The Chinese film industry is pointing to a rebound in box office receipts and attendance over the past 12 months as it arrives in Cannes not so much in person, but in the spirit of cinema’s gradual recovery from the global pandemic.
The China Film Pavilion has been set up at the Marché du Film to spark “confidence in the development of the [Chinese] industry and restart international exchanges and cooperation in the field, including participating in the festivals,” according to information supplied by hosts the China Film Co-Production Corporation (CFCC), although the on-going coronavirus pandemic in China has restricted any representatives from those two bodies from actually making the trip to France.
The Chinese industry was coming off a banner year in 2019 before the pandemic struck, breaking records in terms of box office collected ($9.3 billion), the number of films released (1,037), the number of screens operating (69,787) and overall attendance (1.727 billion), according to figures supplied by the CFCC.
As everywhere, 2020 brought everything to a halt, but the CFCC pointed to progress made across 2021 as the shape of things – and hopes – to come. Box office was up to $7.4 billion and attendance hit 1.167 billion – year-over-year increases of 73.5 percent and 67.6 percent, respectively. Screen numbers were also up to 82,248, according to the CFCC.
While COVID-19 lockdowns in some of China’s major cities – including Shanghai – have resulted in the widespread closure of cinemas in 2022, there have been some sparks of hope among domestic releases. Among the hits have been first-time director Xing Wenxiong’s slapstick comedy Too Cool to Kill, featuring Wei Xiang in a breakout role as a struggling actor hired to pretend to be a real-life assassin. A remake of Japan’s The Magic Hour from 2008, the film collected $390 million in global box office and saw a limited North American release.
Other successes have included The Battle at Lake Changjin II, the patriotic World War II actioner collectively helmed by veterans Dante Lam, Tsui Hark and Chen Kaige, which is still in cinemas in some territories and has topped $620 million so far.
There is also hope ahead this summer with the pending widespread release of the China-Italy rom-com The Italian Recipe, which combines two aspects of life somewhat curtailed in recent times – romance and travel. The film bills itself as a reworking of the Audrey Hepburn-Gregory Peck vehicle Roman Holiday (1953), but for contemporary domestic audiences. It leans itself towards the likes of the 2013 hit Finding Mr. Right in that it takes two Chinese characters and places them in a foreign setting, this time Rome rather than Seattle. The film was well-received by the Italian audience at its world premiere at last month’s Far East Film Festival in Udine, and its charms come both in the sparks that fly between its leads Yao Huang and Xun Liu, but also in the commercial savvy of using Rome locales, such as the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain, as backdrops to their growing romance.
Further on the horizon comes The Wandering Earth 2, the much-anticipated sequel to China’s breakout hit from 2019, which took in $700 million and was widely acknowledged as China’s first sci-fi blockbuster. Pandemic-enforced delays now have the film set for release in 2023, but much is expected once again from director Frant Gwo, who has this time turned to the popular Hong Kong veteran Andy Lau to take the lead, while continuing to tap the source material provided by the most successful Chinese sci-fi author of all time in Liu Cixin. The film picks up on the tale of a band of astronauts charged with finding a new home for humanity.
Liu’s novels and short stories are providing fodder for content creators elsewhere, too, as both China’s Tencent streaming platform and global streamer Netflix are currently putting the finishing touches on serial adaptations of the author’s Hugo Award winner The Three-Body Problem. Chinese authorities see massive potential in sci-fi – and a report published in local media during last year’s China Science Fiction Convention in Beijing claimed the industry was worth as much as $5 billion in the first half of 2021.
Such topics will no doubt form part of the discussion at the China Film Pavilion, sponsored by the China National Film Development Fund and situated at the International Village, Pantiero no. 208, as it presents a series of forums filmed for the occasion that feature the leading lights of Chinese cinema – among them directors Diao Yinan (Black Coal, Thin Ice) and Jia Zhangke (Still Life), studio heads Jiang Defu (COO of Bona Film Group) and Zeng Maojun (president of Wanda Cultural Industry Group and Wanda Film Group), as well as Liu Chun, president of the CFCC.
These filmmakers can be seen on screen (and also via the China Film Pavilion’s online platform) discussing topics that range from an “overview of the Chinese film industry in 2021, how art house films are imported and distributed in China, international distribution of Chinese films, experiences of project development shared by young producers from China, as well as how the Chinese film community will boost opportunities for future international collaboration after the COVID-19 shock”, according to the CFCC.
The “International Distribution of Chinese Films” will focus on how Chinese films can “go global,” while “Talks on the Promotion of Art House Films in China” will explain the work of China’s Nationwide Alliance of Arthouse Cinemas (aka NAAC), which has screened more than 100 films and held 10 themed film festivals since being founded in 2017 and now works with 3,000 cooperating theaters, covering 300 cities across China.
There is also the China booth at the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, introducing the work of 24 industry players, including production companies, studios, festivals, copyright agencies and film academies, while showcasing some of the country’s hits from the past few years. Among them is The Battle at Lake Changjin II.