Chinese Ethnic Minorities Films: Moving Ahead in Difficulty

This year saw the consecutive screening of two Tibet related films – PATHS OF THE SOUL and SOUL ON A STRING by director Zhang Yang, the former not only hitting the headline in the key words of “counterattack” and “miracle”, but finalizing a box office of nearly RMB100 million. For a while, we see the charm and hope of the Chinese ethnic minorities films.

In the early days of New China, films in this regard recorded great achievements. Success of PATHS OF THE SOUL may reflect the unceasing endeavors of some China filmmakers for the revitalization of Chinese ethnic minorities films that have been marginalised and squeezed by the market with blockbuster dominance.


A Successful Counterattack Against Hollywood Blockbusters

PATHS OF THE SOUL is a Tibet related film directed in a documentary fashion, and also the one that has haunted Zhang Yang, a backbone of the sixth generation film directors of China, for 26 years. The film tells about the 2,500km pilgrimage tour of 11 Tibetans from their homes in the ancient “Pula Village” to the Holy Mountain Kailash. The shooting process took over a year and all actors and actresses were outsiders. Without even the scripts, Zhang and his shooting team started the journey almost impossible following the 11 pilgrims.

However, such a film seemingly prosaic recorded the highest attendance at its premiere on June 20 when its row piece rate was only 1.6%. One has to bear in mind that PATH OF THE SOUL topped the list at an extremely attendance of 21% after beating Hollywood blockbusters including TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT, ALIEN: COVENANT, THE MUMMY and WONDER WOMAN. The following days saw its soaring to a recorded attendance of 43.8%, a great success rarely seen in films of the same type. It’s really not easy for an art film seemingly unattractive, in particular the one about ethnic minorities.

PATHS OF THE SOUL also won excellent public praise: Douban score reached up to 7.8; Audience Score and Professional Score at Maoyan were respectively 9.0 and 7.3 and Mtime rated 7.6. In major platforms like Wepiao.Com, Taobao Movies and Gewara, the highest score topped 8.9.

In fact, the film had attracted wide attention in North America before its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015, followed by countless praises at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Göteborg International Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art, the Melbourne International Film Festival and the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival. Variety, the authoritative American film weekly regarded it as “an extremely moving belief study” and Spirituality & Health acclaimed it as “having conveyed a spiritual grace”. The largest North America movie database IMDB scored it 8.1 where media evaluation at Metascore topped 90 points. It’s learnt that PATHS OF THE SOUL will be screened at the Downtown Independent Theater of Los Angeles on November 17 as the opening film of the 2017 Los Angeles Chinese Film Festival.

SOUL ON A STRING is another production in an completely opposite fashion by the same team on the same journey while Zhang Yang was shooting PATHS OF THE SOUL. It was adapted from two short stories, TIBET, A SOUL TIED ON A STRING and ON THE WAY TO LHASA, by the Tibetan writer Tashi Dawa. Different from the documentary fashion, the magic realism SOUL ON A STRING tells the story of a hunter who broke through obstacles and protected a Halidom to the Palm Print Mountain, the sacred home of the Lotus Master. The plot twists and turns of the film attracted great attention ever since its debut. It was short-listed in the main competition of the 2016 Shanghai International Film Festival. During its panorama in Shanghai, viewers find it tough to get a ticket. In the end, it won the Best Cinematography.

Though not as successful as PATHS OF THE SOUL in the subsequent screening, it is of great significance to Chinese films, just like PATHS OF THE SOUL, whose success in particular brings inspiration for the Chinese ethnic minorities films that are struggling in the market.


Aesthetic Shift of Chinese Ethnic Minorities Films from PATHS OF THE SOUL 

Regardless of the absence of dazzling effects, magnificent scenes, strong impact and cast of young handsome celebrities, PATHS OF THE SOUL has its unique charm. Different from most “scenic films” of the minorities, it has a deep connotation discussing on return of belief and redemption of the soul. In a calm and controlled technique, Zhang explores what belief is and why it drives such 11 ordinary persons to begin an unknown journey thousand mile long by leaving their daily life behind. Among them, there was a heavily pregnant woman, a poverty-stricken butcher, a disabled youth since childhood, a moribund senior and a young but resolved girl, each of whom had his/her own stories and hopes. They endured the hardship of the arduous journey, repeated the life of kowtow and chanting, braved life and death, suffered disasters and mishaps and went through inner torture and pains of growth. It all seems calm, but presents a magnificent upsurge in fact. Watching the film, one may feel and be shocked by a force hitting the bottom of the heart, and that’s why viewers remembered and truly love this film.

