Director Feng Xiaogang Comments on Cannes, San Sebastian, and ‘Youth’

One of China’s most popular directors, Feng spoke about Cannes, Madame Bovary, and his new film Youth.

Veteran Chinese director Feng Xiaogang has had his fair share of commercial success. Over the course of his career, Feng has had hit after hit at the domestic box office with films such as Cell Phone and Assembly earning him a reputation as the country’s most bankable director.

However that reputation hit a significant snag last year when his last film I Am Not Madame Bovary struggled to earn RMB 484 million — far short of his previous film Personal Tailor, which earned RMB 700 million in 2013.

The film marked a deliberate artistic departure from his normally more commercial fare, with its use of a perfect circular frame for about 80 percent of the film, as well as its casting of the glamorous Fan Bingbing as the film’s unflattering-looking peasant lead.

Speaking to Chinese media this week, the director revealed his belief that his daring use of the circular frame — a style commonly used in Chinese ink paintings, but rarely, if ever seen on cinema screens — was the reason the film didn’t make it to the Cannes Film Festival.

“There’s a lot of luck involved when it comes to these festivals,” Feng told Sina Entertainment. “When we submitted I Am Not Madame Bovary to the Cannes Film Festival they were quite hesitant and indecisive about it.”

“But when we submitted it to the San Sebastian Film Festival they said ‘We really love this movie, join us!’ and gave us the best film award. But Cannes were indecisive about the circle [the film’s circular frame] was it OK or not?

“So it just comes down to the difference in taste between the San Sebastian Film Festival judges and the Cannes Film Festival judges,” Feng said.

The social satire won Feng the Golden Shell for best picture and Fan the best actress award at the Spanish film festival last year.

The 60-year old director made the comments in the light of the 70th Cannes Film Festival’s decision earlier this month not to include any Chinese films in the Un Certain Regard competition sidebar, or in special screenings.

The snub simply meant that “some good films didn’t happen to meet their requirements,” according to Feng.

“There were some films that were clearly aiming to get into Cannes like Kaili Blues (路边野餐) that everyone seemed to like, but wasn’t to Cannes taste,” he told Sina Entertainment.

The director said that it was no surprise that no commercial Chinese films made it to the festival, but that Chinese commercial filmmakers and studios aren’t bothered by the omission.

“The bosses of these film investment companies — if you were to say you wanted to get your film into Cannes, they’d be pretty baffled.”

Feng was hesitant to point the finger at poor quality movies for China’s recent flagging box office.

“There’s good content out there, but audiences aren’t paying to see it,” Feng said. “The audiences maybe think “When I got to the movies I don’t want to think too much — I just want to be entertained.”

“People who study film might think this is stupid. Actually this past couple of days I’ve been thinking when you improve the film’s content you can win critical praise but the audience’s reaction isn’t likely to be the same.”

The veteran director also offered a word of advice to fellow filmmakers, warning them that they shouldn’t aim their films at either the box office or film festivals.

“Whether it’s aimed at festivals or at the box office, behind both strategies is one word — ‘calculation,'” Feng said.

“But if you calculate your film for the audience, everyone knows you’re in it for the money; If you calculate it for festivals, you still might not even make it into the festival.”

Coming up next for Feng is his latest movie ‘Youth’ (aka Fang Hua 芳华), about a PLA dance troupe in the 70s and 80s, which just wrapped shooting and is expected to hit screens in China in October 2017.

Whether it ends up being a commercial or critical success remains to be seen. But the director with the Midas touch seems more concerned with making something he likes himself.

“I’m 60 years old. Can I shoot films for another 10 years? There’s not much time left for me,” he said at a forum at the Beijing Film Festival last week.

“I’m going to devote my limited time to shooting films as I want. I won’t spend time thinking about how to get money out of the audience’s pockets.” he said.

— Additional reporting by Belinda Zhang.