the actual style/content of those. On the other hand, there are reviews of artistically worthwhile (or sometimes disappointing) films that lack in commercial potential. Ultimately, the message as I receive it, is: Only commercial cinema from the US merits coverage and attention, this is the only sphere where money can be made; the only aspect of international cinema that deserves our consideration includes arthouse and indie films with no popular appeal.

© Dina Iordanova
23 November 2009

The Closing of Pyongyang International Film Festival, September 2008

March 26, 2009 at 12:34 am

I came across this interesting item on You Tube, featuring the closing ceremony of Pyongyang’s IFF last September (see also Jamie Bell’s piece on the history of this festival, in a recent issue of Sight and Sound). The festival has been in existence since 1987 and clearly is one of the festivals that has got an idiosyncratic and interesting agenda.

I also re-post here the report that comes along on You Tube, which tells us of the films that won awards — mainly Chinese and Iranian titles (a film by Xiaogang Feng and by Rakhshan Bani Etemad), but also The Counterfeiters (Austria) and Elizabeth I-The Golden Age (UK) and Atonement (UK), as well as Czech Empties. The first two films also won awards at the Oscars and at the BAFTAs, while Jan Sverak’s film got the audience award at Karlovy Vary last year. So, not much difference in the taste of North Korea’s comrades and that of audiences and academies in the West. And the range of exposure to international titles is not much worse than the one viewers at most festivals in the West would get.

Pyongyang, September 26 (KCNA) — The 11th Pyongyang International Film Festival which opened on September 17 was closed with due ceremony at the Pyongyang International Cinema House on Friday. Present at the closing ceremony were Yang Hyong Sop, vice-president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Ro Tu Chol, vice-premier of the Cabinet, Kang Nung Su, minister of Culture who is also chairman of the festival organizing committee, Pak Kwan Ho, chairman of the Pyongyang City People’s Committee, and others, foreign delegations and delegates and members of the international jury of the festival. Present there on invitation were diplomatic envoys of various countries, embassy officials and staff members of missions of international organizations here. At the ceremony the results of the screening of the films presented to the festival were announced by the jury and awards were conferred upon the successful films. According to the results, award for the best film and directing and technical awards for full-length film were conferred upon the Chinese film “Assembly”, award for scenario of full-length film upon the Iranian film “Mainline”, award for shooting and fine art upon the British film “Atonement”, award for acting upon the actor who played the main part in the Bosnia-Herzegovina film “It’s Hard to Be Nice,” award for acting upon the actress who played the main part in the Iranian film “Mainline” and award for music upon the Indian film “Tale of a River”. Award for directing documentary and short films went to the German documentary “Chamame – Music, People, Poetry”, award for composition to the DPRK children’s film “The Oriole’s Song”, award for shooting to the British documentary “Earth”, special award of the International Jury of the Festival to the Czech film “Empties” and the Chinese documentary “The Imperial Garden”, special award of the Organizing Committee of the Festival to the Russian film “The Irony of Fate ” (continuation) and the Chinese film “The Tender of Feeling”. Awards for special screening were conferred upon the German film “The Counterfeiters”, the Russian film “Mukha”, the Swiss film “Vitus”, the DPRK film “The Kites Flying in the Sky”, the Chinese film “Good Man”, the French film “Aurore”, and the British film “Elizabeth I-The Golden Age”.

© Dina Iordanova
26 March 2009

Gagma napiri/ The Other Bank (Georgia, 2009): Transnational cinema at the periphery

March 2, 2009 at 1:58 am

Talking to Georgian Tbilisi-based director George Ovashvili last week at Belgrade FEST about his gripping humanist tale Gagma napiri (The Other Bank), where it was featured as part of the competition Europe outside of Europe, led to the emergence of yet one more amazing composite picture of the subdued dynamics of transnational filmmaking ‘at the periphery’.

While this appears to be a distinctly Georgian film, in that it is set in Georgia and Abkhazia and features the specific realities of the country, it is also one that involves creative ‘above the line’ contributions from professionals that belong to no less than seven other national cinematic traditions, none of which is Western. Kazakh Sain Gabdullin co-produced the film with Ovashvili, while Kyrgyz Marat Sarulu acted as an associate producer. The adaptation of the novel was assisted by Rustam Ibragimbekov, a screenwriting veteran of Soviet cinema responsible for classics such as Beloe solnce pustyni (White Sun of the Desert, 1970), who is based in Baku, Azerbaijan today. The cinematography of the film is by Iranian Shahriar Assadi, best known for his work on Bahman Ghobadi’s Turtles Can’t Fly (2005), the sound mixing — by Czech Ivo Heder, while Jew Israel David is listed as score recordist.

