'Commercialization is the Only Way Forward for Chinese Directors'
Web-only interview with Han Sanping, President of the Beijing Film Studio, China's oldest and largest
By STEPHEN SHORT
October 26, 2000
Web posted at 7:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 7:00 a.m. EDT
Han: As a whole, the WTO deal is going to be very positive for the Chinese economy. But it will put great pressure on the domestic film industry. Therefore, we need to have a very positive attitude; it's no use having a pessimistic outlook or a passive wait-and-see attitude. If we can face up to this great challenge with a positive attitude, then we will actually benefit by being forced to develop and grow.
TIME: What are the most brave or bold changes you've seen in Chinese cinema over the past 5 or 10 years?
Han: The biggest change has been the market economy's effect on the industry. For the first time, a movie's success or failure is much more reliant on commercial profit. At the same time, the type of movies, the content, philosophy, and form of filmmaking has gone through many big changes. For instance, some content that used to be banned is now allowed. Directors can now produce films that reveal the negative parts of China's history, or they can portray modern stories of corruption.
TIME: Is there an identity crisis in China's film industry?
Han: You've asked a great question. There is currently a very sharp conflict in mainland China among "sixth generation" directors between those who favor art house movies and those who favor commercial filmmaking. Most still lean towards art house -- and this will be a huge challenge when the WTO deal goes ahead. These directors will have to learn how to make more commercially viable movies. They will have to learn how to meld the artistic and commercial sides of filmmaking. This commercialization is the only way forward for the "sixth generation" directors.
TIME: Bearing in mind the constraints and the censorship of Chinese film, is the industry able to get as commercial as it needs to get in order to compete?
Han: While it's true that Chinese traditional concepts as well as government censors do not allow sex or violence in Chinese film, the success of movies does not have to be reliant on this kind of material. Sex and violence is not the only way to have commercial success. There are plenty of Hollywood films that prove this point. Furthermore, the government is not completely opposed to all forms of sex and violence. It's just that this kind of content needs to have standards and rules. This is something that people ought to talk about. For instance, look at 'Titanic.' This movie was not particularly sexual or violent, but it was extremely commercially successful. So it is possible.
Han: I don't dare to say every single Chinese director would be interested in this type of material, but there would be some.
TIME: I'm interested in the role you play as head of the Beijing Film Studio. It's almost the role of a diplomat or statesmen.
Han: My role is as investor. In order to hire a director to film a movie, we have to get government approval before we can market the film. I have also helped directors to coordinate and talk things over with the government. For example, I helped Feng [Xiaogang] and Lu [Xuechang] to solve their differences with the government over their latest films. It's a difficult process but it is definitely possible to resolve issues for both sides.
TIME: What's the most you've invested in a project and what project was it?
Han: The most expensive movies are those with famous actors and those with historical themes. The most expensive movie I have invested in, out of the 200 I have been involved in, was Chen Kaige's 'The Emperor and the Assassin.' It cost over $10 million. Of course, there were a lot of companies that invested in that movie.
TIME: Who do you think are the most exciting actors in China right now?
Han: Frankly speaking, China doesn't have many talented actors and actresses, which is a real pity. So most of the "favorite" actors and actresses are now American. This is the one part of being involved in Chinese film that grieves me. We want to create the Chinese emperor and empress of film.
TIME: Why do you feel Chinese actors are so far behind Americans?
Han: The difference does not lie just with the actors. China's film industry overall is way behind the times. Our directors, our actors, our cinematographers, everyone involved has less experience and less resources than their counterparts in the West. For this reason, it's very difficult for a Chinese actor to become a real star. Our domestic industry cannot be compared to Hollywood; this is a big challenge that we face.
TIME: Do you sense a "loosening up" in the film industry? Can we look forward to non-censored Chinese cinema?
Han: This is very hard to predict, but I believe the industry will gradually open up, with changes occurring more and more rapidly. Last year, the government announced it would now permit foreign companies to come into China and collaborate with domestic companies to make movies and manufacture moviemaking and recording equipment. Many American, European and Japanese companies have already come to China. Will there be a time with no censorship at all? I'm afraid this will not happen. But the government is steadily allowing more and more kinds of content.
TIME: A current trend in Asian cinema is a real merging of cinematic talent among Asian countries. Does China have a problem with that?
Han: No, we already have this. For example, there have been Chinese films with American directors, Taiwanese directors, Hong Kong actors, etc. Many films I've shot have involved people from other countries.
TIME: How many projects are you involved in or investing in at any one time?
Han: We have a lot of projects. For example, this year we've worked on about 25 films, involving mostly young directors working with relatively new actors. Next year, we'll probably do another 25 films.
TIME: Do you see yourself in a position, after the WTO deal, where you would look to invest in American projects?
Han: This is definitely a possibility. We're in talks right now with Time Warner, HBO and Columbia Pictures about cooperative efforts. We want to make money along with Hollywood -- to make American dollars.
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