BEIJING — Many Chinese films are awful. Who is to blame for this objective fact? An audience typically praises a film when they think it’s good and complain when it isn’t. Yet Feng Xiaogang, a famous Chinese film director, was lambasted at the recent Shanghai Films Festival for the following statement: "The reason why many Chinese films are rubbish is because many Chinese spectators are rubbish. No decent spectators, no decent films. A lot of trash films actually attract plenty of viewers."
But Feng doesn’t face up to a fundamental question that rises from that assertion: How on Earth can a film be rubbish but also be a blockbuster? Whether a film sells well depends on its publicity and word of mouth but also whether it's scheduled to be released at the same time as the launch of other top competing films. Feng obviously doesn't understand this point and instead blames the audience.
Feng once said, "I make films to please myself, so I am happy." It is as if he believes that pleasing viewers makes his film bad whereas when a film pleases him, it’s good. What Feng forgets is that people have to pay to see a film. A director who cares only about pleasing himself and not the audience can't be a good director.
I am not trying to defend poorly-made movies. As a matter of fact, I am also sick and tired of China's countless bad films, among which I count some of Feng's. He has made some good films but his recent work is hardless flawless. An artist's golden age for creation often lasts only a few years. But even just one or two unforgettable masterpieces would be a considerable achievement for a director. However, this doesn't mean that the public has to swallow whatever nonsense he spouts.
Sour grapes are understandable.
The box office rankings allow the public to vote with its wallet. Even though it is not the only criteria for rating a movie, ticket receipts remain an important one. It's understandable that a film director with low box office numbers may have sour grapes toward those with higher numbers. But directors should keep striving to attract as many spectators as possible.
Inside a movie theater in Hong Kong — Photo: Eric Chan
Last year, Fang Li, producer of the art film Song of the Phoenix, literally begged distributors to schedule his film at better hours and keep its theater run for additional weeks. Douban, China's most influential social networking media for movies, gave it a very good rating. In the end, this fine-art film, which is directed by Wu Tianming, who died of a heart attack just before the movie’s release, succeeded in attracting a much larger audience.
In my view, there's no such thing as a rubbish audience, only rubbish filmmakers. People such as Ang Lee, the Taiwan-born international director may not always be thinking about box office numbers. The sales performance of his films varies. Still, Lee has a modest attitude toward the art of creation, the market and the audience. He does not blame, like many Chinese filmmakers, anyone but himself. He does not point fingers at the film distribution system or the public's ignorance.
"Even the smartest people can't predict precisely how a film's box office will turn out," he once said. And Lee has some advice for directors in China: "Don't pursue quick success. There are a lot of temptations in this colorful world, yet not everything is going to be within reach. Medicine is so advanced today that we get to live a long life. Why hurry?"