The fourth edition of the New York Chinese Film Festival was held from November 5 -7 featuring seven recent films from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. It opened at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall with Zhao Wei’s debut film SO YOUNG and screened the others at an AMC theater. Principal sponsors of the 2013 festival were the Chinese Movie Channel (CCTV-6), the Chinese American Arts Council and the Chinese Film Festival Foundation. CCTV-6 is the only national Chinese movie channel reaching an audience of over 930 million and scoring the highest rating and market share of all television channels in China. The objective of the Arts Council and the festival is to serve the Chinese community in the United States, foster the international distribution of Chinese films and promote American understanding of Chinese films and culture.
Having produced more than 800 films in 2012 with box office receipts growing annually by 35% over the last years and a rapidly expanding theatrical distribution reaching this year 18,000 screens, China has become the second largest film market in the world with estimated 2013 revenue of $3.5 billion and a growing export of Chinese films. Whereas Hollywood was rather successful generating revenues from the Chinese market and is eagerly pursuing co-productions with Chinese partners, the success of Chinese films in foreign markets and specifically the United States has been more limited. Seven US films were on the 2012 list of the ten highest grossing films in China. But there has been only one Chinese language film that reached a relatively high return in the United States, with $128 million, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON. As distinct from the US market which appears to be saturated and leaves little space to expand even with its new digital distribution platforms, the Chinese film industry is getting bigger each year with respect to production capacities and funding. The Dalian Wanda Conglomerate spent $3.1 billion on the acquisition and upgrading of AMC Entertainment and its 5046 North American theatres. It also plans to invest up to $8 billion on a studio and entertainment complex in Quingdao which will have the world’s largest production facilities. Wang Jianlin who owns the conglomerate predicted that China will eventually become the film center of the world.
So it does not surprise that Chinese films are considered by governmental agencies as vehicles for public diplomacy or soft power. As quoted in the New York Times Zhang Xun, president of the China Film Co-production Corporation, made it clear that “We want to see positive Chinese images”. The New York Chinese Film Festival seems to fit that concern. All of the films selected had high production value, excellent acting, and good story lines and featured the persistence of strong human values in overcoming obstacles. Covering mostly issues that are not controversial, all the films had happy endings. The productions would appeal to a main line American audience if marketed properly.
SO YOUNG is a humorous semi-romantic story with serious undertones about the relationships of students who have entered college, their painful adjustment to a new life and the fading of their youth after having gone through emotional entanglements. They have to cope with stress and are forced to grow up more rapidly to become mature adults. SO YOUNG is a most enjoyable coming of age film presenting a story with which most of the audience can identify. Directed by Xue Xiaolu, FINDING MR. RIGHT features a young woman Jiajia who travels to Seattle to give birth to the child of her wealthy lover who lives in China. He is married and provides her with unlimited resources except for never being present. When he gets arrested her credit cards are cancelled and she is forced to adjust to a new life style. She grows close to the driver Frank who used to work as a doctor in China and his daughter and learns how to relate through consideration and emotions, rather than money and selfishness. Frank saves her life when a difficult pregnancy endangers her. Yet her lover claims Jiajia and the child and she returns to China for an empty life of luxury and isolation. She decides to abandon affluence with her child and successfully develops her own career. After several years a chance encounter brings her back to Frank. There are many funny and endearing moments in the films that are generated by the clash of material with traditional culture. The story offers a critique of luxury living and its supporting values as practiced in China, thus offering a politically correct statement. The actor Donnie Yen plays the lead in Wilson Yip’s IP MAN and Clarence Fok Yiu-leung’s SPECIAL ID. In both films he demonstrates convincingly his extraordinary Kung Fu abilities defeating whoever comes across his path. IP MAN is set in Foshan in the thirties during the Japanese invasion where he joins the resistance and defends civilians. He refuses to cooperate with the Japanese, kills in a spirited Kung Fu fight a Japanese general who is a fanatical martial arts practitioner and prompts a spontaneous uprising. He is shot but able to escape. As in most Chinese films dealing with the past the historical setting is faithfully recreated. Whereas FINDING MR. RIGHT suggests the merit of traditional values, IP MAN provides the Chinese audience with a patriotic message. In SPECIAL ID, a fast moving crime thriller Chi-Lung Chan works as an undercover agent within a criminal gang and becomes the right hand man of its mafia boss. His mission is to instigate warfare between gangs competing for the same turf. After he is exposed the action accelerates and he successfully fights all his opponents even while engaged in an impressive car chase towards the end of the film. He is reinstated in the police force and rejoins his girlfriend, a fellow officer.
The Festival presented a well-received selection of successful commercial features which can reach an American audience beyond the Chinese American community. Marketing the features through the new digital platforms could be a viable option.