Perpetuating a skewed view of
Chinese history By Antoaneta
BEIJING - Show-stopping scenes of
regal power and wirework martial arts in Chinese
period dramas might be all the rage in the West,
but the success of these best-selling films has
provoked an uneasy debate at home about what
Chinese blockbusters should be all about.
Described by some critics as feasts for
the eyes, these big-budget hits have been slammed
for leaving the audiences hungry for substance and
deprived of soul. Their artfully scripted scenes
of carnage and violence have made some lament that
lowbrow Hollywood films are
better at passing judgment and affirming the
victory of good over evil.
director Ang Lee's 2001 film Crouching Tiger,
Hidden Dragon drew the curtain on a China of
mystery and imagery and went on to win an Oscar,
three of mainland China's most-renowned directors
have succumbed to the allure of directing opulent
period dramas that feature imperial power
struggles and captivating kung-fu fights.
Zhang Yimou, perhaps the best known of all
living Chinese directors, rolled out two
big-budget films, Hero in 2002 and the
House of Flying Daggers in 2004, both
affirming his reputation as maestro of the visual.
Hero dazzled the eye with half a
dozen hues, breaking the story of an attempted
imperial assassination into several cameos of
color and retelling it as many times as seen by
the film's main characters. Hero became the
best-selling Chinese film ever.
of Flying Daggers, for its part, showcased
breathtaking martial arts, offset by scenes of
willowy bamboo forests and willowy female
warriors. While not as grandiose as Hero,
House of Flying Daggers firmly established
the Chinese industry's potential to compete with
Hollywood in artistic talent and audience-drawing
Last year saw three new period
Zhang unveiled another court
spectacle, the US$45 million Curse of the
Golden Flower, said to be the biggest-budget
Chinese film of all time. The new film takes
Zhang's talent for staging intricate battle scenes
and elaborate ancient rituals to dangerous
heights, threatening to smother all intended
subtleties under a weight of gold finery.
Although it opened in December,
Curse became the top-grossing film of 2006.
It is projected to rake in more than $32 million
in domestic theaters - a record for the Chinese
Zhang's success in the
genre of costume drama has not gone unchallenged.
His equally famous colleague, Chen Kaige, released
earlier last year The Promise - another
big-budget film that ventures into ostentatious
fight scenes and attempts to rival Zhang's
imaginary ancient China with its improbable
The Banquet - a Chinese
interpretation of William Shakespeare's
Hamlet, directed by the country's most
popular commercial film director, Feng Xiaogang -
is the last of these mega-productions of imperial
grandeur where violence and bloodshed are made
big-budget historical films have proved the
commercial viability of China's film industry,
they have also drawn critics' ire for establishing
a winning formula with foreign audiences while
presenting cliched views of ancient China.
"China has 5,000 years of history and such
a rich cache of classics, but all we see replayed
in these 'blockbusters' over and over again is the
story of attempts to kill the emperor," complained
cultural commentator Chen Danqing.
certain extent, all these historical firms explore
the importance of authoritarian power, personified
in the emperor, and its necessity as a unifying
force for China. By making the plot to kill the
emperor a centerpiece, critics say, these films
intend to be seen as political metaphors but fail
in conveying outright condemnation of tyranny.
The most famous one perhaps is Zhang
Yimou's Hero, where the skillful assassin,
or the intended "hero" of the story, wavers at the
last moment of striking the fatal blow that would
kill the emperor, because he bows to his ruthless
authority. Some suggest that the film goes even
further, endorsing the ruling authoritarian order
by transforming the tyrant into the real "hero" of
What anger critics even more are
the numerous bloodbaths and pervasive violence
that accompany imperial power struggles. In such
films as The Banquet and Curse, the
ensuing massacres are presented like
scene-stealing shows of beautiful and painless
deaths. Violent death is only a moment of broken
harmony in these imperial courtyards, and the
piles of dead bodies are hastily swept away to be
replaced with a sea of flowers.
productions are not art-house pictures that can
easily afford to profess violence and doom," said
film critic Zi Yufei. "They aim to be big
commercial hits but don't have any bottom line.
Which Hollywood blockbuster dares depict so much
blood and let the evil triumph over the good?"
But others find justification in the fact
that to attract foreign audiences, Chinese
directors can only make films about ancient China,
which, love it or hate it, has a violent history
"Foreigners don't want to
see films about modern China," mused Wang Wu, one
of Zhang Yimou's screenwriters. "They don't care
about our modern life because there is nothing
original in it, it is a copycat of theirs. What is
truly and only ours, though, is China's ancient
history. Ancient China is the only worthwhile
subject for a big commercial film."
pre-eminence of foreign audiences' taste is
dictated by the fact that more than half of the
financing for these big-budget productions comes
from overseas. "When you rely on someone else's
money to produce a film, it is inevitable that you
have to sacrifice your own original ideas and
intentions," said film producer Wang Zhonglei in
defense of the new Chinese blockbusters.
Ultimately, it is not a question of what
these big films got wrong, reflected commentator
Chen Danqing. "It is about the lack of thriving
and diverse cultural scene in China where only
these historical blockbusters get the nod and the