Friday, Dec 19, 2014, 1:17 AM CST – China

Culture

Feng Xiaogang

Maverick No More?

China Central Television (CCTV) pins its hopes on popular movie director Feng Xiaogang to rescue its flagging televised Chinese New Year Gala from critical purgatory. But will Feng bring his trademark irreverence or just more orthodoxy to this event?

Feng Xiaogang

Korean singer PSY and Taiwanese actress Lin Chi-ling are invited to perform on Shanghai’s Dragon TV New Year Gala, February 1, 2013 Photo by IC

Posters for Feng Xiaogang’s movies. In the past two decades, Feng has directed 16 movies, most of which have become box office hits

For the past 30 years, millions of Chinese have habitually huddled before their televisions to watch the chunwan, or Chinese New Year Gala, aired by State-owned network CCTV. This once-a-year variety show attempts to incorporate both political orthodoxy and mass entertainment with a mixture of patriotic and popular musical acts, magic tricks, comedy sketches, propaganda set-pieces and acrobatics – many of which are performed by China’s top celebrities. This year, they even secured Celine Dion.

However, even as budgets have expanded and the running time has extended to some four hours, the Gala’s put-upon directors have visibly struggled to strike a balance between the taste for old-school bombastic socialist realism still shared by many older Chinese viewers and by the Party faithful, and the increasingly vital preferences of the younger generation for the kind of varied entertainment they have grown up with.

When once families were happy to remain glued to their screens for several hours, nowadays most switch off after an hour or less – if they switch on at all. More alarmingly for CCTV bigwigs, the young people who do tune in merely do so to update scathing criticism of the show in real-time via China’s social media.

The choice of popular director Feng Xiaogang to direct next year’s Gala, a decision announced via a live prime time TV broadcast, could be CCTV’s biggest gamble yet to turn around the fortunes of its failing flagship show.

One of China’s top directors, Feng Xiaogang shot to fame with a series of wildly popular “Chinese New Year blockbusters” released during the holiday seasons of the 1990s to a total box office revenue of over two billion yuan (roughly US$250m).

Feng’s light-hearted, irreverent and sometimes bitingly satirical output was a revelation to audiences raised on moribund political epics and predictably gory war films, making him one of the country’s best-loved filmmakers.

Unlike many of his peers, from the outside Feng for years maintained only necessary ties with the Chinese government’s culture departments, a policy that has, until now, largely prevented him from being written off as a sell-out. Feng has even been a very public opponent of State censorship apparatus, criticizing the movie approval system as recently as April 12 in a speech at the China Film Director’s Guild Awards, a speech that was, ironically, censored when shown on CCTV.

Two months later on July 12, CCTV confirmed at a news conference that Feng Xiaogang would be the chief director of 2014’s Gala. Feng, resplendent in a purple jacket, told reporters: “I would rather not express my thanks to the CCTV leadership. As I’m taking this thankless job, they should thank me instead.”

The authorities evidently hope that Feng’s presence will reverse the audience exodus to less-orthodox, more populist alternative Chinese New Year’s Eve galas aired on commercial stations and to the Internet. But is Feng Xiaogang the man for the job?

Shared History

In 1983, five years after China had embarked on the road of Reform and Opening-up, CCTV broadcasted its first annual Gala, whose brand of spectacle and light entertainment won ardent fans among a generation emerging from the wasteland left in the wake of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). A great number of viewers wrote letters to CCTV to express their love for the show, forcing the network to set up a dedicated room just for Gala fan mail.

That same year, a 25-year-old Feng Xiaogang was just embarking on his TV career, working as a runner and cook for a production company.

Six years later, Feng joined forces with popular writer Wang Shuo. After having several projects killed off by the cultural authorities for being “too negative,” including one aborted shoot which cost them several million yuan, the pair managed to produce The Editorial Room, a sitcom about the media industry. Chinese audiences, raised on a daily diet of worthy TV dramas extolling the virtues of noble cadres, soldiers and police officers spouting pitch-perfect news anchor Mandarin, couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The series’ pithy dialog, naturalistic characters and satirical treatment of social issues caused a stir across the country.

At the same time, the CCTV Gala re-introduced, amongst other things, pop music and sketch comedy to mainstream entertainment. Neither meticulously planned nor flawlessly designed, the show appeared more like a get-together for friends and family, down to the casually-clad audiences clearly visible in the broadcasts, and therefore always seemed a show for ordinary families. Sharp comedic commentary on current affairs, and participation by top pop stars from Hong Kong and Taiwan, ensured the Gala’s enviable ratings.

However, beginning in the 1990s, CCTV began to take a more active role in determining the content of the Gala. Former president of CCTV Yang Weiguang once said that the 1990s saw the annual show’s content shift from ideological emancipation (breaking free from the shackles of the Cultural Revolution) to feeding cultural consumerism as well as providing a platform for exerting ideological control over the masses. Predictably, ratings began to drop off.

According to CCTV statistics, its 2010 gala had an audience share of only 28.42 percent, a share which dropped to 11.36 percent in 2013. In 1998, its Chinese New Year Gala had secured 68.1 percent of the audience share. With budgets increasing year-on-year, CCTV was struggling to justify its investment, yet there were no signs the ideological pressure from above was lessening.

In the 1990s, Feng Xiaogang’s star was still rising, thanks largely to his decision to stick to his trademark style – mocking the establishment but remaining so in-step with public opinion that he couldn’t be silenced effectively. “He had personal opinions about every piece of news. He could riff on any headline,” remarked one director.

