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When Push Comes to Shove—Movies, China, and the World

A Q&A with Richard Peña

The moviemaking dance the United States is doing with China is picking up pace. The Asian giant’s audience influence is soaring as estimates show that Chinese box office returns could overtake American ticket sales this year or next. Parity in audience size is one thing, but the know-how to make movies that travel is another story. To show Chinese moviemakers some of what he calls the American “genius” that has helped U.S. films go so global for so long, Richard Peña, director emeritus of the New York Film Festival, began 2016 with a trip to Beijing and Shanghai, where he offered a series of lectures drawing on his 40 years as one of the world’s leading curators and programmers of the moving image. Before heading east, Peña spoke with ChinaFile Managing Editor Jonathan Landreth.

When was the last time you were in China?

The first time I went to China was in 1986, at the invitation of the great Chinese director Xie Jin. My last trip to China was in 2009, when I went there on a project on that period of P.R.C. film history called The 17 Years, between 1949 and 1966. It was and still is a little bit of a black hole in terms of Chinese film studies. That was actually when Xie Jin worked a lot. I went for about two weeks and just sat in the archive and [saw] as many films as I possibly could from that period. And then, at the New York Film Festival in 2010, we actually did a series on that subject.

Did America understand Chinese film 30 years ago?

I think those decades were a very creative time, when a lot of interesting things [were] going on, not least of which were the first films of what we came to call the Fifth Generation. When I first became interested in Chinese cinema it was about 1980, and the word most often used to describe Chinese movies was “chopsocky.” That was a kind of Variety invention, since it seemed that virtually all Chinese films were about fighting, and, of course, what we saw of them from Hong Kong pretty much filled that bill. Americans tend to have a very weak sense of history, so they imagine everything begins yesterday—so, Chinese film was just beginning. It was at that time a great pleasure because you had terrific contemporary work being made but also a treasure trove of older Chinese films to also show people.

What changes do you see in each nation’s cinema?

It’s been a tumultuous ride. This year I am a visiting professor at Harvard and I’m working on the films of the Cultural Revolution. But doing a program about the films of the Cultural Revolution is like doing a memorial ocean cruise for the Titanic. During that period they abruptly stopped making cinema for three years, and then had an extremely limited kind of cinema. So in the late 1970s early 1980s the industry was regrowing and grew quite large by the end of the 80s. During that time, as China itself was changing, with the rise of a middle class, a more educated group of young people who became more connected to the world, the industry grew quite quickly because it was one of the few things that people could do. Television was still quite limited. People went to the movies with enormous frequency. That came crashing down in the 1990s, as people began to do other things: everything from the Internet, discos, you name it. The industry went through some hard times in the 1990s, but then started to come back in the 2000s, after the turn of the century.

Now, you can think of there being at least three strands of film in the P.R.C. By far the biggest is the commercial cinema, which we [in America] see almost nothing of. You then have the big, usually foreign-invested productions, for which Zhang Yimou is the poster boy, which you know have become a certain vision of Chinese cinema. He’s obviously a great filmmaker and the films are of a certain type. Then you have what you’d call the “underground” or the alternatives, the best known member of which is Jia Zhangke. There are a lot of filmmakers in his orbit whose works, unfortunately, very often are not shown in China, or only exist in China in illegal DVDs, although, internationally, Jia Zhangke is a hero on the film festival circuit, as are some of these other people.

As Americans reject subtitles, do Chinese movies stand a chance?

You’re right, Americans don’t much like subtitled movies. I say this having tried to push these films for about 45 years. It seems to me that what the Chinese industry is doing is following the model created by Bollywood. There are large enough overseas communities that they can actually support the brief run of a film. Since theater tickets are so much more expensive here they make a lot of money. These films generally don’t cost that much, so if you make $2 million, that’s huge. Certain Bollywood films count on 25-30 percent of their profit being made overseas.

