We conclude our first season of the MUBI Podcast with a look at Feng Xiaogang’s The Dream Factory, the film that launched China’s lucrative New Year movie season.
Below film professor Ying Zhu builds on her commentary featured in this episode, discussing Feng Xiaogang’s career and Chinese New Year comedies.
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A number of modestly budgeted domestic films about contemporary life emerged on the Chinese screen in the late 1990s. These films quickly morphed into a new market phenomenon, Lunar New Year comedies, or what the film industry called “Chinese New Year films.” These films cashed in on the Chinese winter holiday economy, a period of concentrated consumption when audiences looked for entertainment and any major film release was a potential blockbuster. Most of these New Year films are heartwarming dramedies that befit the holiday spirit.
Leading the charge in establishing New Year films as a marketable genre was Feng Xiaogang, a Chinese filmmaker known for his brand of Beijing-flavored and gag-laden comedy that infused seasonal topics with a colloquial flavor. The combination of irony, sentimentality, and reflexivity in Feng’s urban comedies proved entertaining enough to achieve domestic blockbuster status without relying on an imported big-budget blockbuster formula. Born in Beijing in 1958, Feng grew up during the Cultural Revolution and finished high school in 1976, the year Mao died. He joined an army performance troupe and worked as a stage designer. Upon leaving the military in 1985, Feng began to collaborate with the popular novelist Wang Shuo, known for his daredevil persona, cynical attitude, and a satirical writing style that captured youthful rebellion and disillusionment, earning him notoriety among elite literary circles in Beijing. Wang’s writing was enormously popular among the grassroots and laid the foundation for Feng’s popular TV dramas and film projects. Feng gained fame as a writer and sometime director of two pioneering television dramas in the early 1990s: the 1991 sitcom Stories of the Editorial Board and the 1993 primetime serial drama A Native of Beijing in New York, both with creative input from Wang.
Feng's success in television dramas established a fan base for the debut of his first Lunar New Year film, The Dream Factory, which came at a time when China’s film industry was in a prolonged recession due to the loss of State subsidies, the arrival of blockbuster Hollywood pictures, and thriving alternative entertainment options, which together decimated domestic production and revenue. Released over Christmas weekend in anticipation of the year of the tiger, the film announced its “New Year” status by attaching, at the beginning of the film, the image of an animated tiger that wished everyone an auspicious “Year of the Tiger.” Wang’s humorous dialogue plus Feng's name recognition made the film an instant hit. Although a modestly budgeted genre film, The Dream Factory ranked ninth in box-office revenue, a surprise return in a year dominated by state-sponsored propaganda films and big budget imports like Jurassic Park, which topped box-office charts in 1997.
The Dream Factory established Feng’s unique brand of Lunar New Year comedy, which cycles through vignettes of similar comic scenarios with minor variations, subordinating story and character development to the imperative of comic effects. Narrative progression and character building are secondary to the comic crescendo. This approach of stringing together multiple comedic sketches with identical thematic preoccupations would later become Feng’s trademark. The crux of this approach is satire, which captures Chinese society in an awkward transition. The film’s success instantly propelled Feng to the forefront of China's budding domestic film industry.
Feng directed two more New Year comedies after the success of The Dream Factory, both of which came out in 1999. Be There or Be Square is a romantic comedy about an on-and-off courtship between two Chinese expats living in Los Angeles. The film gently pokes fun at the obsession of Chinese with going abroad, especially to the US, by showcasing two illegal Chinese immigrants adrift in LA. It curiously juxtaposes a sense of Chinese cultural superiority against a romantic version of America as a land of opportunity and social mobility. The film catapulted Feng to number one in the box office in 1999. Sorry Baby tells the story of a private chauffeur who kidnaps the girlfriend of his rich boss in a desperate attempt to force his employer to give him his back pay. The driver falls in love with the boss’s girlfriend and the two conspire to get back at the rich boss who values money more than his romantic relationship. The film captures the burgeoning problems of the wealth gap and the collapse of social morality, hot-button issues that Feng would later revisit in his film, A World without Thieves (2004). Sorry Baby ranked second at year end, just below the government-sponsored anti-corruption propaganda film, Fatal Decision (Yu Benzheng)1. The two films secured Feng’s stature as the domestic box-office king.
In 2001, Feng made Big Shot's Funeral, a satirical meta-comedy featuring a fictional big-shot American director Don Tyler (played by Donald Sutherland) on a mission to make his own version of The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987) in China. Unsure about the direction of his film, Tyler becomes emotionally paralyzed halfway through production. He literally collapses in the middle of shooting, leaving a dying wish to have a comedic funeral so that his death and reincarnation will be a joyous rather than sad occasion. The cameraman hired to document the process of shooting Tyler’s masterpiece, Yoyo, is entrusted with the task of arranging a funeral that will be a fitting tribute to the great master. Yoyo decides to turn Tyler's funeral into an international TV special. To raise money for the event, he sells advertising spots to various sponsors. Tyler thus becomes the centerpiece of a farcically extravagant funeral that requires ingenious product placements to offset the exuberant cost, which mirrors the practices of Huayi Brothers, the producer of the film. In a montage sequence, Yoyo demonstrates how various body parts of the deceased can be utilized for product placement by inserting a contact lens in a mannequin’s eye and putting a different brand of shoe on each foot of the mannequin. The film showcases the artifice of filmmaking as it tauntingly flaunts its own status as a cultural commodity.