When he came to think of editing the film, Ovashvili noticed that two of his favorite films, Kim Ki-duk’s The Coast Guard (Hae anseon, 2002) and Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok, 2003) shared the same editor, award-winning Sun-min Kim. Clearly, a South Korean editor would be out of reach for a director based in Tbilisi in these turbulent times, be it just for the sake of the differences in language and the geographical distance. Nonetheless, George Ovashvili decided to use an e-mail address he found on the Internet and tried contacting Sun-min Kim by sending a message into cyberspace following the principle ‘if you do not try, you do not know,’ yet without expecting much. To his great surprise, however, he soon received a reply from the editor who was amazed that someone from a remote and isolated country like Georgia may know of her work and may be interested to work with her. When it transpired that the Georgian director’s budget cannot accommodate the usual fee that the editor would work for, she even agreed to reduce substantially, and worked on the project for a whole month in Tbilisi, giving it her full attention and dedication.

There is nothing surprising, really, in this configuration of transnational collaborators, especially as it is coming from a director who identifies Korean director Kim Ki-duk and Iranian Majid Majidi (alongside Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf) as his main influences. It is more and more often that major international auteurs trace their artistic roots to influences that come not from the West but from countries like Russia and Iran (take the example of acclaimed Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, for example, whose early work reveals a fruitful cross-pollination between Tarkovsky and Kiarostami). The trend of this ‘peripheral’ transnational cinema is getting stronger every year. I see it all the time in various instances, yet it appears it is best to foreground it one example at a time, as I have attempted to do in this short discussion of George Ovashvili’s film.

© Dina Iordanova
2 March 2009

Epics of national pride: The international exposure

February 14, 2009 at 12:03 am

I am curious about the international presence of all those international epic sagas that are made with the ambition to showcase glorious national history. Such films are suitable mostly for internal national usage, but in some cases get exported world-wide, even though remaining self-contained and of limited niche interest in the context of such releases.

A project of this kind was in the centre of attention in my native country, Bulgaria, in 1981 – the year when the 1300 anniversary of the establishment of the first Bulgarian state in 681 was being celebrated. The film 681- Velichieto na hana was an epic saga telling the glorious history of the nation’s founding father, Khan Aszparuh. Based on a novel by respected historian Vera Mutafchieva, the film was made in two versions. Khan Aszparuh (1981) was an extended three-part Bulgarian version, whereas 681: Velichieto na hana/ 681: The Glory of the Khan (1981) was an English language version of the same film, based on the same script, made by the same director and starring the same actors, only shorter and made with international export in mind. Needless to say, the film went largely unnoticed internationally. Nonetheless, this is one of the few Bulgarian films that can still be found in vernacular Western distribution today, and certainly a curios project that provides a good glimpse into the way such national epics are produced and publicized. I have occasionally had the chance to hear from American and West European academics engaged in teaching Bulgarian culture and history that they have used the film in the context of their work.

Kazakh-financed Nomad, for example, a technically proficient epic tale of the glorious beginnings of the Kazakh nation in the 18th century filmed on the initiative of Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbaev, was tackled as a project of national importance and made for $40 million with French assistance. It dealt with alternative narratives of the Kazakh past aiming to give boost to emancipating the nation’s historical identity from the Soviet shadow. Conceived and executed as a product clearly geared toward international markets, the project was completed with the directorial involvement of well-known diasporic US-based Europeans (Czech Ivan Passer and Russian Sergei Bodrov). The film was nominated for a Golden Globe and distributed by the Weinstein Company who secured an international and a North American release, but only had limited impact.

Similarly, the US distribution of Suriyothai, a lavish 16-th century spectacle of national pride from Thailand, featuring majestic battles and elephant battles that are said to have directly influenced Oliver Stone Alexander’s Asian battle scenes, was treated as a project of utmost national importance, aimed at getting the film a foreign Oscar nomination (Jirattikorn, 2003). Its carefully-orchestrated U.S. release took place with assistance from Francis Ford Coppola, a personal friend of director Yukol, who adapted a version of the film for the North American market. North American theatrical distribution was handled by Sony Picture Classics (which placed a total of twenty two prints in circulation) and the DVD – by Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, making Suriyothai one of the few Thai films readily available in the West. It enjoyed good critical reception but it did not bring significant revenues.

