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February 12, 2012

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Mainland filmmakers seek holy grail of big Oscar

CHINESE mainland filmmakers have never won an Oscar for Best Director or Best Foreign Language film. They covet Hollywood's golden statuette representing excellence, status and global profits. Yao Minji and Xu Wei tell the story. The Chinese film "White Deer Plain" by Wang Quan'an will compete in the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival, which opened on Thursday.

The three-hour-long epic focuses on the struggles of three generations of two influential families in a small town in White Deer Plain in Shaanxi Province in the first half of 20th century. It was a time of upheaval and radical changes in the Chinese countryside. It has not yet been shown domestically because of its explicit sexual content.

Wang won a Golden Bear in 2007 at the same festival with "Tuya's Marriage."

China's most famous director Zhang Yimou and China's film industry had high hopes for Zhang's latest effort, "The Flowers of War," but it was not accepted as a Berlin entry - or, worse, as an Oscar entry. Zhang had won a Golden Bear in 1988 with his directorial debut "Red Sorghum."

Its failure to even be in the running was deeply disappointing, especially since China recently proclaimed a major effort to project its soft power by promoting Chinese cultural products worldwide. The film will still be screened in Berlin.

The big-budget "Flowers of War," which opened in December, is a Nanjing Massacre film staring Christian Bale. It depicts conflicts between high-class prostitutes and moralistic convent school girls who shelter together in a church.

It earned more than 600 million yuan (US$95 million) since it opened, making it the best-selling Chinese movie domestically in that period of time.

"Flowers" was also the mainland's government-sponsored submission for the Oscars, but it was not accepted in any category. Another stinging setback.

Oscar nominators also did not favor two other Chinese submissions - "A Simple Life" by Ann Hui On-Wah from Hong Kong and "Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale" by Wei Te-Sheng from Taiwan - for top honors.

Chinese filmmakers have never won a major Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film or Best Director, though there have been nominations. The only winner is Chinese American (Taiwan born) Ang Lee, celebrated director of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000). That film won four Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Score, Best Cinematography and Best Art Design.

Obsession with Oscar

High hopes had been placed on "The Flowers of War" so its indifferent reception was the latest misstep for Chinese filmmakers in their long march to seize the little gold statuette that represents status, excellence and global profits.

China's ongoing obsession with mainstream Hollywood acceptance and repeatedly missing out on big prizes cannot simply be explained by cultural differences or Hollywood's tastes for commercial movies.

Many critics say China is trying too hard to be like Hollywood but doesn't quite get it right about Western sensibilities.

Most world renowned Chinese directors first gained international recognition at European film festivals, notably Cannes, Venice and Berlin. Many Chinese films that won big prizes in Europe were never shown domestically because they were made before they received approval by authorities.

On the other hand, Oscar submissions are officially recommended by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.

The last time China was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film was in 2003, with Zhang Yimou's martial arts "Hero."

"The desire to get an Oscar statuette is essentially the desire to be recognized by the worldwide mainstream and to have films distributed more broadly overseas, rather than in small art house chains as many Chinese films have been," David Huang, a Beijing-based film and TV producer, tells Shanghai Daily.

"Of course, becoming the first Chinese director or company to conquer the Oscars can instantly make that person and team a national cultural hero and heroes, an irresistible temptation both in terms of personal achievement and commercial value."

Huang adds that getting yet another European award doesn't add much luster or significantly expand distribution.

In 2010, only 49 films from the Chinese mainland, less than 10 percent of total domestic production, were distributed abroad, according to Zhou Tiedong, president of China Film Promotion International. The company, backed by the state film authorities, is a major facilitator of the foreign distribution of Chinese movies.

Some big-budget blockbusters have been shown abroad in collaboration with foreign companies; many independent movies have been screened for foreign audiences in various film festivals, but only for a few days.

Lack of effective overseas distribution channels is cited by some as a big reason why China has not won a major Oscar.

"We don't have many professional Chinese film agencies distribute movies in the US, so only a few Oscar juries may have watched or known much about Chinese entries," says Shi Chuan, a professor and film and media expert at Shanghai University.

He says China can learn from India, which promotes its culture and music in the West through many distribution channels.

Shi and many others say big marketing budgets, effective strategies and distribution can pave the way to the little gold statuette.

Hence, the first joint venture cinema was founded in cooperation with Warner Bros. Chinese investment in US films rose and production companies started collaborating with Western studios in various ways.

"The Flowers of War," for example, was shown in US to qualify as a potential candidate in all Oscar categories. The cast also took part in many promotional activities.

Oscar nominators were not impressed.

Budgeted at a reported US$100 million, it did extremely well in China and was praised by many moviegoers.

It also came in for considerable criticism.

Missing the message

"An important criteria for an Oscar nominee and winner is that it should be a combination of humanity, aesthetics and its inherent social and cultural values," says Gu Xiaoming, a film expert and sociologist from Fudan University.

He says US films like "Terms of Endearment" (1983) and "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989) are the kind of movies that explore the human paradoxes and dilemmas in different times and places. These are the kind of movies more likely to get Oscars. "Terms of Endearment" won five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and acting awards. "Driving Miss Daisy" won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actress.

