Director stresses indie spirit

Jia Zhangke says the Internet, although a launch pad for filmmaking talent, brings both positive and negative influences to the industry.

China's film industry should give greater support to indie films to keep them from being drowned by bigbudget commercial films as the domestic market grows fast. This is a common appeal made most recently by Chinese director Jia Zhangke and senior executives of the Toronto International Film Festival.

"As the film industry in China enters a new stage, we keep our fingers crossed that while trying to attract a universal audience, Chinese filmmakers remain true to their culture and local stories," says Piers Handling, president and CEO of the festival. Handling was in Beijing and gave a public talk with Jia last month hosted by the Canadian embassy in Beijing.

He advises the Chinese film industry to take heed of the situation in the US, where massive productions are elbowing personal films out of the cinema.

More talented filmmakers have turned to TV series production. "There is less restriction and it's easier to find funding to showcase their personal styles and experiment with new ideas," Handling says, adding that US cinema is losing its audience for films other than blockbusters patterned after TV productions.

In China, it is the Internet that is attracting filmmaking talent and bringing "both positive and negative" changes to the film industry, says Jia, the scriptwriter and director of the Canneshonored film A Touch of Sin. The film premiered in North America at the TIFF in 2013.

Jia was honored with the "director of the decade" award by TIFF in 2010, with three of his films included in the "top 30 films in the past decade".

Jia will act as a jury member at the upcoming 67th Cannes Film Festival. He will host a news conference there about his undisclosed new film.

He recently told the Hangzhou-based newspaper City Express that he enjoys working on juries at film festivals.

He said he loves watching movies in a small dark room. It is a delight to both the eye and the mind, because he can appreciate many masterpieces and voice opinions.

Chinese director Zhang Yimou's new film Coming Home, which will hit Chinese screens on May 16, will be shown at this year's Cannes, but not in competition. Jia isn't distressed that the film won't be competing for the Palm D'or because he says it's already a great honor for a film to be showing at Cannes.

But he adds that he regrets that Chen Daoming and Gong Li, the main actor and actress of Coming Home, won't have the opportunity to compete for acting awards.

Jia tells the Guangzhou-based newspaper Yangcheng Evening News that, as is shown in the trailer, Chen and Gong's performances are concentrated, which he says he hasn't seen in recent Chinese films.

It's the second time for Jia to work as a jury member at the French film festival. In 2007, Jia was appointed the jury chairman of Cinefondation, a Cannes program for short and mediumlength motion pictures from film schools.

"As short film gains online popularity in China, a new type of film production company, which focuses on making films to be shown online, has sprung up in the country," Jia says.

"These companies offer more opportunities for young filmmakers. However, they may at the same time drag down the overall quality of the film industry," he says.

"It's difficult for people working in these companies to develop their professionalism, as they may frequently change their jobs to adapt to the everchanging Internet."

The Internet is changing the ways of making and watching films in China: the audience can even participate from the beginning of film production-by making investments.

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group launched the investment platform Yulebao on March 26, in which an individual could invest in movies and/or games starting from 100 yuan ($16). The first four projects-three feature films and one game-are expected to draw investments of 73 million yuan through Yulebao.

China's film industry, according to Jia, remains one of the most popular recreational sectors.

"Investments are still flowing into the industry. More than 600 films were made last year, not including those indie films that were not calculated in official statistics," Jia says.

"However, lacking a marketing mind, Chinese indie filmmakers don't get much benefit from the film market's growth."

He calls for more exchanges between commercial and indie filmmakers in China because "actually they need each other's help".

"Some Chinese films get lost in content when they go all the way to meet the audience's interests. They need to learn from indie filmmakers how to speak out in a personal voice," Jia says.

Another concern about the Chinese film industry is the shortage of producers who are creative and capable of delivering the director's personal voice to the general audience. This lack shows "the immaturity of the industry in China", Jia adds.

"A director shouldn't think about how to sell the story to the market when he or she writes it. That's the producer's job. But when I cooperate with young Chinese directors, they are concerned about marketing-even more than me-which is really sad," he says.

Improving marketing is critical for Chinese films that want to reach overseas markets.

Twentytwo Chinese films hit the big screens in North America in 2013 and the total boxoffice was $7.84 million, almost double 2012 ticket sales, according to m1905.com, citing figures from boxofficemojo.com, a box office tracking website with more than 2 million visitors per month. Founded in 1999, the website was acquired by IMDb.com, Inc, a subsidiary of Amazon.com.

However, $6.59 million of that was spent for The Grandmaster starring Zhang Ziyi, while the box offices of the remaining 21 added up to only $1.25 million. Lost in Thailand, a comedy whose boxoffice in the Chinese mainland was nearly 1.3 billion yuan ($208 million), made only $57,400 in North America.

Cameron Bailey, artistic director at the TIFF, admits that kung fu is still the most popular element of Chinese movies for overseas audiences because "action can be understood beyond language barriers".

But he thinks that what tripped up Lost in Thailand in the North American market was more than the difficulty of understanding comedy in a foreign language and the lack of a global star like Zhang.

"It needs much stronger promotion. Few people in North America heard about it before it was put on show," Bailey says.

"To succeed in an overseas market, a film needs to tell a story of universal values to overcome language barriers, feature global stars familiar with foreign audiences and have good promotion."


The Toronto International Film Festival was established in 1976 and has grown from a 10day festival to a yearround project to showcase both commercial and arthouse films from around the world, support the Canadian film industry and make people love films.

The events and facilities include screening high-quality Canadian and international films in areas lagging behind in cinema facilities, a film reference library and the launch of the TIFF Kids International Film Festival for families and schools.

Unlike other international film festivals, Toronto doesn't have a jury award but an audience award. The winner is selected by film critics, media and fans.

The festival is known for its number of films on show, while many other international film festivals focus on awards.

Altogether 372 films from 72 countries were shown at the festival in 2012, attracting an audience of more than 400,000.

The TIFF hosted a grand exhibition called A Century of Chinese Cinema last year to review Chinese films in the past century, airing more than 80 Chinese films. The TIFF will take place from Sept 4 to 14 this year.