by Xinhua writers Huang Shuo, Liu Yang
BEIJING, Aug. 6 (Xinhua) -- Deep in the countryside of southwest China, a local doctor sets out to look for his lost nephew. On his way, he finds himself inhabiting a world where the present, past and future seem to blur as one.
This is the otherworldy story of "Kaili Blues," a Chinese art film that finished its screening in China last week as a criticial hit.
Filmed in the director Bi Gan's hometown, Kaili, a city in southwest China's Guizhou Province, the film took a humble 6.1 million yuan (about 900,000 U.S. dollars) at the Chinese box office, but was successful with critics both home and abroad and is comfortably the best reviewed Chinese film this summer.
The Boston Globe favourably compared the director to cinema greats Tarkovsky, Bunuel, Lynch, with popular Chinese ratings site "Douban Film" giving it 7.8 out of 10. Chinese films are usually lucky to score six.
Aside from good reviews, the film has been widely praised for its innovative technique and masterful storytelling.
For 27-year-old Bi, this feature debut, which cost less than one million yuan, is already a success. It turned a profit and has given him the beginings of fame, no mean feat in an increasingly difficult market for filmmakers.
All too often, art films in China are regarded as artistically superior, but poor box office performers. Chinese art films such as "Kaili Blues" must increasingly find new ways to reach out to a wider audience.
MORE INDUSTRY SUPPORT
Before directing "Kaili Blues," Bi wanted to quit his job in building demolitions in his hometown, so he could make his film. Desperately short of money, he finally got the funds from his family and one of his old college professors.
Xiaomu (not his real name) is a documentary maker. In order to raise funds for his documentary, he had to regularly shoot advertising videos, though he also found some financial support from the industry.
"I made two documentary pitches for my film," he said.
Such pitches are usually put forward to committees, which often contain famous directors as members, that are searching for meaningful film projects. Xiaomu was lucky. He received funding for his documentary on his second pitch.
"It's not a large amount of money, but at least it can help me to finish the film," he said.
For other young directors, the industry support can help in promotion.
"Kaili Blues" became well-known to Chinese audiences when it won Best New Director at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival in 2015. For many films, the festival circuit is a typical path to success as it makes it easier to gain a cinema release.
The 2014 thriller "Black Coal, Thin Ice" earned more than 100 million yuan at the box office, after winning the prestigious Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Such festivals are increasingly becoming part of the landscape of Chinese film. In 2014, "The Coffin in the Mountain" won Best New Director at the FIRST International Film Festival. The film then screened nationwide and earned over 10 million yuan, though it had a budget of just 1.7 million yuan.
Over its 10 year history, the FIRST festival has gained a reputation for unearthing new directors and their works, and it often invites more famous directors such as Wong Kar-Wai.
Liu Kaiyun, a film major from Hong Kong Baptist University, believes that film festivals are a must for securing a better chance of success for your film.
"At film festivals, you can make friends that are doing the same thing and get connected with senior people in the industry to give you a better shot," Liu said.
MORE RELEASE PLATFORMS
For art films, securing a cinema release proves a constant challenge.
China's national box-office was over 44 billion yuan in 2015, but art films earned no more than 300 million yuan, and documentaries did even worse, raking in just over 30 million yuan.
"People watch a film because maybe they have read the book, or they adore one of the film stars; it's not about the content itself," Bi said.
"Audiences are not looking for specific things about films; they are looking for something relaxing and amusing."
Due to poor box-office performance, art films get very limited screen time in China. Where it was screened, "Kaili Blues" only got about one percent of the total cinema screen time, common for art films in China.
Hu Xiao plans to study film at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and wants to direct art films in the future. He thinks China needs more specific arthouse cinemas.
"Arthouse cinemas could ensure a box-office so that the directors can at least make a living," he said.
Though getting a cinema release is more difficult than ever, online video channels are increasingly offering art filmmakers a chink of light.
Earlier this year, the documentary "Masters in the Forbidden City" became an unexpected Internet hit. It had previously been played on China Central Television's (CCTV) documentary channel but remained largely unknown.
Ye Jun, the director, was surprised the documentary did well, as the market usually turns a cold shoulder to the genre.
"It was completely free charge for CCTV to play it. We also sold the copyright to a video site called IQIYI for just 15,000 yuan," he said.
However, it was the well known video site, Bilibili that really spread the word about the documentary.
"Masters in the Forbidden City" has now been viewed more than four million times online.
Another Chinese film, "Winter" has also put a lot of its focus into online channels. Expecting a low percentage of screen time at Chinese cinemas, the film was available to view for premium members of a Chinese video site while it ran at the cinemas. Though it only took 300,000 yuan at the Chinese box office it has now been viewed online more than two million times.
Xiaomu also thinks the Internet can be an effective channel for art filmmakers.
"Internet channels will be a future trend but they require that filmmakers make good use of it," he said.
MORE GENRES EXPECTED
Last month, eight films earned more than 200 million yuan in Chinese cinemas, with six of them commercial Chinese films. However, these Chinese blockbusters are routinely criticized for their poor quality.
Box office takings have seen a decrease this summer. They were 4.5 billion yuan in July, down 18 percent year on year. It was the first decline for the box office in July for five years.
Poor quality critical disasters that are stellar commercial successes, against highly praised art films that few people will ever see at the cinema -- this, it seems, is the dilemma for China's film market.
Liu thinks that solving this problem not only needs an increased focus on promoting art films, but more importantly that the fim market expands the number of genres on offer.
"Art films and vulgar commercial films are two extremes of the market, yet we really need films that touch that intermediate space in between, where a director can express himself and still make the audiences enjoy it," he said.
Ye agreed and said that "Masters in the Forbidden City" is an attempt to explore this forgotton intermediate space.
The documentary is about the work and life of restoration workers in the imperial palace. It does not just focus on how they go about their daily work, instead taking a deeper look at the small details of their lives, as they pick fruit, play with stray cats, or simply take bicycle rides across the Forbidden City's main square.
"We tried to put modern elements into a serious documentary, so that young people born in the 1980s and 1990s could enjoy it," Ye said.
Riding the wave of success from "Kaili Blues," Bi is able to adequately prepare for his next film, also an art film.
"Good films are all very different, but bad films are all the same. They are not created with sincerity," Bi said.
Currently, Bi believes, filmmakers care little about the content of their films, which lowers the general standard, but he is still confident in the future of the domestic market.
"The market will become more mature. The absence of good directors is providing chances for young people to show their capabilities," he said.