Clearly, such national projects remain of utmost significance within the context of the producing nation. It is often the case that all instances of foreign distribution and acclaim for these films are given disproportionate attention domestically, thus creating the impression that the national saga has been truly influential internationally. In reality, these are films that remain primarily of academic interest and most often end up used in the context of area studies. In her analysis of the discourse surrounding Suriyothai, for example, anthropologist Amporn Jirattikorn (2003) argues that the film’s construction of ‘Thai-ness’ effectively promotes a narrative of self-sufficiency and positive isolationism, thus furthering the ideology of the ability of Thailand to remain intact by colonizing flows and to maintain its sovereignty today like it has been able to do in the past. And indeed, given the fact that Suriyothai was distributed internationally but never reached the popularity that had been planned for it, it may be noteworthy that Thais have not made further efforts to get into Western distribution the two subsequent epic dramas made by Suriyothai’s director Yukol, thus confirming Jirattikorn’s commentary on the ideological underpinnings of self-sufficiency, conscious distancing from the West and focusing on cultivating discourse on Thailand’s history exclusively within the country. Could it be that the decision of the Thais is suggestive of an attitude that is skeptical of the chances for an intra-cultural dialogue? And if this is the case, is this stance limited only to those Asian nations that are known for isolationist national ideology or it reflects a wider approach?

*Jirattikorn, Amporn. ‘Suriyothai: Hybridizing Thai National Identity Through Film,’ Journal of Inter-Asian Cultural Studies. Volume 4, Issue 2, August 2003, p. 296-308.

* * See dedicated pieces on Nomad, Suriyothai and other recent international epics in the Epic Cinema section of DinaView.

© Dina Iordanova
7 February 2009

Aerograd (USSR, 1935), Alexandr Dovzhenko

August 29, 2008 at 12:03 am

Yet another rare film I got the chance to see at the Cinematheque in Bercy in Paris earlier this year, Dovzhenko’s Aerograd (1935). It was not full of airplanes and futuristic imagery as the name (Aero City) had led me to expect, and it is most certainly not a ‘futuristic adventure story’ as the Wikipedia article claims, but rather a social film that reflects the situation in the far East of Russia in the mid-1930s and is pretty much in line with the official political line of the Soviet government at the time.

The film is set in the middle of the Siberian forests, where Russian and Chinese ethnicities co-exist side by side and intermarry, and comments on a contemporary political situation. The local community is on the brink of civil war, split between a group of Starovery (Old Believers) who, chased away by the Bolshevik revolution, have migrated to this remote location from more central parts of Russia and the community of other locals, who are loyal to the Bolshevik government. The tensions are fueled by the fact that a group of Japanese-led saboteurs have entered the territory and seek to incite the Old Believers to rebel against Soviet power. Most of the six saboteurs are intercepted and killed, but one of them, a samurai, has managed to hide and is now engaged in subversive activities. He is helped by a local man, Vassiliy, who hides him. Soon thereafter, however, Vassiliy is exposed as traitor. The protagonist of the film, Stepan, who is Vassiliy’s friend since childhood, is charged with the task of executing his best friend. Other difficult decisions need to be made as well; by the end of the film the local men, Russian and Chinese fighting alongside each other, have managed to deal away with the rebels. They have secured the piece that is necessary for the next generation, to enable them fulfilling the dream of proudly building Aerograd, the city of their dreams. The glorious construction will be led by Stepan’s son, the pilot.

Here is a video clip which shows the confrontation between the protagonist’s on (the only pilot in the film), the Japanese saboteur, as well as an interesting Old Believer character, whose loyalties are split.

I found two aspects of this film particularly interesting. First, the clear suggestion that Japanese aggression was expected and depicted as imminent. Secondly, the interesting portrayal of the split within the community of Old Believers. It is known that in the latter part of the 1930s significant parts of the community migrated to Manjuria; after the end of WWII they were again forced to migrate further, ending up on the other side of the Pacific, scattered around localities in South America and the west of Canada.

One of the film’s cinematographers is Eduard Tisse, known from his work with Eisenstein. Many amateurs took part in the shots as extras, local people who otherwise would probably never be in a film. The multi ethnic cast reflects the multicultural nature of the Soviet society, especially of these parts of Russia; it is an aspect that often escapes us and needs to be recognized more centrally, especially in the context of other important films that tackle the Soviet expansion into Asia, as seen in films like Pudovkin’s Potomok Chingis-Khana/Storm over Asia (1928) and Vertov’s Three Songs of Lenin (1935), an important colonization which has been highlighted in numerous post-war films as well (e.g. in Andrey Konchalovsky’s Perviy uchitel/The First Teacher, 1966). Reportedly, Aerograd, which also played in the US at the time, was on the Top Ten list of favorite films of Elia Kazan; it also figures on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s list of 1000 essential films.

