Fresh from winning the prestigious Golden Horse Award in Taiwan for his documentary China Heavyweight, Montreal-based filmmaker Yung Chang is talking about a big departure (a youth-oriented fiction film he's calling Space Race) and the market he has his eye on: China.
Chang burst on to the scene in 2007 with Up the Yangtze, a quietly searing look at the uprooting of Chinese people as a result of China's enormous Three Gorges Dam project. The film was banned in mainland China. But just a few years later, he managed to team up with Chinese producers to create a rare Canada-China co-production in China Heavyweight. On Thursday, he'll be at British Columbia's Whistler Film Festival to pitch his Space Race idea – which he describes as "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in space" – to a panel of Chinese producers at the inaugural China Canada Gateway for Film Script Competition.
"I don't think a space film has ever been made yet in China," Chang said from Taipei on Monday. "And it would require some really good partners."
China's notorious history of artistic censorship may have some disputing that it would be a "really good partner," but many – including Chang, the Whistler Film Festival and big Hollywood studios who are establishing a presence there – recognize China as the land of filmmaking opportunity: with available financing, a growing market and a strong desire to beat Hollywood at its own game.
At home and internationally, the global economic powerhouse has underperformed in the area of film production. Domestically, foreign films dominate the Chinese box office, despite the fact that so few have been allowed into the country. Internationally, Chinese-produced films have not made much of a dent.
In the wake of a World Trade Organization agreement last February that will see 14 additional foreign films a year exhibited theatrically in China (provided they're in enhanced formats such as 3-D or Imax), the country more than ever needs to strengthen its domestic offerings.
This week, word emerged that two large Chinese state-owned film studios are planning to sell shares on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. The move would help the studios raise money for big-budget blockbusters to compete with Hollywood.
They also need help on the creative side, and co-productions – accessing expertise and talent from countries such as Canada – might be just the ticket.
"The international talent and the creative talent especially can help the Chinese film industry [get] to the next level, and co-productions will be a good way to compete with Hollywood films, with just pure foreign films," says Lifeng Wang, executive director of Wuxi Studios. "Co-productions … can take the [Chinese] film industry to the international stage."
Wuxi Studios is one of three Chinese production companies which will be at the table on Thursday, when the Whistler festival holds its first China Canada Gateway for Film Script Competition. Thirteen Canadian teams – chosen from 109 applicants – will pitch to the Chinese producers, as well as three international observers. Three projects will be chosen for development, with up to $15-million in financing on the table in total. The state-run China Film Group, which distributes most films in China, will sit in as observers.
For China, the hope is that the creative partnerships facilitated by the Gateway initiative will help it score a breakthrough at the box office. Wang, for instance, is primarily interested in finding commercial projects. He's open to any genre, but is particularly keen on science fiction, action and disaster movies.
Christopher Rea, assistant professor of Chinese literature at the University of British Columbia, says for the "pretty small-potatoes investment" of $5-million each, these Chinese production companies could achieve that commercial and critical success which has proved so elusive, as well as generate some goodwill and positive publicity.
"One of the main concerns for the Chinese film industry is to globalize: not just in getting a market for their films overseas, but also being regarded as having their films be up to international quality standards," said Rea from Canberra, where he is a postdoctoral fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World. "I think they are keenly interested in being perceived as non-threatening to the film community, viewers and industry leaders, so it is partly a charm offensive."
For Canadian filmmakers, the Gateway is an opportunity to access development money, and the growing Chinese market.
"Canada needs a huge market such as the Chinese one," adds Vancouver-based filmmaker Shan Tam in an e-mail from Beijing, where she is working on an EU-Canada-China co-production. She points out that an initiative such as the Gateway could prove extremely valuable – because it brings Canadian and Chinese film types together in the same room. "Networking is very important, particularly for doing business with China."
A film with mainstream commercial possibilities is exactly what Chinese production companies are after. And for someone like Chang – who has proven himself in the field of documentary, but wants to try something new – the Gateway provides an opportunity.
"I do believe that China is a market for filmmakers that's unexplored for international and independent filmmakers who want to break into fiction," he says.
Chang was able to team up with a Chinese studio for China Heavyweight and secure a precious theatrical licence that will see it released in China next year, despite painting a less-than-flattering portrait of China in Up the Yangtze.
"I think generally if it doesn't raise a ruckus in the mainland, then China often turns a blind eye to these stories and these kind of subject matters. They seem to be more and more forgiving for these kind of issues. I think if I had made a potentially even more hotbed film with subject matter like Tiananmen or something like this, it would have been even more difficult," says Chang, whose documentary The Fruit Hunters is now in select theatres in Canada.
Chang points out that even banned Chinese filmmakers can return with state-sanctioned films, such as Lou Ye, who premiered Mystery this year, after a five-year ban in China that followed the premiere of his film Summer Palace in Cannes in 2006.
"I think things kind of blow over after a few years," said Chang.
When asked whether China's continuing censorship issues would play a role in the pitch session and the Gateway competition decisions, Jane Milner, Whistler Film Festival Society managing director, was adamant.
"No, there are no topics off-limits, but there are certain topics that these companies have no interest in, such as ancient Chinese legends. Why would they come to Canada to buy a script about an ancient Chinese legend? Duh," says Milner. "They can make a gorgeous film about the Great Wall. They don't need Canada for that."
A smattering of Canada-China co-productions
Despite a Canada-China co-production treaty for film, there have been only a handful of official co-productions made to date, including:
Diamond Dogs (2007)
Director: Shimon Dotan
Dolph Lundgren stars as a former U.S. soldier who embarks on an expedition to Mongolia to pay off his debts.
Iron Road (2009)
Director: David Wu
Shot in mainland China and B.C., Iron Road chronicles the stories of Chinese workers who came to Canada in the 1880s to build the railroad.
Wushu Warrior (2010)
Director: Alain Desrochers
A martial-arts film set in 1860s China, where a boy fights for freedom for his people from the evil lord who rules the opium trade and enslaves the Chinese masses.
The Way of Tai Chi (2011)
Director: Giles Walker
A documentary about a Chinese girl, adopted as an infant by a Canadian woman, who returns to China at 15 to perfect the art of Tai Chi.
China Heavyweight (2012)
Director: Yung Chang
In this documentary, boxing talent scouts look to rural China as they recruit Olympic hopefuls.