In the film You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan asks Tom Hanks why men like to quote The Godfather all the time. He replies: “The Godfather is the I Ching. The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom. The Godfather is the answer to any question. What should I pack for my summer vacation? ‘Leave the gun, take the cannoli.’”
Chinese filmmaker Xue Xiaolu prefers to draw on a different literary form, namely, ancient Chinese poetry. In her latest romantic comedy Book of Love, the director purposely cites many ancient Chinese poems in the dialogue, including lines by famous Tang Dynasty poets like Liu Yuxi and Wang Changling. Xue says the use of ancient poems is deliberate, to remind young audiences of an integral part of Chinese culture that is oft forgotten in the social media age.
“Ancient poetry is a personal favourite of mine and I think it is very appropriate in the script. In the story I also touch on the lives of Chinese immigrants and their cultural identity. What’s the most obvious Chinese cultural symbol? Obviously for me it is ancient poetry. Like Wu Xiubo’s character in the film, at a very young age his grandfather has forced him to recite poetry so he has memorised all the classics,” she told Information Times.
But not everyone is a fan. While most of the reviews online for Book of Love are generally favourable, many complain that the liberal use of ancient poetry is “overly pretentious” and “excessive”.
“Director, please remember, just because you want to quote ancient poems doesn’t mean it needs to be obnoxious. And just because you are cultured doesn’t mean you need to recite poetry all the time,” one unsatisfied cinemagoer complained on Douban, a film and TV series review site.
The criticisms won’t come as a major surprise for Xue. In an interview with the China Daily, she expressed a concern that the use of poetry in the film would “alienate young audiences” but she only used it because they “represent the most typical part of Chinese culture”.
Despite critics’ grumbling, Book of Love – which is a sequel to 2013’s Finding Mr Right (2013) – is off to a strong start. Over the May Day (also known as Labour Day) weekend, the film made over Rm350 million in ticket sales. Analysts reckon it will soon overtake the first film in box office take – a decent outcome since Finding Mr Right set the record for the highest grossing romantic comedy in China ever (it raked in Rmb520 million).
Like the first feature, Book of Love features star actress Tang Wei and actor Wu Xiubo in the leading roles. Even though the two films share the same cast and crew, the plotlines are standalone (just like Sleepless in Seattle and its ‘sequel’ You’ve Got Mail, which cashed in on the chemistry between the leads, but cast them as entirely different characters).
This time round, the story evolves around Jiao Ye (played by Tang) — a public relations manager at a Macau hotel who often finds herself falling in love with the wrong men – and Daniel (Wu), who is a Los Angeles-based real estate agent who has made a fortune selling houses to overseas Chinese buyers but derives little satisfaction from his job. The unlikely pair develops a relationship over their shared love for the novel 84 Charing Cross Road. Written many decades ago by Helene Hanff, it is also a tale of star-crossed lovers (on this occasion based in New York and London).
Of course, like all romantic comedies, the two eventually meet. In true Nora Ephron-style – they fall in love after pouring their heart into letters they write to each other (yes, paper-based communication rather than emails and texts). Xue says that while no one sends letters anymore, she wants to remind the audience of the beauty of handwritten notes.
“If you write, you will come up with some beautiful lines. You can hardly find those just talking or sending messages on phone apps or over social media,” she told the China Daily.
While receiving slow mail seems romantic, some Chinese question whether it is even realistic. “It is obvious that the director is a true romantic at heart. But to find a soul mate through writing letters – while nostalgic – in an era where everything is done online, that seems romantic to the point of impossibility,” another critic wrote.
Even if some consider the contemporary act of putting pen to paper far-fetched, Edko Films, one of the producers of Book of Love, will be pleased by its opening weekend. It has a lot riding on the film. The studio hopes that its success will help the company move on from a scandal last year. Edko admitted last week to spending over Rmb4 million to conduct “ghost screenings” to fabricate box-office figures for Monster Hunt.