In 1997, Feng Xiaogang’s first Chinese New Year movie, Dream Factory, was released. The movie tells a story of four young people starting a “dream-making” company that helps its clients realize a lifelong dream within 24 hours. With an investment of 6 million yuan (US$723,000), the film raked in 36 million (US$4.3m) at the national box office. Critics rhapsodized about the movie’s quality and daring, manipulating absurdism to relay social critique. Feng himself attributed his success to remaining grounded. “Without reality and life, I have no confidence in my movies,” he said in any earlier interview in 2004.

After Dream Factory, Feng made a habit of releasing one blockbuster a year during the Chinese New Year holiday season – even coining a term for this “genre” – the “New Year Movie.”

Despite his mounting success, Feng failed to gain recognition from China’s cultural authorities. Some critics in State media dismissed his output as populist, and “remixed soap-operas.”

Feng was not discouraged. After social critique Chicken Feather earned critical acclaim, Feng directed A Sigh (2000), focusing on the commonplace but rarely-portrayed issues of mid-life crises and extramarital affairs, a movie which became the second-highest-grossing domestic release of that year.

Despite the success of A Sigh, cultural authorities would not allow the movie to be nominated for the Golden Rooster Awards – China’s Academy Awards. Instead, Feng swept the board at the Cairo International Film Festival, taking home awards in every major category apart from Best Director. A Sigh also earned Feng significant recognition in Europe and America, securing overseas releases for many of his subsequent productions.

Crossover

Nonetheless, there were signs that Feng was finding the potential commercial benefits of a stamp of approval from the authorities hard to resist. In 2007, he shot Assembly, a movie about the Chinese Civil War in the late 1940s and China’s involvement in the Korean War in the early 1950s. Shooting this historical epic, which broadly fit with the Party line on both conflicts, finally earned him some currency with the Ministry of Culture.

“Feng Xiaogang was not recognized by the establishment until Assembly,” Gao Jun, chairman of the Beijing Sheng Shi Xin Ying Film TV Distribution Corporation, told our reporter. A long-time collaborator with Feng, Gao Jun was one of the main script advisors for Dream Factory.

“[Feng] is full of ideas,” said Gao. “He is in the van of new movie-making trends, his productions gain traction with the ordinary people, and he is relatively unorthodox.”

“Yes, he has rough edges, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage,” he continued. “Being edgy means he has ideas but remains a big personality not easily accepted by the authorities.”

Early frustrations taught Feng how to live with this reality, one faced by all pioneering auteurs operating in China’s stifling cultural climate. He learnt how to compromise to get his productions through the minefield of censorship while meeting his artistic and commercial targets.

“All people should abide by a certain set of rules. That is the precondition for survival in any environment,” said Feng during an earlier interview with the International Herald Leader.

However, some claim Feng has struggled to strike this balance with all his releases since 2000. The Banquet (2006), a bloated historical epic based on Hamlet and featuring a stellar cast, performed well at the box office but was critically slammed for bending to commercialism. Two years earlier, the equally star-studded A World Without Thieves received a similar critical barrage.

Feng’s follow-up Assembly (2007) was more critically successful, before Aftershock (2010), a story about the catastrophic Tangshan earthquake of 1976, broke box-office records for a domestic release.

Aftershock has become known as Feng’s first true “crossover” film, marking the first occasion when the director had directly accepted government backing on a commercial project. The Tangshan municipal government invested heavily in the film, requiring Feng to include the city’s name in its Chinese title, amongst other considerations. The film made 660 million yuan (US$105m) at the box office. Zhang Hongsen, director of the  Film Bureau under then State Administration of Radio, Film and Television published a 5,000-word article in the People’s Daily, hailing the movie’s achievement. CCTV also dedicated two daily reports to the movie’s continued success.

While Feng had found favor with the cultural authorities, however, he was struggling to retain his popularity with the critics. Despite a widespread international release, Assembly failed to succeed in overseas markets. Aftershock’s perceived massaging of history didn’t go down well with some critics. Others slammed the movie’s extremely graphic levels of violence, which some critics claimed bordered on the pornographic.

Shi Sushi, a Chinese movie critic and blogger, wrote that “Aftershock is undoubtedly a wonderful movie of moral education… Regrettably, history is history. It can’t be wiped out or eliminated.”

Last year, Feng’s Back to 1942, an account of a devastating wartime famine in Henan Province, struggled to connect even with domestic audiences. Some expressed dismay at the movie’s overwhelmingly depressing tone. As with Aftershock, others criticized the graphic content, particularly Feng’s depictions of starvation and prostitution, with some accusing the director of using gratuitous scenes to secure a bigger market share.

Many observers have expressed hope that Feng’s nomination to revitalize the CCTV Gala will lead to the production of a more artistically viable and less moralistic spectacle. “Of all the Chinese movie directors, Feng is the most suitable for directing the Gala,” said Gao Jun. “What the Gala needs is sharp edges kept within a safe framework, winning the trust of the government and the acclaim of the younger generation.”

However, given Feng’s recent output, it remains to be seen how much authority this former maverick will have when it comes to a vision for CCTV’s flagship event.

Gao Jun, at least, remains optimistic. “Feng still has sharp edges,” he told our reporter. “But now he knows how to smooth them down.”

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