Keeping It Reel

6 minute read

Feng Xiaogang does not dine on shark’s fin or camel’s hump. He does not wear Armani tuxes to awards galas or parade around with bejeweled women on each arm. “I am a regular guy,” Feng says, his tongue swelling his cheek as it seeks out a remnant of dinner from between his molars. “I just happen to make movies instead of, say, working in a factory.”

Feng is an ordinary guy of a somewhat heightened sorthe’s brutally no-nonsense, unsentimental, funny and earthy to the point of raunchinesswho makes movies that are very much like their creator. And they have made Feng China’s most successful contemporary film director. Three of Feng’s recent filmsSorry, Baby (1999), Be There, Be Square (1998) and Party A, Party B (1997)rank in China’s top-five grossing movies to date. Now the jumble-toothed, shorts-wearing, former stage designer is setting his sights on winning viewers outside China. Last month, he wrapped up the shooting of a black comedy called Big Shot’s Funeral, which stars China’s Ge You (known for To Live), Hong Kong’s Rosamund Kwan (Once Upon a Time in China) and Hollywood’s gravel-voiced perennial Donald Sutherland. Backed by the might of Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia, Big Shot will try to do a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon without kung fu, swirling costumes or any of the standard chinoiserieand on a measly $5 million budget.

That’s a big challenge. Crouching Tiger, so far, has been an anomaly, and Jackie Chan or Jet Li films are essentially star vehicles in an established genre. Chinese directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige have succeeded on the international art-house circuit, but their movies are either banned in China because of sensitive political content (the fate of To Live) or they’ve failed with domestic audiences because of their musty themes (The Emperor and the Assassin). Feng makes the light-hearted comedies that draw the big Chinese crowds. Unlike Zhang and Chen, Feng eschews sweeping epic dramas with brocaded courtesans or peasants tilling unforgiving earth, preferring to tell tales of China’s glorious, go-go present. His characters are tour guides and Ikea-shopping yuppies. They don’t struggle with injustice or political strife, but have trouble with relationships and flatulence. “I want my films to reflect the real China,” says the 43-year-old director. “Western audiences may expect an old, exotic China, but this is how my country really is.”

Feng’s unapologetic portrayal of a consumer-obsessed, spiritually bereft China dismays Beijing’s snobby culture mandarins: They prefer gilded, high-art films, and the fact that Feng’s proletarian movies actually make money is seen as doubly galling. “We are shocked by Feng’s superficial motives, outdated film skills and astonishing lack of creativity,” sniffs Beijing film critic Wang Zhen. “It falls under the banner of commercial filmmaking.”

Feng responds to such sniping by dislodging the offending bit of dinner from his teeth. It is a piece of dried chili pepper. He takes it from his tongue and places it on the table. “This is me,” he says, pointing with a toothpick. Then he picks up a shrimp from a plate next to him. “This is the intellectuals.” Feng places the shrimp on top of the chili; the red flake disappears from view. Then Feng leans in, his raspy voice rising as he approaches the punch line. “But tomorrow morning, when you’re sitting on the toilet”he pops both the shrimp and chili in his mouth”which one do you remember more: the shrimp or the chili?”

Directors like Feng are the future of Chinese cinema, and their business is a tricky one. Obscure art-house films were fine back in the day when the directors were coddled with generous government subsidies. But in today’s China, filmmakers must scramble for financing. To make matters worse, rampant video piracy is eating into movie profits. Illegal copies of Feng’s last hit Sigh, for instance, were available days before the movie’s premiere. Ticket revenues have declined by more than 40% since three years ago, and half as many movies are being made today as in 1998. And with China’s eventual entry into the World Trade Organization, domestic moviemakers will face an onslaught of Hollywood blockbusters. Although Feng’s Be There, Be Square scored $5 million at the box office, that’s paltry compared to the $40 million Titanic raked in. “Unless we develop directors like Feng Xiaogang, our industry is in trouble,” says Wang Zhonglei, Big Shot’s executive producer. “We have to recognize what our audiences want and how to break into the international market.”

Unlike other top Chinese directors, Feng didn’t graduate from one of the nation’s hoity-toity film academies. He started as a lowly film set painter for the People’s Liberation Army, working on propaganda films. When the filmmaking bug bit, Feng hoped to inject his films with gritty realism, so in the early 1990s he spent several years slaving over a set of searing social commentaries. But not a single one made it past the skittish Chinese censors and, most distressing to Feng, no one in Elite film circles bothered to back him up. Making a U-turn, Feng turned to directing television sitcoms and eventually worked his way up to big-screen comedies. “I learned my lesson,” he says. “I’d rather make fun movies for one billion people than serious ones for a small group of cultural critics.”

For its part, Columbia’s intention is for Big Shot to appeal to even more than that massive audience, hoping that a Chinese filmeven without fancy costumes or kung-fu kickswill succeed overseas. “Modern China may have Starbucks, but it’s still a fascinating place,” says Sutherland, who plays a Western director coming to grips with the mysteries of the Middle Kingdom. Filmed in Beijing’s august Forbidden City, Big Shot critiques the consumerism sweeping the capital today. “Xiaogang captures the hilarious and tragic contradictions of Chinese society,” says his star, “like no one else.”

Feng returns the compliment. “I love Sutherland,” he announces in halting English, as he raises a glass of chardonnay to cap a farewell party for the Canadian-born actor at the close of shooting. As the crew disperses into the night, a young woman sidles up to Feng for an autograph. Feng looks surprised, scratches his head and points to Sutherland. “No, he’s the famous one,” he says, a lopsided grin taking over his face. “Big Hollywood man. Me, I’m just an ordinary guy.” That’s the creed that makes Feng China’s top director: keeping it funny, real, ordinary.

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