by Spank the Monkey
Last month in London, the HK15 Film Festival provided a rare opportunity to see old and new Hong Kong movies on the big screen. It was organised by the people behind the Terracotta Far East Film Festival, which I’ve previously covered for this site. At the Closing Gala, festival boss Joey Leung insisted that the profile of Asian cinema needed raising in this country. To that end, he gave the audience a Twitter hashtag to use: #KeepAsianCinemaInUKCinemas.
There are a few problems with that. Firstly, it’s a hashtag that could easily be misremembered in a variety of ways, which reduces its effectiveness as an indexing tool. Secondly, at 27 characters it takes up around one-fifth of the maximum length of a tweet, and doesn’t leave much room for anything else. But even if we ignore those concerns, it’s possible that what we’re dealing with is too big for a mere hashtag.
Consider Himizu, which I reviewed here in April when it closed the 2012 Terracotta Festival. It played to a packed and enthusiastic house, and won the Terracotta audience award. It was especially notable for being one of the first features from Japan to directly address the impact of the 2011 tsunami. Third Window Films, a small UK distributor that had worked with director Sion Sono in the past, proudly released Himizu theatrically at the beginning of June. And nobody came.
Within a week, Third Window’s MD Adam Torel had announced that he was giving up on theatrical distribution: and in an extraordinary act of bridge-burning, he published an open letter at Twitch explaining why. BBFC certification costs, low returns to indie distributors, and an arthouse circuit largely clogged up with Prometheus: all of these factors together, according to Torel, contributed to Himizu’s box office failure. His old-fashioned release strategy – acquire really good films, put them in cinemas, tell people about them, profit – apparently doesn’t work any more.
In the letter, Torel describes his business model as “a long-term goal of losing large amounts of money, but generating… long term interest.” Self-deprecation aside, there’s actually a precedent for this. In the early nineties, entrepreneurs like Rick Baker of Eastern Heroes used fanzines and one-off screenings to slowly nurture a fanbase for Hong Kong movies, to the point where all the major record stores eventually had a shelf full of kung fu and heroic bloodshed flicks. I’m sure the people involved eventually made money, but their initial aim was to create an audience worth selling to. Torel was trying to do the same thing, but the money ran out before his audience was big enough.
This Friday sees something rather rare happening in the UK: not one, but two Asian films are being released in cinemas. Will they perform as poorly at the box office as Himizu? That probably depends on how they’re presented to audiences. We can’t just rely on simple curiosity to draw them in any more: there needs to be some sort of big dumb hook that’ll attract the casual filmgoer.
Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers Of War tells a true story from the rape of Nanjing: the period in 1937 where the invading Japanese army destroyed an entire Chinese city, killing hundreds of thousands of people. A dozen or so convent girls are taking sanctuary in a cathedral in the middle of Nanjing. They’re soon joined by dissolute American mortician John Miller (Christian Bale), and a group of local prostitutes led by Yu Mo (Ni Ni). Immediately, you can imagine where a lesser director would take this, using the horrors of the war outside as a mere backdrop to the redemption of the drunk and the whores. Unfortunately, it would appear that Zhang Yimou has become a lesser director: his reputation in the West has plummeted in the four years since his spectacular opening ceremony for the Beijing 2008 Olympics. (Watch out, Boyle, it could happen to you.)
There’s no denying that Flowers climaxes with an astonishing act of heroism: but it has to soft-pedal that heroism, so that the audience isn’t left in utter horror at its potential consequences. This could just about be justified in narrative terms, except that the film also feels the need to artificially ramp up the jeopardy elsewhere in the story. Any problems the protagonists encounter feel shoehorned in, a way to create easy melodrama. “We’re safe! Wait a minute, I just need to go back for that thing I dropped.” You get the idea. The clunkiness of the English portions of the dialogue – whether spoken by Bale or the Chinese cast members – doesn’t help, either.
Zhang Yimou’s visual sense is still rock-solid: the conflict between the convent girls and the prostitutes is largely portrayed in terms of their colour palettes, and there’s a breathtakingly choreographed one-take chase sequence. But this doesn’t quite make up for the flaws elsewhere, meaning Flowers suffers badly in comparison with other recent Nanjing films. Lu Chuan’s City Of Life And Death (to take the best example) went for the gut, its sheer relentlessness getting across the full horror of what the Japanese did: it feels like history. The Flowers Of War feels like a movie.
Still, at least it’s getting a theatrical run in the UK. Well, sort of. The Flowers Of War was originally released in China in December 2011, and presumably it’s been sitting on the shelf here for eight months waiting to come out in the slipstream of The Dark Knight Rises. But it turns out that Flowers’ theatrical run is there primarily to promote the release of the DVD a mere three days later, a strategy I’ve discussed here before. Is it a lack of nerve on the part of distributor Revolver, or an acceptance that this is how things are now? We’ll come back to that.
If having the star of one of the biggest movies of the year isn’t enough to guarantee your Asian film a decent theatrical run, then what is? Well, how about awards? Ann Hui’s A Simple Life has been racking them up by the ton, including most of the major Asian cinema accolades, and the Best Actress prize at Venice.