PATHS OF THE SOUL presents an aesthetic orientation of Chinese ethnic minorities films from those of the same type in the past since the entry to the 21st century. Film researchers basically come down to the following three shifts of aesthetic orientation: From the “typical” scenic shufty to “real” ecological documentary, from “legendary” epic model to “poetic” actual presentation and from “lofty” political pursuit to “ordinary” life concept.

Early of New China saw prosperity of Chinese ethnic minorities films with fruitful outcomes, including such popular classics as PEOPLE ON THE PRAIRIE (the Mongol nationality), FIVE GOLDEN FLOWERS (the Bai nationality), THIRD SISTER LIU (the Zhuang nationality), VISITORS ON THE ICY MOUNTAIN (the Tajik nationality and the Uyghur nationality), ASHIMA (the Yi nationality) and RED FLOWERS ON TIANSHAN MOUNTAINS (the Kazak nationality), most of which were presented by displaying natural sceneries of ethnic minorities regions so as to satisfying curiosity of the audience. There are also quite a few manifesting epic sagas. Such works have to a great extent been affected by the American curiosity pieces of wild beasts to simulate curiosity of the audience and tempt to the cinemas. However, in the period from the beginning of the Cultural Revolution and the dawn of the Reform and Opening Up, Chinese ethnic minorities films were almost cornered to an impasse, as was a result of excessive political interference and extremely strict censorship that forced repeated modifications of quite a few excellent minorities films, causing the loss of true quality and passion for production. They saw a slight rally after entering the era of Reform and Opening Up, but were torn asunder by foreign blockbusters and domestic entertainment movies even before a sign of rise.

It shall also be noted that though the early “scenery films” showing the wonderful views of the minority areas greatly satisfied viewing desires of the audience, they failed to go deep into the relationship between humans and environment and embedded simple forms of expression. The new century saw the rise of the new generation of Chinese directors who constantly learn from the cultural resources of the minorities so that the “original” films on the ethnic minorities are emerging, among whom many scriptwriters and directors of the Han nationality love their fellow minorities and are ready to plunge into the thick of life, eliminating the mincement in their works. Those represented by Feng Xiaoning, Guang Chunlan, Saifu and Mai Lisi have directed excellent films including HEART TO HEART, GADA MEILIN and HEAVENLY GRASSLAND in this regard. Blowout comes also with many young directors, such as THE STORY OF ZHULA and URTIN DUU by Hasi Chaolu, RED SNOW by Zhang Jianya, KEKEXILI: MOUNTAIN PATROL by Lu Chuan, digital film MONGOLIAN PING PONG by Ning Hao, THE SILENT HOLY STONES and THE SEARCH by Pema Tseden, WHEN RUOMA WAS SEVENTEEN and HUAYAO BRIDE IN SHANGRI-LA by Zhang Jiarui and TUYA’S MARRIAGE by Wang Quan’an. Those are no longer scenery pictures for curiosity, but ecological documentaries with more focus on “authenticity”. Such an exploration is a reveal of the ecology awareness, but a reflection on the relationship between man and nature.

KEKEXILI: MOUNTAIN PATROL (2004) by Lu Chuan, for example, no longer presents us with spectacular sceneries. It is beautiful and cruel. Mountain patrol died in the drift sand of the Gobi Desert. The film spared almost two full minutes for painting the whole process that a person is swallowed up by drift sand and half a minute of long scenery shot to highlight the salute. TUYA’S MARRIAGE (2006) by Wang Quan’an concerns the reality, which was driven by the increasingly serious desertification of grassland and the government forcing local Mongolian herdsmen to move out of the pasturing area. The shift from the past depiction of ethnic unity and fusion to the reflection on government actions tells us the ethnic minorities films have started to concern reality, the living status of the minorities and confusion and communications between ethnic groups.

The minorities films since the new century have also shifted from the “legendary” epic model to the “poetic” actual presentation, full of cultural ambience. Encompassing a young Lama, THE SILENT HOLY STONES (2005) by the Tibetan director Pema Tseden has portrayed the life as spiritual practice of him and his master and his daily family life. The films tells a plain but poetic story in a prose tune.