The live-action animation film, released last July, was touted as the highest-grossing film in China, taking in Rmb2.4 billion in ticket sales. That was Rmb2 million higher than the Hollywood blockbuster Fast and Furious 7, the box-office record-holder at the time. But it was later discovered by regulators that Edko had purchased tickets in bulk from the 29 cinemas, and handed them out for free. Back in March, martial arts flick Ip Man 3 was also accused of similar dirty dealing to boost box office figures (see WiC317).
House of Cards
Writing in The Spectator last week, Michael Dobbs revealed that he was invited to meet Xi Jinping during his visit to the UK last October. The reason: Dobbs wrote House of Cards – a novel about politics that’s now internationally famous thanks to Kevin Spacey and his Netflix TV series. The author said he gave Xi a “an original and now rather rare hardback copy of the book”, which China’s leader looked at – somewhat “perplexed” – before saying to the Brit: “What, you have House of Cards in this country, too?”
House of Cards has been a big hit in China and Xi’s anti-graft tsar Wang Qishan is a big fan too. Wang’s support for the show, many believe, was the reason why the American series could go on air in China without being censored (see WiC228).
Apparently Wang now wants China’s own answer to House of Cards. In the Name of the People will be the first major TV production with an anti-corruption theme since the genre was effectively banned in 2004 (more of this long-standing moratorium later).
According to Beijing News, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) began talking with the media watchdog SAPPRFT about reintroducing the anti-graft genre in July last year. Following a high-level meeting, SAPPRFT was given a mission to oversee the production of “at least a couple of quality films, and two of three good TV series” on the theme each year, the newspaper says.
The film and television unit of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate will be entrusted with producing In the Name of the People. The 42-episode series has a budget of Rmb120 million ($18.5 million) and an all-star cast including leading TV actresses Hu Jin and Zhao Ziqi. More than 300 crew members have already started filming in Nanjing and the series is scheduled to go on air before the end of this year.
“In this latest production, what we will present are the clashes between corrupt officials and the disadvantaged group: average citizens,” the show’s writer Zhou Meisen tells ThePaper.cn.
In order to help the production team better understand the realities of the prison life awaiting corrupted officials, Zhou as well as a number of cast members were given exclusive access to the Pukou Prison in Jiangsu province. They were allowed to meet with the guards and imprisoned officials. Visits to the anti-graft body’s offices have also taken place (though unlike the typical ‘visitor’ brought to the CCDI they were able to walk out afterwards).
In the Name of the People tells the tale of officials and workers who vie over ownership of a state-owned factory – and follows the adventures of a government investigator in a fictitious Chinese province.
The entertainment industry in China is generally prohibited from portraying high-ranking officials as corrupt. However, this time a Chinese Vice President is set to feature as the villain (i.e play China’s own Frank Underwood). That said, Zhou hints that the audience won’t be able to see the character, as the bad guy will only be heard over the phone, intriguing and barking orders (“My son is complaining about the leather trim in that Ferrari you bought him. He wanted tortora not red).
In the Name of the People won’t be alone in highlighting cadre skullduggery. ThePaper.cn says SAPPRFT has already green lighted the production of six other series. Notably, these will bring an end to one of the longest standing bans on Chinese TV. Anti-corruption dramas had been a favourite theme for propagandists in the early 2000s. In 2004, according to Xinhua, TV channels across the country had in the production pipeline a total of 308 anti-graft series.
It reached a point, the news agency said, where perversely TV producers were “promoting corruption but not fighting graft”. Thus the media watchdog decided to ban all anti-corruption dramas in prime time to “protect teenagers”. Despite not being an outright ban – as has been the case with things like time-travel dramas – the plotlines have rarely been used by TV producers since 2004.
Why are Chinese regulators changing their attitude then?
Chinese President Xi Jinping unleashed his anti-graft campaign in late 2012, thousands of corrupt officials have been brought down, including high ranking “tigers” such as Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai.