The crossover that is now coming about is one that concerns investment and technology. Both are important and China certainly has both to offer the United States. But when will there be true co-productions, where the enormously rich and complex relationships between our counties and cultures can really be examined? The challenge of China is that China is becoming a very different modern nation: it’s clearly modernizing, but not in the way that the textbooks said you modernize. Modernization doesn’t automatically come with liberalism, democracy, individual rights, all the things that we believed would happen. We have to be willing to give up some of how we think about the rest of the world, to try to understand the Chinese on their own terms, to see how they see themselves. Americans tend to have a very U.S.-centered vision of the world and when it doesn’t conform to that, they either reject it or become discombobulated. China being so powerful and so important, you can’t ignore it. In terms of media, there was a conference at Columbia not long ago and everybody I met was interested in how they could co-finance Hollywood films and put in either Chinese actors or Chinese themes or shoot some of it in China. There seemed to be no real sense of “Let’s try to create a cinema that will speak to both our peoples”.

Recently, Chinese movie stars have been asked to stand up publicly for right morals as defined by the Communist Party. Can you imagine Sylvester Stallone abiding such a demand from the Federal Communications Commission?

There’s a cultural difference there. I think that Chinese have different senses of authority. In America, authority is or should be earned. My impression is that in China authority is a serious thing. I have read Confucius, so there’s a real order to the universe and you should get in line with that order if you want to be happy and you want society to work. That’s always the problem. One of the lectures I always love doing when I travel is on independent African-American cinema from 1915-1952. It speaks to me because it says something that these people—poor, oppressed, downtrodden—nevertheless created their own movies because Hollywood wouldn’t put them in movies. They created their own Westerns, their own gangster films, their own musicals, and that ability goes so deeply to the heart of the genius of America. That’s not something shared with everybody on the planet. When I went to Brazil a couple of years ago to show these films we had these fascinating discussions, not about the films, but about the fact that Brazil, a 60 percent African-descended nation, never created anything vaguely like this. Even now, there are very few Afro-Brazilians in the media. What is it about this place that allows people to do that?

There’s not much Uighur cinema or much film from Tibet. It doesn’t surprise me that “scheduling” conflicts stood in the way of your giving a talk about a tradition of cinema by a minority people that suggests individuality separate from the mainstream.

Well, it’s a part of Chinese film history. Up to 1949, Chinese cinema was essentially Shanghai cinema—not only because it was made in Shanghai, but because something like 70 percent of the audience for Chinese-made films was in and around Shanghai. One of the first things the P.R.C. did was to “break the hold” of Shanghai cosmopolitan intellectuals. They began opening studios all around the country, and in the late 1950s, you get the wave of “national minority films.” The message was, “As lovely as your dances and your costumes are, we’re all a part of China.” They sort of opened the door to close it. There were quite a few films like that made at that time—musicals, comedies, and also a lot of spy films because it was thought that these peoples were more susceptible to subversion. There were a lot of films where people would go to some minority and ask them to do something against the Communist government and of course, eventually, the people in that minority realize it’s in their interest to actually work with the central government.

What do China and Hollywood have to offer one another?

In 10 years, we’re going to see a marked decline in theatrical presentation in the United States and Western Europe. It’s already happening. Despite a great success like the recent Star Wars film, people are staying away. Within 10 years, we’re going to have three types of cinema: one will be a kind of virtual reality cinema, where, as one Hollywood executive described it to me, when somebody goes to see The Avengers, they’re not going to be fighting on screen, they’re going to be fighting next to you, all around you, in an amazingly immersive experience. Because these things will be technically difficult to maintain and operate, and probably expensive, there will be very few of them. And that’s where I think the Hollywood blockbuster industry will go. The second will be a more expanded role of television, which we’ve already seen. Narrative works will just be on TV in various formats. If cinema remains—the cinema I most identify as cinema—that will be almost a kind of museum experience, very specialized, non-profit, maybe in some cities [at] a few remaining repertory houses. But the vast majority of these cinemas are just going to close down because there are just not enough people for them. China, on the other hand, if you read the statistics, is adding screens every day, so I’m wondering how that eventually will affect China, if China will remain a place where theatrical distribution thrives, whereas in many other parts of the world it seems to be closing down.

In China, there is limited freedom of expression and movies have no ratings system to put the power of choice in the hands of the consumer. So, how can the industry expect to continue to attract a native audience when that audience has an ever-greater access to freewheeling movies from overseas?

