Filmmaker Rain Li Weighs in on Why China’s Box Office Needs Fewer Blockbusters

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Director and cinematographer Rain Li. (Courtesy Photo)

While action-packed blockbusters heavy on special effects and low on quality writing have long been a dominant force at China’s booming box office, Beijing-based filmmaker Rain Li believes that Chinese audiences are starting to have higher standards for their cinematic experiences.

Currently promoting her directorial debut Beijing, New York that screened at Cannes last year and is now being shown in China, Li is using her award-winning cinematography background to work on films that she hopes can succeed both at the box office and in the eyes of critics. The story of a woman who moves from Beijing to New York and becomes caught between two love interests from each respective city, the film stars Taiwanese supermodel and actress Lin Chiling and was filmed by Christopher Doyle (who is known for his work on Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love and Zhang Yimou’s Hero).

Splitting her time between Beijing, New York, and London herself, Li is known for her cinematography in Gus Van Sant films Paris, je t’aime, and Paranoid Park (which won the 60th Anniversary Prize for Cinematography at Cannes in 2007), Li was selected as one of the “10 Best Cinematographers of The Year” by Variety in 2007 and received the “Best Cinematography” award from Boston Film Critic in 2009. In addition to her extensive feature film work, she has also worked on films for fashion brands including Dries Van Noten, Yohji Yamamoto, and Phillip Lim.

Now that she’s turning her focus toward directing, Li hopes to take a more discerning approach to a heavily commercialized Chinese film industry that often analyzes a film’s box office potential before even coming up with a plot. We sat down with her in Beijing to discuss her current film as well as her thoughts on China’s film market, including her hopes for higher-quality blockbusters and the challenges of making a film that appeals to both Chinese and international audiences.

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A promotional image for Beijing, New York. (Courtesy Image)

Can you give us a basic summary of the film’s plot and the main themes you are exploring in it? 

Beijing, New York is a love story and it’s set in a unique cultural background between the shift in financial power between China and America. The story is about a woman who went to America in the late 90’s to pursue her dream when she was a teenager and her childhood sweetheart stayed in China. So, the story is about her caught between two men—a Chinese man and an American man—and two cultures, the past and the future, and what she wants to be and where she is now.  So it’s a dream versus a reality.

The theme I’m exploring is decision. It’s that sort of decision—what you want. What makes you happy? What makes everybody happy? We keep thinking, “what makes us happy?” And sometimes when we get there, we’re still not happy. We actually wish we didn’t have anything.

You screened the film at Cannes Film Festival last year. Are you promoting the film more to an international or a Chinese audience? 

I want to have both, technically speaking. I realize it’s actually very tough to aim for China and the rest of the world. But the story is half in Chinese and half in English, and is pretty much mostly shot in New York. The characters speak a lot of American English and are from that cultural background. However, a lot of people still think it’s a Chinese story because two out of the three main characters are Chinese.

It’s very hard to define, but technically speaking, I would love the rest of the world to get to see the movie because I think it’s a film upon which they can all reflect. Everybody can have a dream. Everybody can go to another country to pursue their dream, and everybody could get caught between two loves or reality and dream, I think it’s something that everybody can relate to.

What inspired you to cast Lin Chiling as the star and what does she bring to the role? 

Chiling is a beautiful person inside and out. I was looking for someone—obviously they have to be at the top of the game to be able to sell the movie—and the second thing is for me, someone that can carry the character not as an actor, but as a woman, so the character appears honest. Jasmine, the protagonist, is sophisticated, elegant, delicate, and beautiful from the outside, but the inside is tough but has a beautiful soul. Third, someone who has to speak English very well—not only just the language, but also the culture—so someone who’s actually lived outside China, speaks English fluently, and can express her feelings without thinking or translating the language.

In the film, her character Jasmine hovers between two men and the past and future, so some in the audience might think, “Oh my God; come on. Why do you take so long to make a decision? Why are you so miserable? Why do you do this; why do you do that?” I need the audience to always feel for her, so you need that woman who’s not too feisty from the surface but strong inside. It’s a really delicate combination, but she just got that right. When her name came through the recommendation, at first I didn’t know or think she was the right person for the role. But, I was curious and she has agreed to meet. When I met her, 10 minutes later I just felt, “she’s the one.”

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Director and cinematographer Rain Li. (Courtesy Photo)

Finding Mr. Right, another love story about a Chinese woman who travels to the United States, was a massive blockbuster in China. Why is the plot line compelling to Chinese audiences?

Well, first of all, Beijing, New York is a very different film from Finding Mr. Right. In a way, one is a blockbuster, and one is an independent movie. I think the theme is very valid. It’s not necessarily that people go out of their way looking for the subject. For me, I was born in the 80’s—I didn’t go the States—I went to England, but most of my friends went to America, so it’s that kind of simple American dream. But a lot of those people come back to pursue their dreams in China in the end. Mr. Right is not about someone who lives there; it’s more about people who go out to America to give birth. It’s a very different situation. I think that’s why it’s more of a blockbuster, because it’s very commercial.

But in my movie, it’s about someone who actually wants to be American—wishes to be American—who pursues their dream. But however, in the end, they realize that they want to come back home, that’s where their roots come from. You can say it’s deeper—maybe that’s why it’s independent; it’s not a box office hit like Finding Mr. Right, because it touches your heart a bit. You have to take a bit of time to think it through and reflect on what the life is about.

Which city is more glamorous to film—New York or Beijing?