Aerograd is a dream city which will be built on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. For the time being, only one of the protagonists is flying, a pilot who is always smiling and who drops home only from time to time (like when his Chinese wife has given birth to a baby boy). A young Chukche man travels hundreds of miles, determined to shed off his nation’s isolation and join the new life. It all ends up with a view of the glorious sun coming out of the sea; the socialist realist ending shows proud dreamers, gathering on the shores of the Pacific from all parts of the vast Soviet Union. They are committed to building Aergorad, which now becomes synonymous with the future of the country. It is only at the end of the film that the depiction of flying takes prominent place, with a spectacular skydiving show and under the accompaniment of glorious music, as seen in this clip.

The film, with no subtitles, is available to view at
http://www.archive.org/details/aerograd.

© Dina Iordanova
29 August 2008

Transnational Class of Film Professionals I

July 27, 2008 at 12:17 am

Russian director Sergei Bodrov, Chinese cameraman Fei Zhao, Czech cameraman Igor Luther

The emerging class of transnational film professionals consists of American and other international specialists who have gravitated around Hollywood but who regularly contract on productions from various countries, and of specialists who are based in a range of other countries, but whose dispersal does not prevent them from grouping and regrouping in various team configurations, again to work on a wide range of productions made internationally. It is in the context of epic cinema that this highly skilled labour is most easily seen and discovered, maybe because it is these large-scale productions with their sizable crews of below the line personnel that create the need of outsourcing arrangements that would bring in professionals that offer their services in the sphere of transnational filmmaking.

It is about stunts specialists, special effects people, the folks engaged in CGI, the musical effects department, and so on. As this is a highly-skilled and well-paid workforce that needs to be kept employed on an ongoing basis, the companies that employ these specialists often take on assignments coming from international sources. The result is that, no matter if the film is billed as Chinese or American production, its underlying stunts, special effects, sound effects, and CGI are often generated from within the same group of transnational professionals. Even though most of the crew who worked on House of Flying Daggers are Chinese, the sound and visual effects were outsourced to American companies, and ended up being handled by people who were also involved in productions such as Moulin Rouge, Lord of the Rings, 300 and The World Trade Center. It is only Indian superproductions for now who manage to source all departments entirely from within their own workforce.

Of course, the talent working above the line are more often than not transnational professionals themselves – like Russian director Sergei Bodrov, who worked for the Kazakh government on Nomad and who then made Mongol as a Kazakh/German/Russian/Mongolian production. Mongol used a Japanese star, a Russian and a Dutch cinematographer, an Icelandic editor, and a Finnish composer, as well as scores of Chinese, Koreans, Germans and Russians employed in ‘below the line’ roles. The Chinese cinematographer of The Emperor and the Assassin, Fei Zhao, also shot films for Woody Allen. Czech cameramen worked on Suryiothai one of whom, Igor Luther, has worked across Europe with directors like Andrzej Wajda and Volker Schlöndorff. It is more of less the same like in Hollywood, which is used to cherry-picking international talent in putting together multinational crews, where Oliver Stone’s Alexander had a team comprising of a Mexican cinematographer, a Greek composer, an editor who mostly works in the Arab world and an editor who mostly works with Luc Besson.

It is still too early to say to what extend this pragmatic transnationalism, often driven by pure practicalities and matters of convenience and often remaining behind the scenes and below the line, impacts on the look and feel of epic films, if at all. In the second part of this post, I will discuss an example where I saw it clearly pronounced and deployed in an interesting context.

© Dina Iordanova
27 July 2008

This entry is part of my investigation into international epic cinema, which also includes entries on other films from China (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower), Thailand (Suryiothai), Kazakhstan (Nomad), India (Asoka, Jodha Akbar), and elsewhere (Mongol).

The Emperor and the Assassin/ Jing ke ci qin wang (1998) Chen Kaige

July 20, 2008 at 9:54 pm

The Emperor and the Assassin, a co-production between China, Japan and France (with some German participation), preceded Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s success, and thus remained somewhat less visible than it would be if it had been released in the aftermath of Ang Lee’s phenomenal success. It was directed by another Fifth Generation figurehead, Chen Kaige, whose credits also include the beautiful Life on a String (1991) and the Cannes winner Farewell My Concubine (1993). Like Curse of the Golden Flower, it also stars Gong Li and has been similarly described as a ‘compelling epic’ an as ‘Chinese history with a Shakespearean twist’.

The film is set in 3rd century BC and features court intrigues related to the establishment of Ying Zheng, heir to the Kingdom of Qin, as powerful emperor whose ambition is to expand his rule beyond his immediate kingdom.

