Beijing-made Films: Beijing-Style Films? No! Bellwether of Chinese Film Market? Yes!
By/Yin Hong, professor at Tsinghua University, Vice Chairman of China Film Association, Vice Chairman of Beijing Film Association. This article is forwarded from “Beiqing Yiping”
Beijing, the center of China's film industry, tops China in film production and stays in the forefront among the film markets in China. Beijing now sees emerging film companies and talent leading the industry and growing film education industry. China National Film Museum is the only national film-themed museum, while Huairou, a hub of film industry, contributes to great productivity. A great number of filmmakers with masterpieces and film fans from all over the world gather at the Beijing International Film Festival (BJIFF) to enjoy film-related events & activities, salons, and forums. In this regard, Beijing boasts superior advantages in all conditions and aspects, making film the most important logo and name card of Beijing, a center of culture of China and an international metropolis of culture.
Beijing-made films, together with the films of the central film enterprises in Beijing, represent the highest level and trend of China’s film industry. “Beijing productions” are no longer the films that merely draws the pictures of the life and culture of the old Beijing, but the "Chinese films" that tell the stories of China. In addition to the local stories of, on, or from Beijing, the Beijing-made films now place more emphasis on the culture, spirit, and power of China through Chinese stories, meaning that Beijing welcomes and embraces the diversity and multiplicity.
▍Box-office success with great public praise
Most of the best-known Chinese films in recent years were from Beijing.
The box office in the past few years told us that the top ten Chinese films were produced by Beijing-based companies (as first producer). They are The Battle at Lake Changjin (2021, 5.775 billion yuan), Wolf Warrior II (2017, 5.494 billion yuan), Hi, Mom (2021, 5.413 billion yuan), Ne Zha (2019, 5.035 billion yuan), The Wandering Earth (2019, 4.687 billion yuan), Full River Red (2023, 4.554 billion yuan), Detective Chinatown 3 (2021, 4.523 billion yuan), The Battle at Lake Changjin II (2022, 4.067 billion yuan), The Wandering Earth II (2023, 4.029 billion yuan), and Operation Red Sea (2018, 3.652 billion yuan). Each of them, which was produced in Beijing from 2017 to 2023, not only the frontrunner in the Chinese film market on its year but also gave Chinese film market the power to compete on a par with Hollywood's blockbusters, like "Avengers" series, the "Avatar" series, the "Fast & Furious" series, and the “Transformers” series with absolute advantage in terms of market share. They are increasingly pivotal in domestic film market in pursuit of greater strength and reputation.
Poster of The Battle at Lake Changjin
Entering 2023, despite the increasing support to the film market, especially Shanghai, Zhejiang, and Fujian where some excellent domestic films were launched, the Beijing-made masterpieces Full River Red and The Wandering Earth II were the top runners-up at the annual box office. The Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms (2.2 billion yuan) with Beijing Culture as the first producer currently ranks 6th at the annual box office; Deep Sea (919 million yuan) ranks 12th; Lost in the Stars ranks the 3rd with Beijing Yitong Legend Film Culture Co., Ltd. as the first producer; and Chang'an 30,000 Miles ranks the 7th at the annual box office with Beijing Alibaba as the second producer... In addition to their great contributions to the box office, such films gave more possibilities for domestic films to earn market shares thanks to the extensive recognition among the public.
Poster of Full River Red
Of the top five Beijing-made films at the box office over the years, The Battle at Lake Changjin had a score of 9.5 at Maoyan and 7.4 at Douban; Wolf Warrior II had a score of 9.7 at Maoyan and 7.1 at Douban; Hi, Mom had a score of 9.5 at Maoyan and 7.7 at Douban; Ne Zha had a score of 9.6 at Maoyan and 8.4 at Douban; The Wandering Earth had a score of 9.2 at Maoyan and 7.9 at Douban; and The Wandering Earth II had a score of 9.3 at Maoyan and 8.3 at Douban. All of these high-grossing films have basically changed the fact of the inversion and separation between box office and word-of-mouth. The annual audience satisfaction survey organized by the China Film Archive and the China Film Art Research Center indicates an increasing consistency between high box office and great word-of-mouth.
Poster of Wolf Warrior II
It is worth mentioning that, given the high box office, word-of-mouth, and influence, these Beijing-made films have become "phenomenal" masterpieces beyond the “film circle” in addition to box office and audience. The "Wandering Earth" series set off a nationwide sci-fi fever and culture; the "Wolf Warrior" series triggered discussions and debates on patriotism and nationalism under extensive attention both at home and abroad; the "Detective Chinatown" series initiated the industrial explorations of Chinese-style films with intensive influences to TV dramas, the Internet, and the gaming industry; "Ne Zha" led animations out of young audience, which promoted the publicity of animation culture and the popularization of China chic and Chinoiserie; the "Battle at Lake Changjin" series demonstrated the great achievement and aesthetics of China's film industrialization, leading new mainstream films to a higher level. These "phenomenal" masterpieces boosted the rapid development of China's film industry, film market and film technology and publicized from all dimensions the film-related culture and values, namely patriotism, heroism, freedom, equality, and struggle. The discussions and comments around them were once trending topics online, which highlighted the cultural value and social influence of films.
