Peaks and troughs through the decades

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-06-01 13:41
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Over three decades, Chinese cinema has played out like a typical three-act blockbuster. In 1979 the spurt of re-releases and new offerings pushed ticket sales to 29.31 billion yuan, a record unlikely to be topped. Fifteen years later, film attendance plummeted to just 1 percent of that record and movie theaters were converted to furniture stores, among other uses, as audiences stayed home to watch television or pirated videos.

Fast-forward to 2010 and Chinese cinema for the first time grossed a total of 10 billion yuan in theatrical exhibition. More than half the box-office receipts came from domestic productions, which, though protected by regulatory measures from foreign competition, have been gaining strength in both production value and marketing savvy.

The undisputed juggernaut in this cinematic saga of ups and downs is the so-called Fifth Generation, which includes directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige.

Marginalized by being dispatched to places far from metropolitan hubs in the 1960s, Beijing Film Academy's class of '82 (the Fifth Generation) created a style by veering away from the orthodoxy of socio-realism and instead took a giant step into the not-so-distant past, usually the early 20th century, as the setting for their stories. Their commentary on the state of affairs was implicit in their innuendo-rich depictions of old China.

The slate of fare from the young guns was recognized first on the international festival circuit before they were gradually and reluctantly accepted by their compatriots. Debates raged whether these art-house portrayals of feral passions and outlandish rituals presented Chinese people as a backward lot.

The movies did not win government applause either with two of Zhang Yimou's sent to the Oscars as Hong Kong submissions and, once nominated, had to face pressure of pullout.

Artistically, though, these uncomfortable releases collectively represent the greatest achievement in Chinese cinema.

During the 1990s when cinema as an experience sank to a nadir, films such as Farewell, My Concubine, Raise the Red Lantern, To Live and The Blue Kite were the silver lining to the darkening cloud of growing government scrutiny and a Hollywood face-off.

Ironically, several of the Fifth Generation filmmakers were later accused of selling out because of their big-budget knockouts.

More filmmakers are joining the so-called "100-million-yuan club" every year, referring to the threshold of domestic box-office revenue for a feature. To accomplish this feat, they are making the movies bigger and more star-studded, but not necessarily better. Hollywood is still seen as the archrival - to imitate before to conquer.

The foray into international markets has been met with salvos of disappointment and nobody knows when the next Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will roar onto the global screen.