Roger Leung (Andy Lau) is a film producer, the last in a family line that’s been waited on for four generations by housekeeper Ah Tao (Deanie Ip). But when she suffers a stroke, he’s got to learn to fend for himself. Ah Tao still has a degree of independence, and checks herself into an old people’s home, but it soon becomes apparent that she and Roger both need each other’s help.
This could have been a great sentimental pile of mush – and unfortunately, that’s how the UK trailer is selling it. But there’s a comparative grittiness to the film that stops it being unwatchably weepy. It partly comes from Hui’s reluctance to milk the saddest moments of the story, but largely from Ip’s incredible balancing act of a performance. She doesn’t rely on the usual clichés of little old ladies in movies: instead, she’s a genuine human being trying to stay on top of her worsening situation. It’s like someone made a film of your nan. You’d watch that, wouldn’t you? Andy Lau, in the meantime, goes through a similar transformation in the opposite direction: his performance is less obviously awards bait, but is no less effective for that.
If there’s a failing with A Simple Life, it’s the traditional Hong Kong one of trying to do too much in a single film. As well as the human story at its core, we also get a dark comedy on the state of the territory’s care homes, plus several cameo-stuffed scenes satirising Roger’s day job in the Hong Kong movie industry. (If Arrow Films were really unscrupulous, they could try marketing this as the new Sammo Hung film, given his entertaining appearance in a couple of scenes alongside legendary director Tsui Hark.) But you could justify all this as part of the film’s unique texture. If you compare it with the emotionally incontinent approach of a traditional Hong Kong movie on the subject of old age, this is like Michael Haneke or something.
Still, you suspect that the gentle nature of A Simple Life will play against it at the UK box office: it’s becoming harder and harder for Asian non-genre films to get attention. It’s something that the smaller distributors are struggling to cope with. Recently, representatives from a few of them gathered for an entertaining panel discussion at the Japan Foundation, entitled Stepping Into The Unknown. The four people on the panel – Chris Fujiwara from the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Simon Ward from Independent Cinema Office, Eve Gabereau from Soda Pictures, and the aforementioned Joey Leung from Terracotta – all had interestingly contrasting stories of the problems of exhibition and distribution.
The biggest issue would seem to be the sheer amount of content battling for our attention. A larger choice of films is all well and good, but the infrastructure that they’re being released into isn’t expanding at the same rate. So, lower interest films get pushed into fewer screens for shorter periods of time. It’s a similar story with media space for reviews: so when Himizu came out on the same day as Prometheus, the former got a microscopic fraction of the column inches dedicated to the latter. Simon Ward discussed the Guardian’s refusal to give any coverage to his 2010 touring season of films by Hong Sang-soo – in the past, he would have been guaranteed a full page feature.
The niche audience is becoming nicher, and has become a totally separate beast from the mass audience. Chris Fujiwara gave the example of a season of Shinji Somai films that he’d programmed at Edinburgh this year. They became the unexpected hit of the festival – the audience for the afternoon screenings grew day by day, and having seen a clip of Sailor Suit & Machine Gun (his 1981 film about a schoolgirl who inadvertently becomes a mob boss) I can understand why. But a festival crowd responds in a different way from a regular cinema audience, and a distributor should be wary of basing their decisions solely on festival buzz. (Nevertheless, it’s irritating that Edinburgh has no plans at all to make those films available to the rest of the UK.)
On the subject of marketing, Joey Leung hit the nail on the head: don’t focus on country of origin or awards won, talk about the themes instead. He’s just about to release one of the films from Terracotta 2012, Gyo, on DVD: he could tell people it’s based on a popular manga, but it’s more effective to say “it’s about fish that grow legs and eat people” and rely on human nature to do the rest. Similarly, Eve Gabereau knows that the one-line pitch for upcoming Soda documentary Jiro Dreams Of Sushi – the story of a tiny sushi bar in a Tokyo subway station that’s picked up three Michelin stars – will sell it for her. (Judging from the gasps that pitch got from the Japan Foundation audience, I think it’ll do just fine.)
Maybe in the current climate, it’s too much to hope films like this will get a full theatrical run. But Leung believes that there’s a cineaste audience out there that still wants to see movies on the big screen, and I’m certainly one of those. His plan to take highlights from the Terracotta Festival out on a tour of the UK suggests an alternative distribution model, albeit one that Tartan Video tried out with varying degrees of success about a decade ago. Whatever he tries, there’s still one more factor in the equation that he’ll find it hard to calculate: once these films are in UK cinemas, are people going to go and see them? That one’s up to you.
The Flowers Of War is in UK cinemas from August 3rd, and on DVD and Blu-ray from Revolver from August 6th. A Simple Life is in UK cinemas from August 3rd, with home video release from Arrow tbc. Himizu is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Third Window from August 6th.
Spank The Monkey occasionally tweets things like #KeepAsianCinemaInUKCinemas and #IHateSebastianCoe from his Twitlair at @SpankTM.