by Claire Aguilar and Chris Berry
Cut, no. 31, March 1986, pp. 51-53
Q: Is there any equivalent of the avant-garde or experimental cinema in China?
Chinese cinema is largely unknown in the West, but it contains many qualities that make it one of the most significant film cultures in the world. The average Chinese goes to the movies 27 times a year, film remains the most popular mass medium in China, and China produces well over 100 feature films every year. Perhaps one reason for the neglect of this massive industry is that Chinese films have not been available to U.S. audiences to the same extent that European or Japanese films have. Also, since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, cinema was established to be simultaneously educational and entertaining. As a result, the structure of the film industry in China constitutes a totally different paradigm from that of Western cinema. Going into this interview, we hoped to obtain information that would constitute a useful framework for those attempting to understand this alternative paradigm. However, this venture became more complex than we had expected.
As long as our communication remained on a factual level, Cheng and Chen were extremely willing and able to supply information of a concrete nature, such as discussing conditions of production and reception. However, when we asked about other areas, we began to run into some interesting difficulties. The exchange which heads this interview is such an example. Here, to the question of whether or not an avant-garde exists in China, Cheng and Chen answered with a simple negative; their brevity made diagnosing the issue difficult. Maybe Cheng and Chen did know the connotation of filmic and political alternative practice that the avant-garde carries for us, but found it politically inconvenient to discuss such an issue with us. Maybe, because they encounter no avant-garde in China, they had no way of understanding the further implications of our question. Or maybe they just thought we were naive to ask such a thing. Such elusive areas produced a certain tension in the interview. We indicate this because we found the elusive aspects as significant as the concrete information that our other questions elicited.
In our attempt to provide a framework for approaching Chinese cinema, we asked a series of questions on basic conditions of production and reception. We started out asking what the experience of going to see a movie in China was like. Cheng and Chen immediately set up a comparison between China and the West.
"For one thing, the theater is always full of people in China We went to see FANNY AND ALEXANDER a couple of weeks ago, and we must have been almost the only people there. That would happen in China only if it were a really lousy movie."
"In China you usually get your ticket in advance. Units such as schools and factories try to buy up blocks of tickets beforehand, especially if they know it's a good movie. In fact, if it's a good movie, you must get your tickets in advance, even though they run screenings from eight in the morning to very late at night. Whole families do attend, but films are most popular with young people in the cities. For one thing, in a society with limited personal privacy, cinemas offer the ideal location for romance."
"Inside, they have food and drink just like here — chocolate, candies, soda. No popcorn, though. In the auditorium there are 'No Smoking' and 'Don't Litter' signs, and before the movie begins they project a sign that tells the audience to keep quiet because the movie is about to start. And before you ask — no, we don't play the national anthem before or after the movie."
"The average price of a ticket is only $0.14. Prices are higher in the cities, around $0.25; cheaper in the rural areas, around $0.05."
"This policy also leads to putting profits from the cities to use in the backward areas and using profits from 35mm distribution to help support 16mm and Super-8. 16mm and Super-8 are only used in out-of-the-way areas; there's no money to be made out of these formats. 35mm is the rule in China. That's why it must support these other two forms."
"At the moment, all the major changes in distribution are happening in the rural areas. Chinese peasants have made a lot of progress and many of them these days have a higher income than the average blue-collar worker. Also, people have changed their film viewing habits. Formerly, films were shown in the open air, and everybody would either bring a stool or stand and watch the movie. Now they want movie houses, comfortable seats and 35mm prints, not 16mm or Super8. Since 1980, we've built many rural 800-1,000-seat theaters, often better ones than in the city. We built 2,000 new movie houses in 1980 and 1981; 3,660 in 1982."
Q: Who is considered to be the author of the film or the equivalent of the author of a novel? In the West, the director is usually considered to be the "enunciative agency." Who is in China — the director? the studio? the screenwriter?
A: The film belongs to the director.
Q: In all the Chinese films we've seen, the scenarist's name comes first, then the director's.
A: It's just listed like that. The order is just a traditional arrangement. Sometimes, in Western films, the credit for the film director doesn't come for a long time and then, WHAM, it appears. But in China, when they do the credits, they always do it the standard way. That way there aren't any problems.
A: When you talk about a star system there has to be something else to go with the title. Not only does your reputation rise, but so does your pay. In China it doesn't make sense to call it a "star system." In China some popular actors and actresses are welcomed by the audience but they gain only fame, nothing material. Their income remains the same although they get some privileges. By Western standards, it's nothing at all.
Q: I hear that there's a lot of paraphernalia, little things people can buy like photo sets...
A: They [the actors] don't make any profit out of that!
Q: No, but do those sort of things exist, and if so what sort of things?
A: Well, we have card calendars that look like playing cards, with a photograph in front and a month or year's calendar on the back. There are also posters, etc.