Poster of Ne Zha
▍Creative transformation and innovative development of national films
Beijing-made films reflect the grandeur of Beijing culture and the “pioneering” innovation capability. For instance, the "Wandering Earth" series highlight the achievement of China’s film industry and, more importantly, and its eyesight to "look forward" and "look into the future" rather than “looking backwards” or “looking downwards”. With the support of the origins of The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, the series express the challenges faced by the community with a shared future for mankind and also the mission and role of the values and morality of Chinese families in the challenges of the future. The rise of “sci-fi films”, to a certain extent, removed the limitations of perspective on specific genres, and thus creating new means of expressions of the Chinese imagination and Chinese solutions.
Unlike the "Wandering Earth" series that focus on imaginations to the future, Hi, MoM, under the subject of family ethics, conveys the unique concept of Chinese families on the bloodline with a bold narrative mode of time travel to the past to express the deep love between mother and daughter. It creatively combines the artistic expression of reorganization of space and time and the tradition of family ethics and culture, which is also a valuable exploration of artistic innovation.
Poster of Hi, Mom
The Beijing-made films of historical theme are also characterized by a variety of styles. The anticipated project, The Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms with Beijing Culture as first producer was rated as "China's first mythological epic" after its public screening. It depicted a myth against the backdrop of the masses against evils, the good against the bad, in a magnificent way, with a certain archetypal meaning. It reflects China’s film technologies to recreate imaginary space and time, and the modern judgment of Chinese films on historical legends.
Poster of The Creation of the Gods
Another film of historical theme Full River Red, under a well-known Chinese poem against the background of the story of Yue Fei, a great hero in ancient China, is interpreted in the structure of “classical unities” with massive twists, turns, and suspense under the law of “gaming” favored by the young people. In addition to the expression of suspense, it also triggered patriotic passion of the audience to "revive the nation" while “bristling with anger”, echoing the modernization of historical themes and the melodramatization of genre stories.
Among genre films, the "Detective Chinatown" series combine elements of suspense, fantasy, comedy, action, and other genres in an organic manner and consciously demonstrate the unique charm of the Chinese culture, the unique judgment of the Chinese values and the unique discovery of the Chinese wisdom in the international context. With an absurd narrative, it makes cultural comparison and successively learns from traditional culture.
Poster of Detective Chinatown 3
The Sheep Without a Shepherd series are both based on the IP from different cultures to present the Chinese stories on the international stage. It reflects the creators' sensitivity to seek common ground on different cultures and their ability to localize and transform creatively. The themes like conflict on classes, fairness and justice, although unfolded in a foreign context, are still relevant to the audience.
These Beijing-made films, which are creatively transformed of traditional culture or innovatively fused from different genres, fully embody the awareness of innovation of Chinese filmmakers in cultural concepts, artistic exploration, and technological development. They are also a solid proof that the Chinese films are no longer simply imitations of Hollywood and other countries or regions and are increasingly characterized by Chinese styles and Chinese aesthetics.
Poster of Sheep without A Shepherd 2
The collective heroism from The Battle at Lake Changjin series, the father-son relationship in China from Ne Zha, the nationalistic spirit that “I'm going to fiercely attack Helan Mountains in my chariot" from the Full River Red, such traditional Chinese philosophies, such as “What goes around comes around”, “Being the first to show concern”, and “Everyone is responsible for his country’s rise or fall”, and eastern aesthetics like “Narrative, Analogy, and Association”, “harmony between man and nature”, and “feelings over the mountain when standing on one; imaginations over the sea when looking at one” all show that Chinese films, while extensively absorbing the achievements of human civilization and the experience of the film industry worldwide, are rooted in China's history and reality and have gradually formed an aesthetic of openness and subjectiveness. In this regard, the innovative Beijing-made films have provided much inspiration and experience for the "path of China".
▍“A single flower does not make spring; while one hundred flowers in full blossom bring spring to the garden”
Beijing, the capital of China, serves as a political and cultural center in filmmaking by the trend of the times and political events under important themes. On the occasion of the centennial of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Enlight Pictures with other film companies released Pioneer (1921, 136 million yuan), a biopic of Li Dazhao, the founder of the CPC; and in honor of the spirit of the war to resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea, Bona Film Group with other producers released The Battle at Lake Changjin series. The former in a radioactive structure brings us an artistic innovation in the biographies of major revolutionary historical themes; while the latter in the perspective of ordinary soldiers and officers leverages the unique techniques of the film industry to push the films of revolutionary war theme to a new height. In addition, such Beijing-made films as Mao Zedong 1949 (2019, 124 million yuan) and Coffee or Tea? (2020, 312 million yuan) were closely connected to the important national events like the 70th anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China and poverty alleviation, making them the representative works of theme-based creations of the year.