Such a “literary” shift maybe embeds some resignation. Competition with blockbusters forces most ethnic minorities films to turn the track to “art films”, or “commercial routes”, eventually art them up due to the lack of fund sources. Filmmakers of ethnic minorities subject are facing increasing economic and market pressure. Along with the extraordinary splendour of ethnic minorities films in overseas and domestic films festivals is the inhospitable and cruel market, unsatisfactory box office or just expelled from the mainstream chain market. Bombings of imported blockbusters and commercial blockbusters corner many minorities related films to an awkward situation in which they receive acclaims but attract little audience.


Way Out: Ethnic Minorities Films Shall Be Market Oriented


As an important part of Chinese film, the ethnic minorities films have a cultural strategic significance that should not be underestimated. It can be said that ethnic minorities films have made undeniable contributions to the harmony, unity and mutual development between the 56 ethnic groups of China.

As an efficient and convenient media, such films introduce the remote minorities to the whole nation and the world and play a key role in boosting rapid economic and social development of the minority areas. The gorgeous border areas in the ensuring VISITORS ON THE ICY MOUNTAIN and its theme song go deep into the hearts of the audience of different ethnic groups. ASHIMA makes the Stone Forest famous across the world, turning it into a resort. THIRD SISTER LIU allows the whole world know “Guilin’s scenery is the best in the world”, thus attracting numerous tourists both at home and abroad. It is obvious that Chinese ethnic minorities films have played a unique role in promoting economic construction, social development and cultural prosperity of the minority areas.

In recent years, the state has also issued quite a few policies for promoting the development of ethnic minorities films. In 2013 saw the launch of the Chinese Minority Film Project, an important cultural program jointly participated in by the State Ethnic Affairs Commission and the Chinese Writers Association. The Project is aimed to shoot a least one film for each minority of China in the theme of popularizing national culture, prospering the film cause and promoting unity and advancement. 2016 saw the promulgation of the Film Industry Promotion Law of The People’s Republic of China which encourages and supports production films of ethnic minorities subjects, strengthens efforts in dubbing and subtitling of films into minority languages, to satisfy the viewing demand of audiences in ethnic regions. This is undoubtedly promoting the production of Chinese ethnic minorities films.

Since 2010, Beijing holds the Ethnic Film Panorama to deepen the understanding of the public on films about ethnic minorities. By far, a total of eight sessions have been held with growing influence and the Panorama has become a highlight of the Beijing International Film Festival. It has played over 300 ethnic films, launched over 200 new works and facilitated cooperation of large international projects like GENGHIS KHAN’S TREASURES and THE LEGEND OF THE MENGOL KING.

According to Niu Song, founder of the Beijing Ethnic Film Panorama and vice director of leading team of the Chinese Minority Film Project, the current status of ethnic films is “close to the world audience and far from the Chinese market”, which is a realistic predicament. “In organizing and promoting production of ethnic films, I have been advocating the path of genre, though it’s a hard transformation”. According to him, governmental policy support, as a “double-edged sword” has on one hand promoted development of ethnic films and shaped them on the other hand into regular melodrama, myths and legends, documentary and original ecology and philosophical films, however, the biggest problem is that they have vague genres, weak shareability, and low market identification, all of which restricted the exploitation of their advantages. According to him, before the comprehensive rejuvenation of Chinese ethnic films, there shall be great strategy and courage in place for creating masterpieces. The strategic balance between the classics and heavy works of the ethnic films and the western film culture is the most critical step.

It is self-explanatory that the prosperity of Chinese ethnic films relies on not only promotion of social forces and efforts of all filmmakers, but also measures for promoting and protecting ethnic films. Only at a multi-pronged approach, can ethnic films gain re-recognition of audience. It maybe not just the task of film workers. Joint force of the whole society is required to make films about ethnic minorities an important part of cinema lines.

Nonetheless, the ultimate criterion for ethnic films is the market effect. The ultimate goal of filmmakers lies in pushing ethnic minorities films into the cinema line and close to audience. Chinese ethnic minorities films shall be market oriented before its renaissance, which is a choice of survival. Of course, it’s also meaningless to abandon the features and spiritual cores that ethnic films ought to have just for catering to business needs. After all, it is the biggest feature of ethnic films to gift people with purification and elevation of the aesthetics spirit.

In this regard, Zhang Yang’s PATHS OF THE SOUL may serve as an excellent example.

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