"Some people in the industry talk about films in terms of their subject matter, and so does the general public. Genre terminology has gained some popularity, but it's only used consistently by researchers. For example, the film HAPPY BACHELORS, which we brought with us, may be a comedy, but everybody in China calls it 'a film about workers'."
"The various studio heads get together in Beijing each year with someone from the Film Bureau. They usually have more ideas than can be filmed within each category. A lot of lively discussion goes on until they arrive at some sort of final plan. The Film Bureau particularly tries to make up for deficiencies in any particular subject matter area. The studio heads want a commercial success, for that will affect their reputation, their ability to get good directors and actors, and of course, money."
"The top echelon consists of the Film Bureau of the Ministry of Culture. This body lays out a yearly plan, approves projects initiated by the film studios, and approves the distribution of completed films. Each province has a film administration branch, namely the Film Desk in the Provincial Bureau of Culture. Only Shanghai, the major film center, has its own Film Bureau."
"Nationally, four corporations operate directly under the Film Bureau of the Ministry of Culture with both administrative and business functions. These are the All-China Film Distribution and Projection Corporation, the China Film Export and Import Corporation, and the China Film Equipment Corporation. With regard to the fourth corporation, we had no production of film equipment in China prior to the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949. Now we manufacture nearly everything in China."
"Film studios themselves operate on two levels: state and provincial. This distinction corresponds roughly to one between major and minor studios. Almost every province has at least one film studio. Thirteen studios make many feature films, and four stand out as the oldest and most important: The Beijing, the Changchun, the Shanghai, and the August First Film Studio. The latter is an army studio but also produces films for a general audience. In addition, the China Youth Film Studio, set up for the Beijing Film Academy staff and students, produces films for general release. Provincial level studios handle production for all types of films but with a limited output not usually exceeding one or two features a year. Therefore the provincial studios maintain their own administrative staff but tend to borrow production personnel when they need it."
"We also have specialized studios: the Central Documentary Studio, two Science and Education studios (in Beijing and Shanghai), the famous Shanghai Animation Studio, and the Shanghai Dubbing Studio. [Nearly all Chinese feature films still have their soundtracks dubbed during postproduction.] Also at the national level, we have various institutes and research organizations. Thus the China Film Makers' Association — a non-governmental, non-commercial, national association of film professionals — promotes development and research. It is based in Beijing, has twenty branch offices in various other areas, and 3,000 members. To qualify as a member one must be recognized for their film production or research by the Chinese film audience and by one's fellow professionals. Members include actors, researchers, and veteran administrators as well as production personnel. Other major bodies of this type include the China Film Archives, the China Film Technology Research Institute and the Beijing Film Academy. Established in 1950, the latter is still the only film college in China."
"If a film presents irresolvable problems vis-à-vis content, then the Film Bureau will not release the film. This won't get the director into trouble, but rather the studio head, who made the decision to go ahead with the production. If the film isn't released, the studio head can't make his money back. Because of such previous considerations, very few films run into such serious problems."
"For the past three or four years studios could still continue producing without financial success. Now greater stress is being placed on each studio's financial autonomy. They make about one hundred prints of each feature film, three for each province. If the studio cannot sell all the prints to the distribution company, the studio stands to take a loss. If they sell all the prints, they will probably break even. If they sell more than one hundred copies, they stand to make a profit. On the other hand, if everything goes wrong, the studio may end up having to borrow money from the state, and the state is not as willing to lend to film studios as before."
"Movies get shown on TV on local stations about three months after their first run. The China Film Distribution and Projection Corporation has recently become very upset about this. For example, a big fight between the film and television industry recently occurred in Guangdong Province, where a local TV station showed a film during its first theatrical run. The Distribution and Projection Corporation was so furious that it wouldn't give any movies at all to Guangdong television for quite a while after that. Another big problem happens because television wants to screen unreleased major films during the major Chinese holidays. The TV stations want the best movies they can get, but the Distribution and Projection Corporation doesn't want them to get anything at all!"
"Made-for-TV movies have been around China for quite a while, and there's a big demand for them. Until recently, the film studios didn't want to get involved in making such movies because it was not profitable. However, the situation's changed and they're getting involved and will probably do so more and more in the future. The television industry is young and lacks skilled, experienced professionals. Film studios can help out here."
"Translation and publication has been one of the aspects of Chinese film research stressed since the 1950s, at which time only a few Pudovkin articles had been translated. However, most of the material translated in the 1950s was from the USSR rather than from the West: Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Kuleshov, Vertov.
In 1956 the China Film Association set up the China Film Press. Later in the late 50s the Digest of Film Translations (renamed World Cinema in 1981) was set up. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, translations of Western works have reached new levels to make up for their lack before the 1960s. So, as well as more Pudovkin and Eisenstein, now Arnheim, Bazin, Kracauer, Sadoul, Balazs, Mitry and many others have been translated or are in the process of translation."