“The approval of the shows is a source of relief for China’s TV drama practitioners who have been sitting on the fence watching the most racy material of recent years go wasted,” Ying Zhu, a professor of media culture at the City University of New York tells China Film Insider, a trade magazine on the Chinese film industry.
Some observers believe the central government seems to have concluded that the anti-graft campaign has been popular among the people, thus the Party’s propagandists may feel more comfortable reinforcing the message. “The creation of such a TV series shows the Party’s confidence in its political system including the anti-corruption system,” the Global Times opines.
This is a playbook that suited Hong Kong’s former colonial rulers as well. Beijing News notes that after cracking down on the chronic corruption in Hong Kong’s police force in the 1970s, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) began producing TV series about its campaign which were both designed to be “educational and entertaining”.
No one has ever been sure why internet giant Tencent is called Tencent. It is probably because it sounds similar to its Chinese name Tengxun.
But earlier this month the company’s founder Ma Huateng, also known as Pony Ma, provided a good reason when he gave around ten cents in every dollar of his wealth away to a new foundation.
The donation of 100 million Tencent shares, worth about $2 billion, will be used to tackle problems in healthcare, education and in the environment, he said.
The foundation, which is yet to be named, will be professionally managed in order to allow the 44 year-old Ma to continue focusing on his internet empire.
“After 10 years of exploration and participation in philanthropic activities, I increasingly feel a better way to continue giving back to society is to do it over a longer term and in a more organised way,” he said in a statement.
Ma’s decision to give away a big chunk of his $20 billion fortune comes at a time when China itself is trying to work out a new relationship with charitable giving.
For years China’s ruling Communist Party jealously took the responsibility of looking after all aspects of society – meaning that and charity was often a religious or piecemeal affair.
Now, after 35 years of economic growth, more people want to give back and the government is happy for them to do so as long as it they give to causes it approves of.
Earlier this year to help legalise this new wave of giving – around Rmb200 billion yuan was donated in 2014, a rise on 33% on year before – the government passed the country’s first charity law.
It is widely considered to be a good document which provides tax incentives for philanthropic donations and allows for more domestic charities to be set up. The new charity law also make it easier for people like Ma to set up private foundations and to make existing charities more accountable and transparent.
One of things that has held charity back in recent years is a widespread lack of trust. The internet abounds with false requests for help and real charities often find criminals emulating them so as to cash in on people’s good will.
In one case in Shanghai a couple of years ago a charity which had placed large, Panda-shaped bins around the city to collect old clothes, discovered that fake bins were soon appearing.
Then there is the issue that many secretive business folk don’t want to give sums that might raise questions about their wealth or personal finances. A recent study on philanthropy in China by the Harvard Kennedy School had to limit itself to public statements and the records of traded companies to work out who is giving what. Many donations, it said, are probably made under the radar.
But it did conclude that China’s billionaires are looking to give back. In the period it looked at — September 2014 to August 2015 – He Xingjian, the founder of home appliances maker Midea, was the most generous, donating Rmb425 million to an eponymous foundation and to social causes such as an elderly care facility in his hometown of Foshan.
Wang Jianlin, chairman of Dalian Wanda group came second, with donations of Rmb315 million for school building, and disaster and poverty relief.
Alibaba’s Jack Ma came ninth because the study only looked at monies transferred during its year-long window. That ignored the fact that just prior to its commencement, Ma and his business partner Joseph Tsai set up the Jack Ma foundation with $3 billion worth of Alibaba stocks. Earlier this year it handed out its first grants – Rmb10 million to 100 rural teachers working in western China.
But somewhat surprisingly these good deeds don’t seem to win their donors as much good publicity as you might imagine. A common view is that the businessmen set up private foundations simply to avoid the tax man.
But attitudes are slowly changing. After Pony Ma announced his recent stock donation he got dozens of weibo comments offering grudging praise. “I suppose it’s a good thing,” said one. “Maybe one day we’ll be able to talk about a Chinese Bill Gates,” said another.
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