What Happens after the Acceptance-Speech?
Winning a Golden Bear attracts a lot of publicity to a film, but does the audience always react positively to an award-winning film in China?
By Yun-hua Chen
Last year, the Chinese animation film Have A Nice Day (好极了, later renamed to大世界) in Berlinale’s Competition was the first feature-length animation to participate in the official competition of all the three major European film festivals, Cannes, Berlinale and Venice. It also won a Golden Horse award at the end of 2017 in Taipei. Before its domestic release in January 2018, good reviews and recommendations were piling up on Chinese film review sites like douban.com (豆瓣), but contrary to media hype, the film row piece rate, which measures the share of total screens occupied by a certain film, on the first day of release was only 2.3% and the total box office is around two million Yuan. This discrepancy between the taste of film festivals and that of the domestic audience is not a unique phenomenon. When we look back at the four Chinese films that have won Golden Bears in the history of the Berlinale, they all have followed very different trajectories.
The first Chinese film that won a Golden Bear was Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum(红高粱), an adaptation from Mo Yan’s (莫言) novel. After it convinced the Jury of the Berlinale in 1988 and took home the Golden Bear, it continued to win awards at numerous international film festivals. It was also the first Chinese film that was released in the United States after the Cultural Revolution. Being the highest grossing film of the year, Red Sorghum generated more than 4 million Yuan for Xi’an Film Studio. In addition to being both critically acclaimed and commercially successfully, both within China and abroad, the film has had a strong impact on the style of Chinese filmmaking at the time as well as on the way Chinese films were perceived by the international film market. It has made its way into the canon of Chinese cinema and remains important viewing material in film studies lectures today.
Xie Fei’s (谢飞) The Women From The Lake Of Scented Souls (香魂女, also released under the title Woman Sesame Oil Maker), which won the Golden Bear in 1993, on the other hand, has largely fallen into oblivion. The film depicts the frustration felt by Chinese women in a traditionally minded society who are not allowed to take their destiny into their own hands and the cruelty of imposing the same unreasonable measures on other women. It won an award of Best Actress for Gaowa Siqin at the Chicago International Film Festival after Berlin and was released in Europe and the United States. Unfortunately, not many people have seen the film in China, with its box office amassing only around 8,000 Yuan. In 2007, a Chinese Film Festival was held in Edinburgh and Xie Fei was invited to do a masterclass. There was also a retrospective of Xie Fei and it was there that I saw the film.
After Xie Fei’s Berlinale success, it took another 14 years before the next Chinese film returned with a Golden Bear in 2007. It was Wang Quan’an’s (王全安) Tuya’s Marriage (图雅的婚事), which portrays the Inner Mongolian woman Alxa League (阿拉善盟) who seeks to take her disabled ex-husband along to get remarried. The production cost was about 100,000 Yuan. Although the domestic market was not very enthusiastic about the film, with a mediocre box office earnings of two million Yuan, amounting to not even 4 per cent of its total grosses, while 96 per cent came from box offices abroad, where it received overwhelmingly positive responses.
Black Coal, Thin Ice (白日焰火) which was awarded with both Best Film and Best Actor in 2014 is an exceptional success story. More than one hundred million Yuan box office earnings make it the highest grossing domestic award-winning film ever shown in Chinese cinemas. At the same time, it was generally released in several European countries and received a lot of media coverage and very positive reviews. Its success can be attributed to its carefully balanced genres and stylistic choices spanning the boundaries of arthouse cinema and commercial films. It tells the story stemming from a bizarre murder case in a small town in the north. The police officer who investigates the case ends up working as a security guard after an incidence of neglect of duty. He is gradually pulled into the love trap set by the murder victim’s widow. It is both a film noir and a love story. While downplaying its tone of social criticism, it keeps the auteurist style and allows dreams and reality to coexist. Thanks to the casting of stars, support from the official side, and most importantly, professional marketing which successfully integrated online and offline resources to establish the branding, it is a success story that has yet to be replicated by any other Chinese production.