NIRMAL BETCHOO

The Embassy of China is presenting since last week a film festival of Chinese movies in a few local theatres in Mauritius. This interesting event, offered free for the benefit of local moviegoers, aims at providing a perspective of contemporary cinema ‘made in China’. Chinese cinema has made a long way since the advent of the movie medium back to the early days of the last century and has become an important player in global cinema today with the ability of the Chinese film industry to produce and finance both local and international movies. At the same time, the Chinese film makers are able to take advantage of the domestic cinema environment and try their best to better depict a style of movies that seems broadly atypical of mainstream cinema.

Chinese movies have been popular locally namely through the effort undertaken by the Chinese embassy in the past. In the days of itinerant cinema shows in Mauritius, ‘cinéma mobile’ provided people in remote villages the chance to see picturesque images of China in the form of documentaries. Dances, ballet, military parades and folklore songs were skilfully filmed with ambient Chinese music emanating from soft violin tunes and sometimes coupled with enchanting tambourine beats. At times, demonstrations of karate were made on-screen to portray Chinese martial culture as part of the mainstream culture.

Chinese cinema evolved over the years and followed basically the same pace in technical terms to Hollywood. From silent movies to black and white, from standard 35 mm film to large format cinemascope pictures eventually to digitally-made movies, Chinese films have also charted trends in technical prowess. Thanks to action dramas in the form of karate and comedies focusing on Chinese culture, ‘made in China’ movies got acclaim all over the world and pleased Mauritian viewers quite much in the 1970s. It would be good to mention how China cinema, from the end of the 1940s to the late 1950s, suffered from censorship and rigorous control based on the philosophy of patriotism and national belonging voiced by reformer and revered leader Mao Zedong. To a certain extent, this situation might have developed a stereotype of Chinese movies which muffled creativity and freedom of thought from film makers.

Karate movies made inroads in global cinema explaining the rise to fame of such a flamboyant Chinese culture. Bruce Lee movies like ‘Enter the Dragon’, ‘The Death Game’, etc. were basically films produced in Hong Kong and partly funded by Hollywood but offered an exceptional dimension regarding action and violence that caused some tremor in Hollywood where such action style barely existed. Typical American adepts could be David Carradine or Chuck Norris. Apart from Hong Kong that was a British colony, Chinese culture could also be shown in movies made outside China namely in Korea or Thailand. Japanese cinema, although in close resemblance to Chinese cinema, offered wider openings to international markets through movies made by Akira Kurosawa, Nagisa Oshima and popular actor Toshiro Mifune.

Our knowledge of contemporary Chinese cinema dates from the recognition of mainland Chinese movies in international festivals like Berlin or Cannes. ‘The Red Sorghum’ by Zhang Yimou won the Golden Bear Award in 1988, ‘Farewell my Concubine’ directed by Chen Kaige won the ‘Palme D’Or’ and ‘Golden Globe Award’ in 1994 and thrust to international prominence beautiful actress Gong Li. Some Chinese actors have also travelled to Hollywood and made wonder appearances in movies. John Lone gave a sterling performance in ‘The Year of the Dragon’, Tony Leung in ‘In the mood for love’, and Jackie Chan still plays funny action-packed roles in movies like ‘Police Story’ or ‘Journey to China’.

Chinese investment in movie making has spiked over the years. The digitalisation of media has prompted businesspeople to think of the advancement of cinema both as a form of art and business. China’s exceptional economic growth has prompted the Chinese to invest in the entertainment media. Both local and international movies are produced and financed by Chinese investors. Though not full information is provided on financing, it is known that Alibaba CEO Jack Ma favoured the financing of ‘Green Book’ that won the Academy award for the best movie in 2019 and performed quite well in the Chinese boxoffice despite being essentially a movie of artistic genre.

Regarding the Chinese box-office, it is quite clear to say that home-made movies predominate the scene with blockbusters like ‘Wolf Warrior 2’, ‘The Wandering Earth’ and ‘Operation Red Sea’ in the past two years. Evidently. ‘Avengers-End Game’ conquered the market as well as Bollywood movies namely ‘PK’ and ‘Dangal’ that ran to packed houses in mainland China. This explains the globalisation of fi lm medium and its positive acclaim offered by China that looked to be an overly closed market in a recent past.

Mauritians have got ample chances of watching and enjoying Chinese movies although it is claimed that popular movies like ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ or ‘The Scent of the Green Papaya’ come from Hong Kong and South Korea respectively. Gradually with more liberalisation of the Chinese domestic economy and lesser pressure on artistic creation, film makers while strictly conforming to a command economy that embraces modern capitalism, find out more freedom of expression in making movies today.

It is believed that the cliché of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan exemplify just one aspect of the wide and enriched Chinese culture and that movies made in Hollywood like ‘In the mood for love’ just offer an appreciation of foreigner’s outlook of China. Modern China is on the rise since quite a long time and the spirit of movies ‘made in China’ by film makers born on the mainland might only give a more accurate and unbiased image of China.

There will still be images of agile dancers draped into dragons paying cymbals, delicately masked porcelain-faced girls in flower motif silk dress, traditionally-clad Chinese warriors in colourful robes or a couple silently moving in town in sophisticated western dress that will mark the spirit of Chinese cinema. These will be the legacy of dedicated film makers who astutely carve a path between what could be simple propaganda and liberal thinking – an essence of upcoming Chinese cinema.