It was shot entirely on location in China and is one of the first productions meant for distribution abroad that clearly took advantage of the fact that labor was so much cheaper in China. In newsgroup review Edwin Jahiel estimates the budget between $10 and $30 million. If this indeed is the case, it is likely that the film was not particularly successful commercially; while it has probably returned the investment, it is not really likely that it has surpassed it more than twice. There are very limited data on its box office, and it is not clear what it made in territories in Europe and Asia. Released December 2000 in the US where it played at a handful of screens (maximum 37) its gross reached $1,328,435. There are no data on revenues from the DVD distribution, even though this is probably a key potential source of revenues. Like many other of these epics, the film, even though it is available on DVD, is also an easy target for pirated Torrent download.

This entry is part of my investigation into international epic cinema, which also includes entries on other films from China (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower), Thailand (Suryiothai), Kazakhstan (Nomad), India (Asoka, Jodha Akbar), and elsewhere (Mongol).

Curse of the Golden Flower/ Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia (2006), Zhang Yimou

July 20, 2008 at 3:27 am

Based on a classical Chinese play and set around the end of the Tang Dynasty of 10th century AD, Curse of the Golden Flower is the most lavish of Zhang Yimou’s costume epics, featuring more than 1000 extras along the world’s most bankable Chinese-language stars (Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li), extensive battle scenes and superbly elaborate sets and costumes. It is the film that comes the closest to the Western concept of an epic film in that it places large-scale historical movements in direct relation to the intrigues and the intricate relations of the royal court, and in that its plot is most directly reminiscent to a classical Western-style tragedy. With the density of emotion and feeling confined within the closed world of the family, the story is reminiscent to ancient Greek dramas, or it can be directly compared to Shakespearian tragic plots.

And indeed, in an interview at the film’s world premiere (notably taking place as part of the AFI fest in Hollywood), actor Chow Yun Fat articulates clearly that the film’s team were conscious of how close this film is to classical Western narratives, by comparing it to tragedies like King Lear and Hamlet.

In this reportage realized by Asia Pacific Arts (with the reporter making the remark that the premiere does not seem to have received much coverage from the mainstream networks), director Zhang Yimou is seen claiming that the absence of China-specific historical and cultural background knowledge should not impede the Western viewers’ reception, as they will undoubtedly be able to appreciate the epic tale simply as a profound human drama.

The utterings made in the context of this reportage are really noteworthy in that they reveal important aspects of the dynamics of transnational considerations in filmmaking: clearly, the film was pitched to investors as a project of great commercial potential precisely because of its dramatic/tragic plot (comparable to the very popular Shakespeare) that would make the culturally specific background irrelevant and thus supply it with the cross-over potential for a commercially successful project.

According to the (incomplete) data made available at Box Office Mojo, the film’s worldwide gross was $78,568,977. US domestic revenues are about 8.4% ($6,566,773) while the international ones account for an even bigger proportion of 91.6% ($72,002,204). Handled by Sony Classics, the film had a run of about 14 weeks, between January and March 2007, reaching its widest US release at 1,234 screens. Internationally it has played in theatrical distribution across 35 or so territories, in North and South America, Asia and Europe. About a dozen or so companies were involved in the film’s international distribution, half of which are overseas arms of Hollywood players such as Buena Vista International (Singapore) or Columbia TriStar (Argentina).

The revenues from the film look good, but this changes as soon as one realizes that the budget of Curse of the Golden Flower is actually at about 50% higher than that of Hero (at the time the most expensive Chinese film). Hero was made for about $30 million, whereas the estimated budget for Curse of the Golden Flower is $45 million. Thus the revenues that the film has realized, less than 200% cannot really compare with the 600% that the two other previous epics of Zhang Yimou brought in.

Like the previous two epics, the credits for the sound effects and the visual/CGI departments are heavily populated by Western names of professionals belonging to the growing class of transnational specialists working in these industries.

What I find particularly striking in the case of Curse of the Golden Flower is that while being the film that comes the closest to what a Western costume epic is like in plot and style, this is also the film that is least commercially successful of the three. Is this indicative of a wider trend when ‘foreign’ epics are concerned? It may well be the case, so this will be a question I will be asking myself in looking at another Chinese epic that did not seem to do very well, either, Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin (1998).

This entry is part of my investigation into international epic cinema, which also includes entries on other films from China (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, The Emperor and the Assassin), Thailand (Suryiothai), Kazakhstan (Nomad), India (Asoka, Jodha Akbar), and elsewhere (Mongol).

© Dina Iordanova
20 July 2008