That’s where push comes to shove. People who are much more globalized—people who know what’s going on, who know what’s out there, who want it and have access to it—they will eventually change Chinese behavior. In my ignorant vision of China, the notion of authority is very serious: people do something like toe the line in terms of falling into place. That people will do that less as they spend time, more time, abroad and as they have more options—it’s a matter of time. The Party has shown itself to be flexible in certain ways. How far can the flexibility go before it loses its sense of itself? Watching the Chinese market, one thing I always tell my students is to look at 1939, a peak year in Hollywood—Gone with the Wind, Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, so many wonderful films. In that year, Hollywood made 70 percent of its profit in the United States and 30 percent internationally. A film like Titanic [1997] had figures that were the exact opposite: it made 30 percent of its money in the United States and 70 percent internationally. I would imagine that when we get the final figures for the first run of Star Wars: the Force Awakens, it’ll probably be down to 25 percent or even less. Hollywood is an international concern. If you’re making Star Wars, the American market is simply not your primary concern. China’s an increasingly important part of their market.

Are you concerned about American cinema pandering to China?

I am certainly against censorship in any way, shape, or form, and I also think it’s useless, because people will find ways to look at the film on DVD or over the Internet. Years ago, I was having dinner in Beijing with a Chinese filmmaker friend and he asked me what I was doing after dinner. I’d planned to go back to my hotel, and he said, “Do you want to come with me?” to a screening of this film he had made. I said, “What do you mean there’s a screening of your film? Isn’t it banned?” He said, “Yes of course, but they got the DVD from Hong Kong and it’s being shown at a bar.” There were 150 people in the back room that projected the DVD and nobody seemed to be looking around for the police. It was like, “Yes, we’ll ban it, but we don’t really care if people see it.” We’ll see how far that goes.

Nineteen Chinese Films Richard Peña Recomends

Goddess (1934) Wu Yonggang, director
“A very, very important film.”

The Big Road (1934) Sun Yu, director
“These two from the 1930s were made by commercial filmmakers but by people who were from kind of a left-progressive movement in Shanghai at that time. They’re about either resistance of the Japanese or emancipation of women, or a lot of things that were a part of the agenda back then.”

The Spring River Flows East (1947) Cai Chusheng and Zheng Junli, directors
“One of the great hits in all of Chinese film history.”

Crows and Sparrows (1949) Zheng Junli, director
“A Fascinating work because it was actually shot while Shanghai was still occupied by the Kuomintang [Nationalist forces], but then it was released into the P.R.C., so it’s a nice ‘bridge film’ between those two eras.”

The Red Detachment of Women (1961) Xie Jin, director
“A real classic and quite a beautiful film in an era when access to films was quite difficult.”

Early Spring in February (1962), Xie Tieli, director
“Not easy to see this one, but another great from this period.”

Two Stage Sisters (1965) Xie Jin, director
“A really great film and not as hard to find, along with ‘Red Detachment of Women’.”

Breaking with Old Ideas (1975) Li Wenhua, director
“In the 1970s there’s not much because of the Cultural Revolution. This is a classic of the period and a wonderful expression of the mindset, even if it’s a little bit of a slow slog for two hours.”

The Legend of Tianyun Mountain (1980) Xie Jin, director
“One of Xie Jin’s last great films.”

Yellow Earth (1984) Chen Kaige, director
“The beginning of the Fifth Generation, along with Red Sorghum, In the Wild Mountains, The Horse Thief—these are fantastic, classic Chinese films from that era.

In the Wild Mountains (1985), Yan Xueshu, director

The Horse Thief (1986) Tian Zhuangzhuang, director

Hibiscus Town (1986) Xie Jin, director
“Among this director’s last great films.”

Red Sorghum (1989) Zhang Yimou, director

To Live (1994) Zhang Yimou, director
“I am a great fan of this film.”

Xiao Wu (1997) Jia Zhangke, director
“All of Jia Zhangke’s films should be seen. I think he’s the most important filmmaker in China.”

Platform (2000) Jia Zhangke
“In the 2000s, the most interesting films are coming from a circle of filmmakers around Jia Zhangke.”

Suzhou River (2000) Lou Ye
“Lou Ye is not exactly a part of the Jia Zhangke circle, but this film is a great one.”

Ghost Town (2009) Zhao Dayong
“There are a number of independent documentary filmmakers whose work bears noting, many coming out through a company called dGenerate Films, which has a wonderful selection of underground or unofficial Chinese films. This one is a fantastic documentary that we showed at the New York Film Festival. It’s a great film about the economic impact of extremely remote rural areas of rural China where whole towns have emptied out, leaving only old people and kids. A very, very powerful work.”