Poster of Pioneer
In addition to the major political events, Beijing-made films also stress the richness and diversity of the local culture of Beijing with a great variety of themes and styles booming on the market. Snipers (2022, 608 million yuan), with focus on a "restricted" space of a battle, makes full use of the features of narrative of gunfight-themed films, shaping the heroism of the Volunteer Army and making new breakthrough in the war-themed films. Other genres like animations, realistic films, literary films, and documentaries also recorded satisfactory results at box office and public praise in their segments, including animation I Am What I Am (2021, 249 million yuan) scored 8.3 on Douban, literary film Journey to the West (2023, 67 million yuan) scored 8.0 on Douban, documentary Tough Out (2020, 7.9 million yuan) scored 8.5 on Douban, as well as the realistic film Punch Out (2023, 56.47 million yuan) and documentary The Great Learning (2022, 8.02 million yuan), all of which, despite the high variance at box office, sparked on their respective fields.
Meanwhile, the audience also spoke highly of these Beijing-made films, which, to some extent, as the backbone of Chinese film industry, are not only leading the production market, but also creative in forms and styles. They have made the culture of Chinese films brimful and subtly influenced the aesthetical sense of the audience, thus driving the artistic innovation and aesthetic expansion of Chinese film industry.
Poster of The Great Learning
It is noteworthy that Beijing-made animations also logged remarkable achievements. Animated films are popular among the youth for their "family-friendly" nature and "IP stickiness," which make them an important part of the film market, as well as an important form of modernization of the traditional culture of China. The animated film Ne Zha, produced by Beijing Enlight Media Co., Ltd., ranked 4th on the box office list of a full-year record in domestic market at 5 billion yuan, registering the highest value among all the animated films in China. The line that “I am the master of my own destiny" also engraves a modern feature onto the traditional cultural IP. Its character modeling, audio-visual effects, and rhythm fully embody the traditional Chinese aesthetics mood and symbols and manifest that we have found a Chinese path to our animations instead of imitations from Hollywood, and Japan or South Korea. The Legend of Deification produced by Beijing Enlight Media Co., Ltd., White Snake produced by Light Chaser Animation, Deep Sea produced by Octmedia and Enlight Media, and I Am What I Am produced by Beijing Splendid Culture & Entertainment Co. Ltd., are all masterpieces of Chinese animated films in recent years, of which some are modern interpretations of traditional Chinese IPs, while others are realistic portrayals of the growing young people. Beijing-made animated films are a great catalyst for the maturity of Chinese animated film industry and indicate a new age for the industry in the digital context, following the previous era represented by The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven and Where is Mama.
Poster of Deep Sea
Beijing is now an incubator for small- and medium-budgeted films for its great openness, tolerance and active ecology. For instance, the film Journey to the West, with the figure of an ordinary science fiction fan, shows a unique state of mind like "Kuafu Chasing the Sun", which expands the audience's understanding of human nature and tolerance of individuality, and also introduces the value and significance of a different attitude and lifestyle. The extremely realistic images and the aesthetic style combining reality and absurdity also provide a path for small- and medium-budgeted films to explore. The standing out of Beijing-made documentary films is also a reflection of the cultural deposits of Beijing films. Tough Out that records the growth of some teenagers through from the perspective of a junior baseball team shows the audience the different social environments where such teenagers live and stresses the difference and uniqueness of each teenager. A tiny view may be a large window of life. The documentary The Great Learning, through the four sets between the old scholars and new returnees, freshmen and graduates, shows the culture and spirit of “self-discipline and social commitment" at colleges and universities, as well as the inheritance of the tradition that connects the past with the future. These documentaries, based on "reality", highlight the persuasive and infectious power of non-fiction stories and the cultural diversity of Beijing-made films.
Poster of Journey to the West
Without a solid plateau, there will be no great peak. The Beijing-made films, following the times, bring us the miracles of high earnings at box office, great reputation and extensive impact and become a symbol of openness and inclusion to diversity and richness. They, as attempt of new themes, genres, and styles to Chinese films, meet different demands of audience for different films, enhance the sense of depth and stereo perception of audience to Chinese films, and boost the aesthetic innovation of Chinese films and the rapid growth of young filmmakers. innovation and the rapid growth of young filmmakers. The plateau lays the foundation for the peak, and the peak shows the plateau a “unique landscape".
Poster of Tough Out
Sure enough, there is still a long way to go for Beijing-made films to boost China to march forward from a major film producer to a film power and the undertaking of cultural contribution to shape a community with a shared future for mankind. There remains a profusion of challenges and difficulties to solve, such as how to create a more open and inclusive film culture, how to give fuller play to the industrial, market, educational and talent advantages of China’s film center, and how to make more fruitful results from international cooperation, communication, and exchanges in and from Beijing. We hope that Beijing-made films will play a greater role in leading artistic and technological innovation for the purpose of more effective integration of history and culture, realistic development, and international perspectives into films in creating and producing more "thoughtful, artistic, and well-produced" masterpieces that can support the high-quality development of Chinese film industry and satisfy the various demands of culture of the audience, thus injecting the vitality for the Chinese nation to move from the past into the future and embrace the new and enable the films to exert more positive influences on the development of the society, politics, economy, and culture across the board and the modernization of civilization of the Chinese nation.