Last night's pre-screening gala talk at the BFI by film director Feng Xiaogang climaxed the Spectacular China season of his films while launching the year-long Electric Shadows collaboration between the BFI and China.
After a start as slow as wet cement, it livened up considerably once Feng and his adroit translator bypassed a disappointingly dull interviewer and some stunningly tedious questions such as, "What inspired you?" "Who were your mentors?" elicited a dry, "I'm sure I had mentors but I can't recall who."
Feng covered the basics of his early career, which began over 20 years ago in the 1990s. His realisation that his contemporaries — the Beijing Film Academy "Fifth Generation" filmmakers like Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou and their focus on the deeper meaning of life, humanity, and the whole philosophical shebang — were leaving audiences cold, led him to make films that reflected people's lives. People hadn't fully recovered from the Cultural Revolution and were still suffering, he reckoned, and needed a lighter tone. Working his way up via the hard route as an army set-designer, followed by a spell in TV, Feng's escapist bent and outright commercial considerations, facilitated by a sensitivity to the needs of the market, helped the Chinese film industry grow from mere tens of millions into the $3.5 billion behemoth it is today.
Finding it safer to play with comedy in the post-Tiananmen Square political climate, he helmed the New Year films (hesui pian) trilogy Party A, Party B (1997), Be There or Be Square (1998) and Sorry Baby (1999), light, frothy comedies that took a swipe at authority figures without ever really challenging authority. The huge success of Cell Phone, his 2003 exploration of extra-martial affairs, launched his career into the stratosphere.
Staying apolitical but now confident enough to expand his subject matter, he made the politically neutral but visually dazzling Assembly (2007) about the civil war between the nationalist Kuomintang and Communist forces in the late 1940s, which led to the foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949. He admits to being influenced by Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, rather than any of cinema's intellectual heavyweights: no Tarkovsky or Fassbinder here. (He's said to be the "Chinese Spielberg", so make of that what you will.) There was also a Korean movie which inspired him. As the cost of Korean talent was a fifth of Hollywood's, he was soon employing them to make his film.
Aftershock (2010), looking at the devastation of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, is another blockbuster, albeit one which critiques the state of the collective Chinese mindset. At the centre is the Sophie's Choice dilemma facing the mother: which of her twins, son or daughter, should she drag from the rubble?
Feng is ruthless when it comes to actors. He'll have none of that nurturing nonsense and he's happy to sack those who can't cut the wasabi. He says that one way he directs is to use Toms Hanks and Cruise as reference points for the opposite ends of the acting scale he requires. "Can you be like Tom Hanks?", he'll say to his poor thesps; really confusing them when he adds the further refinement that they should pitch their performance "halfway between."
Well into his stride by now, Feng enlarges on what drives him to create film. Talking about Back to 1942 (completed in 2012, China's official entry for this year's Academy Awards, and screened after the talk), an epic tragedy about the Henan famine under Kuomintang rule and Japanese invasion that killed three million, he says he doesn't just want to depict darkness and misery for the sake of it; rather, he wants to draw a connection between contemporary China and what was happening in 1942.
His passionate insistence that he mirrors Chinese society, reflecting back its imperfections in order that they may be corrected, is an indication that, having passed through its Gilded Age, China is entering an introspective phase examining the implications of China's new-found wealth. He detects a spiritual impoverishment, but locates its cause in a lack of religion, castigating hypocritical Buddhists and Taoists whose prayers and sacrifices at the altar of their beliefs are in fact only "doing a deal" in return for health and wealth. He reviles the destruction of the environment for quick cash, and the theft of intellectual property. When the audience laughs at the inclusion of football match rigging in his list of crimes, he chastises them: it's no laughing matter. These are all symptoms of what's going wrong with the Chinese. "You can't be a great people if you only care about short-term values."
The Chinese people having been tortured by misery and wars for a century, Feng says things have been getting better for the past 30 years, and he concludes that the Chinese are now ready to look at themselves. A frisson of discomfort ripples around the room when he compares the Chinese unfavourably with the Israelis, whom he sees as having endured misery and developed courage: "Chinese are less than the Israelis." Your humble correspondent wondered exactly which lessons China was supposed to learn from 'plucky little Israel' but our intrepid interviewer crushed the life out of any possible enquiry by immediately blurting, "I'm not going there."
Feng also took the opportunity to announce his forthcoming remake of A World Without Thieves with British producer Duncan Kenworthy (Four Weddings and a Funeral), and that they already have a first draft of the script.
David Cameron's visit to China last year resulted in a year-long Electric Shadows season of Chinese movies, exhibition and education at the BFI, of which Spectacular China is a part. There's a Chinese-British co-production treaty imminent, and a summer season of Chinese films en route to the BFI. Stay tuned for further updates.