Both are different. They’re both very glamorous. New York is more buzzing. Beijing is much more spread out, and most of the days are polluted. That’s why most of the Beijing scenes are at night—because it’s mysterious. There’s a myth about it.

Everybody thinks New York is amazing, but when you go to New York, it’s a tough city. It’s very dirty and gritty. It’s not as glamorous as everybody thinks it is, but in my movie, I think New York is much more organic. We use aerial shots; we shot at night because it represents this dreamy-looking sort of film, because New York represents dreams.

In the Beijing portion of the movie, it’s very isolated. It’s a little bit cooler and colder compared to New York. Most people think China is very busy and overpopulated—which is true—but in Beijing’s top-tier, in the super billionaires’ and CEOs’ lives, they’re very isolated.

You’ve noted in the past  the U.S.-China co-production process was difficult. What are some of the challenges with it? 

My film is not classified as a co-production. It’s a Chinese movie that is set to reach out to the international audiences.

Because of my background, I’ve worked with a lot of American producers and financiers; it’s difficult to produce a true co-production here in China For example, look at Transformers—do you call it a co-production? No. It’s an American movie. I think to China, they call it a co-production because part of the movie was financed by a Chinese company and it has Chinese actors and other Chinese elements, but in my personal opinion, those elements are inserted in the end; they do not work naturally with the story.  However, those Chinese elements are there to boost the Chinese box office, which is proven to be a huge success.

Co-productions are difficult in China because it’s hard to satisfy both needs.

The Chinese financiers want to put money on an American movie—not because they want to make a Chinese movie that works in America or internationally. They want to make money, so at the end of the day, you’re not actually making a movie that works for everything. Both audiences want different things.

I wish, and I hope—and I think—it will get to some point down the line in the next five years, where not every movie has to be a “popcorn” movie in China. Not every single film has to be a business product. I think independent film plays a certain kind of role, and that means you will have more and more filmmakers making higher quality—true films that work for both China and America. I hope that will happen, and I’m sure it will. It’s just part of the process.

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Director and cinematographer Rain Li. (Courtesy Photo)

It’s been difficult for filmmakers to create U.S.-China co-productions that resonate equally with both audiences. Why do you think that is? 

I think it’s a cultural difference—particularly comedies. I think American culture is really amazing as well. It’s the most sellable culture on the planet. Every nation in the world can watch American films and feel entertained or understand. Maybe not independent movies, but a blockbuster. But for Chinese box office hits so far, like Lost in Thailand or Finding Mr. Right, for example, I don’t think any of the films have done well outside Asia because of the values and the culture. I think that’s difficult.

When I was trying to raise money for this movie, I remember one of my mentors said to me, “There’s no such thing as an international Chinese movie. You either be Chinese, or American, or English, or whatever it is. You have to find your audience first.” But it doesn’t mean your film does not sell in an international market. You just have to pick your main market with all your heart and soul and put your character around it, and then the rest is business. I think that he’s right to a certain degree.

I don’t think Beijing, New York is a typical Chinese film. Maybe that’s why it didn’t really receive the same box office results compared to Finding Mr. Right. It’s not aiming for a mass audience here, but it’s not art-house either. I’m still finding out the difference, to be honest. It’s what people are used to—it’s always difficult to give something new. They might understand what you’re doing, but it takes two, or three, or 20 movies to get there. I think that’s what is happening now, and I think my film is one of the first five to get you to open your mind; to think about it. Hopefully, 20 movies later, in the next couple of years, there won’t be a big difference anymore.

Christopher Doyle is the cinematographer for the project, and you’ve worked with him on many projects. What do you like about his style? 

I think Chris taught me when I was young and just started my career, that you use life to make movies. You don’t make a movie out of a book; you make a movie of your life. You have to keep living to your max to be able to contribute to what you do. That’s how I feel. I can’t differentiate between making a movie and my life; both stimulate each other. That’s one of the biggest lessons, and also, the most inspiring thing I have learned from him.

What is the market like for independent films in China? 

I hope there are more kinds of new movies coming out in China. Not just the films that sell, because film is not real estate. You might want to make money on a film, and that’s great— everybody wants to make money. I don’t think any director in the world wants to make a film that doesn’t sell. You want more people to watch it, however, not everybody should work backward.

You shouldn’t aim at a box office figure first and then think about what kind of genre or what kind of star to use before the story even comes. Right now, everything is working backward. We’re starting at the box office and then working on who can bring the audience to achieve those kind of box office numbers, and then thinking about the story.

I hope more and more filmmakers will want to genuinely present their voice, but also bridge the gap between the audience and the filmmakers. I hope there are more different kinds of movies coming out in China. Not just “popcorn” movies, but also something else. It will happen—I think it is a basic natural progression—but now, it’s just a boom of “popcorn” movies. I hope I can make more and more movies like that. I think my take is to bring the West and East together—not intentionally, but it’s just kind of my background, and bring co-production onto a different level.

Are you working on any new upcoming projects? 

I love independent film and I chose that for first movie for a reason, but i think my second film is going to be more commercial, and more like a genre movie. I want to explore. Especially in China, most of the movies are very not artistically crafted. They might sell amazingly well, but I would love to be able to do something that sells from a genre point of view, but from an artistic point of view, you’re still hitting the right mark.

I just want to make something that hopefully people can look back on in a few years time and remember because it has soul; because it has some kind of craft for people to think about. I think everybody has a mission in this world, and some people are kind of passing through. In my personal experience as a cinematographer, I left an example to female cinematographers to focus on what they do and achieve some kind of success and i want to do something with directing.

 

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