Concerning the China vacuum at this year's Oscars, Gu says "The Flowers of War" is an example of weak storytelling as well as excessive attention to visual detail in costumes, sets and cinematography.

Huang, the Beijing-based producer, says Zhang apparently doesn't understand how to appeal to Western tastes and sensibilities.

"He has gone in exactly the wrong direction. Oscar loves foreign movies delivering universal values packaged in a very nationally distinctive wrapping," Huang says. He cites "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000), which was also a big and surprising commercial success in the US.

"It has a very Chinese setting and rhythm, but the message at the film's end - letting it go - can be easily understood by anyone."

By contrast, "The Flowers of War" has done the opposite, wrapping essentially Chinese values and scorn for prostitutes in a seemingly international package with World War II (War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression) background, Hollywood star Christian Bale and extensive English dialogue.

"There is no point in accommodating to a perceived Hollywood taste, something we are unfamiliar with," Huang says. "Our directors are simply not good in dealing with trans-cultural matters."

Many Western moviegoers and reviewers were far more critical, saying they found the improbable plot and film's cultural values difficult to accept.

Gary Xu, professor of East Asian studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, says the movie "eroticized, vulgarized, Hollywoodized the Nanjing Massacre."

In the film high-class prostitutes are reviled by convent girls and both resent each other. The women later decide to "save" the girls' virginity and almost certainly their lives by offering themselves in their place to Japanese soldiers to be raped. Their self-sacrifice in aiding the "good" girls is a kind of penance for their immoral ways.

Xu says Chinese filmmakers try to imitate Hollywood, both in technical methods, such as quick editing with more shots, and in the financialization of movies.

Producer Huang says many people believe that "if they can invest as much as Hollywood and tell stories like Hollywood, then they too can get it (profits and recognition).

This desire to learn from Hollywood partly explains why more than 500 people, including top-notch scriptwriters, directors and producers, rushed to a four-day Beijing workshop on storytelling by famous Hollywood "script tutor" Robert McKee in early December. It cost 5,000 yuan per person.

Chinese film academies, which once revered Soviet films, have added Hollywood messages and techniques to curricula.

The Chinese mainland made its first official Oscar submission in 1979.

Since 1985, state film authorities have recommended one film each year and only four have been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film - Zhang Yimou's "Ju Dou" (1990), "Raise the Red Lantern" (1991), "Hero" (2002) and Chen Kaige's "Farewell My Concubine" (1993). Zhang has been considered the likeliest to win an Oscar.

In the early days, most Oscar submissions were simply not well prepared. They were just submitted, with scarcely any promotion. Some lacked good English subtitles.

Before 2000, Chinese submissions were often realistic films tackling contemporary social problems in China. That changed with Ang Lee's martial arts film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

"That was a very significant moment. It gave Chinese directors and production companies a false illusion that the way to win a golden statuette was by collaborating with American companies, since 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' was a collaboration," according to Wang Linyuan, a Shanghai-based critic and independent film maker.

"They also believed that Americans prefer martial arts movies involving exotic Chinese history, culture and kungfu."

In the next few years they produced films such as "Hero," "House of the Flying Daggers" (2004) and "Promise" (2005), all big-budget martial arts films distributed internationally. These naturally became official submissions by state film authorities.

Since then, directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, notable for earlier exploring contemporary social problems and inner struggle, embarked on spectacular and lavish martial arts films set in ancient times.

They forgot "Crouching Tiger" had a small budget, as have many foreign Oscar winners.

"There's also the ultimate problem of censorship," Wang says. "After all, it is far easier to get approval with an ancient story."

Director Zhang Yimou also cited censorship during his promotional tour for "The Flowers of War," in which though he said he had total artistic freedom.

"There is a censorship system; directors don't have 100 percent space for freedom," he said in December. "In fact, it's more often the case that many stories cannot be made into film. I wish there were more space given to artists with the development of the Chinese market. I wish there would be many good stories available for film directors."

China's ongoing odyssey to Oscars

? "The Rose Tattoo" (1955)Academy Award for Best Cinematography: James Wong Howe (Chinese American)
? "The Killing Fields" (1984)Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor: Haing S. Ngor (His father was of Chinese descent.)
? "The Last Emperor" (1987)Academy Award for Best Original Score: Su Cong
? "Ju Dou" (1990)Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film: Director Zhang Yimou
? "Raise the Red Lantern" (1991)Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film: Zhang Yimou
? "Farewell My Concubine" (1992) Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film: Director Chen Kaige Nomination for Best Cinematography: Gu Changwei
? "The Wedding Banquet" (1993)
Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film: Director Ang Lee (Chinese American)
? "Eat Drink Man Woman" (1994)
Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film: Ang Lee
? "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000)
Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film: Ang Lee
Academy Award for Best Original Score: Tan Dun
Academy Award for Best Cinematography: Peter Pau
Academy Award for Best Art Direction: Tim Yip
? "Hero" (2003)
Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film: Zhang Yimou
? "House of Flying Daggers" (2004) Nomination for Best Cinematography: Zhao Xiaoding
? "Brokeback Mountain" (2005)
Academy Award for Best Director: Ang Lee
? "The Blood of Yingzhou District" (2006)Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject: Director Ruby Yang (Chinese American)
? "Curse of the Golden Flower" (2006)
Nomination for Best Costume Design: Yee Chung Man


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