How China Perfected Middlebrow Cinema for Middle-Class Viewers

Cultural critics and audiences alike are growing tired of aggressively middling films, but the industry is showing no signs of slowing down.

The past year has not been kind to China’s film industry. Box office receipts are down 60% from the 2019 pre-pandemic peak, and ticket sales hit an 11-year low in November. Poor output, pandemic restrictions, and audience fatigue have cast a pall over the sector — and led some insiders to pine for the bygone boom years of the 2010s.

Not everyone is nostalgic, however. Dai Jinhua, a well-known film critic and cultural studies scholar, had harsh words for Chinese studios’ output during the 2010s on a recent episode of her online show. Dai blames the industry’s smug self-satisfaction and relentless drive to capture middlebrow audiences for its current malaise. “All the cultural phenomena you see today are part of middle-class culture,” she declared. “A big problem in Chinese society is that besides middle-class culture, we can’t see any other culture.”

Dai’s speech, though ambiguous on the point of what qualifies as “middle-class” film, was met with a wave of sympathetic comments on streaming platform Bilibili, a go-to site for young Chinese. Clearly, Chinese filmgoers are burnt out on something, but is the culprit here really “middle-class” film?

In a sense, yes. The golden age of Chinese film production was explicitly based on the pursuit of middle-class viewers. To quote Dai, “the market was created for them.” In the wake of China’s market reforms, the state retreated from the film and television industry. State-owned film studios struggled to turn profits, and state-run television stations gradually turned to private film and TV production companies to stay relevant. These followed a market-based approach, emphasizing and catering to audience preferences in order to boost box office receipts, advertising, and rights revenue.

The primary audience of these studios was a relatively small slice of the Chinese population: educated, well-to-do urbanites who had enough money, leisure time, and interest to go watch a Zhang Yimou film or a subtitled Hollywood flick in theaters. Even when the film audience exploded in the mid-2010s thanks to the previously untapped potential of China’s “small-town youth,” it simply resulted in more films about the aspirational middle class, rather than a more thematically diverse lineup of films. Continue to read the full article here

– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.