Big Shot’s Funeral was the first domestic film to adopt the standard revenue-sharing format both in China and abroad. It was released only days after China formally won WTO admittance on December 11. The film did extremely well domestically, particularly in Shanghai, which was rather unusual as Feng’s films were strongly inflected by Beijing’s Mandarin speech and affectations and they normally played less well to the more cosmopolitan audiences in Shanghai. Big Shot’s Funeral was the first Feng film that shattered this regional boundary, and the film’s success in South China solidified Feng’s status as a filmmaker who could make blockbusters at a national level. Released shortly before Christmas 2001, the film topped the Chinese box-office revenue for domestic films, though it fell behind Michael Bay’s mega blockbuster Pearl Harbor (2001) and Joseph McGinty Nichol’s franchise film Charlie's Angels (2000) in 2001’s overall box office.
In 2003, Feng made Cell Phone, a bittersweet New Year film depicting the sexual follies and exploits of a popular talk show host who used his cell phone to lie, cheat and scheme his way through multiple affairs2. This film about multiple deceptions facilitated by a handheld gadget struck a chord with Chinese audiences, propelling it to the top of the box-office charts, beating Hollywood heavyweights Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Finding Nemo, and The Matrix Revolutions. Feng made his seventh New Year film, A World without Thieves in 2004, which touched yet another national nerve, this time concerning the widening social and economic gap that had given rise to popular resentment against the rich and the corrupt. With a trendy topic, a condensed classical narrative, an arresting audiovisual style, a Hollywood-inspired marketing campaign, and stars of trans-regional appeal, Thieves extended Feng’s popularity from his base in Northern China across the Yangzi River to Southern China.
A World Without Thieves came third in the annual domestic box-office, behind Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle and Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers, which was released in July and screened through August in 2004 to target the Chinese summer season previously associated with animated films for children. Feng took a detour to make several big-budget films to mixed receptions after A World Without Thieves but soon returned to his usual effortless practice of satirical crowd pleasers with If You Are the One, a loosely strung together series of stories about dating served up as a quick New Year feast. This vapid rambling of a quickie feels like the product of a filmmaker in mid-life crisis, with the male lead played by Ge You being Feng’s alter ego3. Mid-life crisis indeed, the film is morbid in its mood and reactionary and judgmental in its conception of male-female relationships from the lens of a chauvinistic bachelor. Yet true to Feng’s New Year comedy appeal, this yawn of a middle-aged male fantasy managed to reap $50 million at the mainland box office, torpedoing the record set by Titanic ($47 million) in 1997. Never mind the crass consumerism and the condescending and reactionary jokes: Chinese audiences welcomed their prodigal son’s return to lighthearted comedy after his rendezvous with the epic historical dramas The film topped box-office charts for 2008, beating John Woo’s mega-action film Red Cliff.
Feng’s midlife crisis is on full display two years later in If You Are the One II (2010), in which we see two urban elites act out commitment-phobia in their search for the perfect love through three failed weddings and a funeral. The sequel begins with the leading man Qin proposing to Xiaoxiao on the Great Wall. The engaged couple then attends a divorce ceremony of their best friends (held in the same somber fashion as a wedding, with all its ritual and fanfare) as the divorcees vow to never make up. Qin and Xiaoxiao then moves to the Southern resort of Hainan Island for a trial marriage, which offers the film an opportunity to showcase Shimei Bay, the forest park, and the Guojianglong Bridge in Sanya of Hainan Province. The resorts at various locations offer ample opportunities for product placement, including a beauty pageant held at the hotel that sponsored the film. The hotel’s name is mentioned a dozen times in the film, likely with a price tag each time. Encouraged by Huayi Brothers, If You are the One and its sequel featured over 35 branded products ranging from cars, cell phones, and wine, to the restaurants where Qin meets his potential mates. The two dating films serve as vehicles for displays of the conspicuous consumption favored by China’s new urban middle class4.
In 2013, Feng returned to the conceit similar to The Dream Factory of a wish-granting business with another New Year celebration film, Personal Tailor, about a similar quartet of make-believers who manufacture reality for clients. Yet the clients in this updated version of The Dream Factory are poor people who wish to live large for one day rather than rich clients who yearn for hardship and simple living. In Personal Tailor, the joke is on the poor and the working class are mocked by the company’s condescending employees, in contrast to the sympathetic fantasy-facilitators of the earlier film. Like The Dream Factory, the film is an assemblage of comedy skits with no overarching narrative or character arcs. It at best resembles the annual Chinese New Year television gala on state-run China Central Television, a variety entertainment show comprising an amalgamation of feel-good performances from big-name stars, which Feng would be tapped to direct the year after, in 2014. The formula resonated with Feng’s loyal followers, and the film ranked fourth in the 2013 box-office charts.
From Dream Factory to Personal Tailor, Feng has created a formidable oeuvre of audiovisual texts that documents the transformation of Chinese society during the post-Mao period. This “current affairs” quality of Feng’s films makes him a unique force among the Chinese filmmakers of his generation. The popular appeal of Feng’s New Year comedies rest primarily upon their cultural proximity to a Chinese society caught in chaotic transformation. From Chinese expats living overseas to extramarital affairs, from the collapse of the traditional family to the widening social and wealth gap, Feng’s early New Year comedies captured China's zeitgeist in its zealous march toward modernity as well as the attendant tragicomic consequences.