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Film

Serious, patriotic history, or giant robot battles?

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The documentary Nanking arrived in China on 7 July to great fanfare. But as of this past weekend it seems to have quietly disappeared.

From Monday's People's Daily:

Today, several people who came to Shanghai's Nextage Film Art Center specifically to see Nanking were very disappointed when they were informed that the schedule had been changed: Nanking was no longer showing, and it had been replaced with Transformers. Reportedly, the cinema had more than 30 showings of Transformers today, with only one morning slot reserved for a showing of Nanking. A manager explained: "We had already done the calculations and saved one spot for Nanking. Other theaters had basically stopped showing it. We can't ignore economic interests!"

Despite previous statements from Xu Xiaoping, general manager of Shanghai United Cinema Line Corporation, that the company's eight prints of Nanking would continue to be shown in Shanghai after the onslaught of Transformers — "Audiences who want to watch will definitely be able to!" — Shanghai's major theaters decided separately to give most of their weekend time to Transformers. One theater's promise to "increase the number of screenings of Nanking next week" was thought by fans to be empty rhetoric.

According to PD, audience response was quite good in Beijing and Shanghai, where the film was in limited release. But it wasn't available many other places — there wasn't even a print in Nanjing itself. Why?

One critic pointedly said that many theaters "put too much emphasis on ticket sales, and will play whatever brings in the money. But they've ignored one thing — theaters aren't purely entertainment venues; they have the vital mission to provide the populace with cultural products." And a netizen said, "Nanking is the most appropriate sort of 'patriotic education,' but we gave up too easily."

In an accompanying opinion piece, reporter Li Hongbing speculated about the larger meaning of Nanking's box office failure:

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Nanking was "forced out" by Transformers; perhaps, in today's climate where works of art are moving toward the market, we can't criticize the theaters for their decision. But it is interesting that all of the theaters happened to have the same worry: serious movies equal poor ticket sales. How is it that so many industry professionals are trapped in such a fixed mentality?

To China's theaters and to more than a few people in the audience, Nanking was seen as a serious film. But this movie did not enjoy the traditional "glory" of having work units organize viewings, and as a result, it was just a feint that did not create the reaction it should have in its "hometown" of Nanjing.

I can't help but think of the similarly WWII-themed tragedy, Schindler's List. In its subject matter and its educational meaning, Schindler's List was also a serious film, but with its extraordinary artistic inspiration it not only won seven Oscar statues but set box office records as well.

Of course, Nanking is a documentary, and the American director's first concern was not artistry. However, China itself reportedly has several international-level directors, and has had several blockbusters that have raked in buckets of cash, so why haven't they picked up on such soul-stirring, native subject matter as the Nanjing Massacre? The world's awareness and contemplation of the Nanjing Massacre trails far behind that of the concentration camps for Jews at Auschwitz. One major reason is that we do not have great, internationally-influential works of art that exhibit that period of national tribulation.

Films with serious themes can too attract people to theaters. No wonder so many of our countrymen ask, when will we truly have a Chinese version of Schindler's List?

Yes, when?

Perhaps next year: Hong Kong's Yim Ho and the mainland's Lu Chuan are both working on their own versions for the big screen.

Note: The original version of this piece mistakenly called the documentary Nanjing throughout.

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There are currently 6 Comments for Serious, patriotic history, or giant robot battles?.

Comments on Serious, patriotic history, or giant robot battles?

I wanted to watch Nanjing, but the cinema near my home only showed the film during workhours. Perhaps they thought students would be forced to see the film but nobody else would want to go.

Realistically though there aren't going to be any films about the great leap forward or the 'cultural' revolution. Maybe these films about the failure of the communist party to protect its citizens are just too close in history.

Ever wonder that maybe the reason is much more simpler...Like the hutongs maybe the average citizen doesn't give a sh*t about history. Like the closing of China's Rolling Stone no one cares about rock n' roll.
The only concern in China seems to be money...
We ain't care 'bout all that book larnin' and such.

No films about the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution? "活着" covers both, and "美人草" does the GPCR in Yunnan. Those are the two that spring to mind before breakfast.

Anyway, a Chinese "Schindler's List" based on Nanjing would be....interesting. I'm looking forward to seeing what Lu Chuan and Yim Ho come up with.

one critic said: "theaters aren't purely entertainment venues; they have the vital mission to provide the populace with cultural products."

I don't think s/he could be any more wrong.

"one critic said: "theaters aren't purely entertainment venues; they have the vital mission to provide the populace with cultural products"... I don't think s/he could be any more wrong."

i think the critic has a point... it is consistent with the role of films in Chinese society to view them as more than pure entertainment value. in fact, it's consistent with most societies with a cinematic history to view them as having possible value besides pure entertainment. nothing inherently wrong with entertainment, necessarily -- especially when your alternatives shade heavily towards propaganda.

i think there has been and continues to be a huge gap between what audiences want to watch and what distributors/exhibitors are willing to put in their theaters. there homogenizing 'conventional wisdom' in the marketplace for films ('big movies = money = what audiences want = all that is worth showing') at its extremes is deadening to the very heart of a creative and cultural industry. problem isn't just in china but also in the states, where 'grindhouse' and arthouse cinemas are now a thing of the past, although the diversity they brought is supplemented somewhat by DVD rentals and speciality festivals...


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