But should we be pleased or perturbed by this news?
“This is a significant step forward for the British film industry, opening the door to a market that is building seven new cinema screens a day.” So said David Cameron late last year, as he and the culture minister Ed Vaizey made a great big hoohah of the fact that – so long as they are partially funded and produced in China – British films will now have access to a film market expected to be the biggest in the world by 2024.
The new treaty means that these co-productions will arguably benefit from both ends of this deal. In China they will side step the country’s quota on foreign films, which is limited to 20 features plus 14 IMAX and 3D productions a year. In Britain they will benefit from the generous subsidies and tax benefits accorded to the UK film industry.
Films from Iron Man III to Skyfall have been especially reworked so that they include scenes in China
Commercially it makes great sense as China’s film industry is expanding rapidly and attracts financiers from all kinds of backgrounds, from people with real estate to coal mining backgrounds. Indeed the market has provided a reassuring shoulder for Hollywood to cry on, as the American film industry can continue to make money, even as the domestic market contract. Films from Iron Man III to Skyfall have been especially reworked so that they include scenes in China. Others have been rewritten with the intended Chinese villains becoming North Koreans, in a way that makes plots less than plausible – think Olympus Has Fallen and the Red Dawn re-make.
So are British films and their stars soon to follow the Hollywood path? The UK has a very low level of film censorship, and in recent times most of the films that have been banned or censored are those with a large amount of violence or sexual violence where the actions serve no purpose beyond its own gratification – the Human Centipede 2 for instance. In contrast, China edits the majority of films shown in the country in order to remove any scenes or dialogue that might open the country or its leadership to criticism. In Skyfall, Bond doesn’t talk about the Macau Sex Trade, but suggests instead that Severine (Bérénice Marlohe) has connections to the mob.
Any film made as part of a UK-China co-production will therefore have to reflect the political reality behind the new treaty. British athletes who attended the 2008 Olympic Games had to sign contracts forbidding them from criticising China. Instigated by the British Olympic association, anyone who refused to sign couldn’t go and anyone who broke the contract would have been sent straight home. This suggests that British filmmakers who are planning to work with Chinese partners could also face similar rules. Any controversy could see the plug being pulled and the water allowed to just drain away.
In 2012 Chinese film-maker Lou Ye made Mystery in cooperation with French film-makers. He had just come to the end of an official film-making ban, implemented by the Chinese government after the release of his film Summer Palace, which featured the Tienanmen Square massacre. Mystery was subject to such crude censorship, with some scenes simply being blacked out, that the French have since seemed to have developed a kind of phobia about working with the Chinese again.
That said, independent cinema in China isn’t going to attract the big Chinese financiers. When the Chinese indie directly Zhao Dayong made Shadow Days, he did so on a shoestring budget of less than £60,000, some of which came from his own pocket. In an interview with South China Morning Post News he set a grim tone about the prospects for independent film in China. “The three main venues for independent film in Beijing, Nanjing and Yunaan have been cancelled. The movie wouldn’t have been made if it had gone through the approval process; they’d have said no to this and that.”
Beijing based actor and director Chen Daming has criticised film-makers for sticking to safer subjects in order to attract financiers, yet as with the censorship laws, this too is slowly beginning to change. Although some subjects, like the forced abortion depicted in Shadow Days or the gay prostitution of The Night remain taboo, China is presenting the world with a darker, grittier image of itself.
Forget historical epics and martial arts wonders like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the three films that won big this year in both China and at the Berlin Film Festival, show a world full of misery, violence and disadvantage. Black Coal, Thin Ice follows a detective trying to find a serial killer in an industrial region. Blind Massage is about blind people working together in a massage centre, while No Man’s Land depicts a lawyer’s misadventures along an anarchic highway. This last film was completed in 2009 but is only now being released after years of failed attempts.
That these films depict a side of China you wouldn’t show to tourists, but do so with the support and enthusiasm of the Chinese authorities (Black Coal, Thin Ice was made with their involvement) is an encouraging sign. The state news agency Xinhua proudly proclaimed: “After a very long wait, Chinese films have finally burst forth magnificently again in the world’s film festivals”. Indeed Blind Massage was actually directed by the aforementioned (and previously banned) Lou Ye.
There is change beginning to happen both in Chinese film, and in the relationship between filmmakers and censors. This is not to say that any films produced from this new treaty are necessarily going to rock the boat too much, and certain subjects will no doubt stay taboo for some time yet. But judging from the success of the three films mentioned above, both in Berlin and at home, there seems to be scope to make cutting edge cinema under the treaty’s aegis.
Britain is good at making gritty, dark films (think Trainspotting, Dirty Pretty Things, Personal Services). This new partnership could therefore make just as much sense culturally as it does commercially, with bigger audiences and bigger profits for film industries in both countries, whilst also allowing the different cultures to engage with each other. So, for once, I have to agree with David Cameron – rather than be suspicious of this new venture, I believe the fruits of this treaty will be worth the risk taken by Britain.
Featured image: No Man’s Land, images: Blind Massage, Fang Li