Diversified Development of Chinese Comedy Films

In recent years, Chinese film leaps and bounds, in the development of digital technology, the expansion of the original screen, the growth of box office, etc. The most prominent change is undoubtedly on the rapid increase of the quantities of comedy and the bursting of its market reaction. Recalling the century of Chinese film history, we have not yet discovered that what type of films can be like today’s comedy film, which has made so rich and lasting contribution to Chinese film industry.

Today, Chinese film can be described as “innovative high”, which has become Chinese film’s “new normal.” Especially since 2014, the growth rate of the Chinese film has increased, reflecting the concept of “Chinese speed” and creating a “Chinese miracle”. In the first quarter of 2016, Chinese film’s box office reached 14.5 billion yuan. By this rate, it can be forecasted that the annual box office is likely to be more than 60 billion yuan.

According to the optimistic forecasts in the industry, China will surpass the North American, becoming the world’s largest film market in 2017. Everyone knows this is only for box office, and the more important is that many young audiences’ habits of watching films are being cultivated.

The rapid growth of Chinese film benefits from the development of Chinese cinema facilities and related supporting measures. Currently, the total number of film screens is more than 20,000 in China. They are all been digitized. Chinese film screens’ technical upgrading is faster than other countries. During the Golden Rooster and Hundred Flowers Film Festival held by China Film Association, some countries just sent old films to make copies. In China, it is hard to find a cinema to show the film. Perhaps only China National film Museum and China film Archive preserve the film screenings, and most of the others are basically been digitized.


The outstanding performance of comedy movies in Chinese film market 

Since 2014, Chinese film’s diversification has been considerably developed. Comedy films have made very good performance in Chinese film market. Goodbye Mr. Loser, Lost in Hong Kong, and The Mermaid, which has a strong comedy element, have achieved good records of the box office.

In 2015, comedy films occupied four seats of the ten highest grossing films in Mainland China. At the same time, a lot of films with high box-office had strong comedy elements. Among which The Monster Hunt, although it cannot be classified as type of comedy, the film has strong comedy element and comedy paragraph.

First of all, we must analyze the social causes of the development of Chinese comedy films. Some commentators believe that 30 years of Chinese Spring Festivals, especially the most popular comedy sketches, have largely imperceptibly cultivated Chinese audience‘s interest on comedy. The interest has even become a kind of comic culture gene of most audiences. And for most of the young audiences who visit the cinema to watch the films, their main impulse is not to seek the aesthetic satisfaction, but rather for the needs of social activities and entertainment. Comedy films have become an important way for young people to release stress from living and working.

Now there is a phenomenon, as long as affixed the label of comedy, the film is easy to obtain high box office. The deeper reason is that comedy films meet the cultural and psychological needs of the community. From this perspective, many experts believe that audiences’ demand for comedy films may even be described as rigid.

Many surveys show that comedy film is the most popular type of film China, which accounted for 72% of the total. It also contributes to the creation and production of comedy films. From 2006, the proportion of the audiences, who watch comedy films, is rising progressively. More than half of the audiences, who come into the cinema, if there is no other understanding information, their first choice is always to watch comedy films.

By briefly reviewing the development of Chinese comedy films, Crazy Stone, directed by Ning HAO, is a very important film in 2006. Since then, the comedy films with small-middle scale costs have showed a sharp growth trend. Comedy, romance, and action films occupied the proportion of 3/4 of domestic films in China in those years. In recent two years, the comedy films have gone beyond the romance, and action, coming out on top.

Many young directors can only make films with low-middle budget, due to limited conditions. So, comedy films often become the first choice of their filmmaking. In order to have much more rich elements in comedy movies, adding other types of elements has become an inevitable choice. So domestic comedy films, by adding other types of elements, have achieved good results in terms of expanding the subject. Coupled with the natural advantages of the small-medium cost, it may become the most outstanding style with the low input and high output.

Chinese comedy films also presents richness and diversity in its own styles, including romantic comedy, black comedy, ancient costume comedy, detective comedy, etc., which mean that Chinese comedy films has reached a “spectacular” level in filmmaking.


Problems that Chinese comedy film need to be resolved

The overall quality of Chinese comedy film is still need to be focused. Personally, I am much more willing to generalize the problems during my creation and research on Chinese comedy films. The purpose is to promote the Chinese comedy films with better development. The creation of Chinese comedy films is short of creativity and imagination, with serious problem of copycatting and homogenization. How to go out of the homogenization and low quality swamp, towards diversification and high quality, it may be one of the problems that need to be discussed and promoted to solve.

Young audiences’ market and update substitution of the directors

Chinese film market is still a young audiences’ market. Even though we all know that young-audience is a worldwide trend, now the Chinese film market is much far more dramatic at this point. Especially, the audiences born after “1980s”, “1990s” contributes almost 80% of the Chinese film box office. Those after”2000s”, the 15, 16-year-old audiences are on the rise. In particular period, such as summer vacation, high school students and middle school students are also becoming the main audiences. In the mean time, Chinese film market is undergoing some structural changes. The so called “small-town youths”, who live in the third or fourth tiered cities with no construction, conditions and habits of watching films before, is becoming a new growth point in Chinese film market. These “small-town youths” are much more willing to watch some domestic comedy films that close to their daily life.

In terms of creation, lots of young directors, which are the new strength and new forces of domestic films, are in update substitution. Among these groups, a phenomenon we are very concerned is cross-border. Actors, hosts, writers are going to become directors. These directors, who run on lines, have their own unique advantages. They have a lot of special resources. Chinese young writers, such as Han HAN and Jingming GUO, have so many fans. I used to have deep communication and discussion with Jingming GUO. I found that he had unique understanding of the demand for young people. He believes the current generation of young people does not have natural feelings of siblings, since they are living in the family with only one child. So girlfriends or idol, in fact, largely replaced the traditional kind of feeling of brothers and sisters. So at this point, he is very sure what the young audiences want.

New directors made lots of films on the lists of high box-office. Cross-border and new generation directors have become the main strength of Chinese filmmaking. Monkey King: Hero is Back, Monster Hunt, Pancake Man and Goodbye Mr. Loser are all directed by the new directors. And many films are the first films they directed. I’ve been communicated with many foreign experts on this phenomenon and I found that it is seldom happened in foreign countries, indicating that the development of Chinese film has shown its own unique industry phenomena. Foreign film theory and film criticism cannot provide answers to it. We need to find it out by ourselves, and to build Chinese film educational and theoretical system through research and understanding the current status of Chinese film industry.

In fact, the research on Chinese film market or the creation of filmmaking is to focus on the study of audience. According to the theory of film aesthetics by Chinese film masters Dianfei ZHONG, he believes that the core problem is to solve the relationship between the film and the audience. So at any time and under any circumstances, we should do more in-depth study on the demands of the audiences and reasons to those demands.

Comedy filmmaking needs more social and cultural connotations

How do we observe the phenomenon of quality and quantity? Such as Lost in Hong Kong, The Mermaid, these are films people paid more attention on and films that with good reputation and box-office. But there are also many films did not actually enhance but reduce the reputation of Chinese film. We worry about the creation of Chinese comedy filmmaking due to these kinds of bad films. In this regard, Chinese films should assume certain social responsibilities.

According to our observation, the current Chinese young audiences’ demand is very complex. They are willing to accept varieties of comedy films. It is a kind of good phenomenon, from which that it can promote Chinese films to diversification. It is also one of the issues that need to be focused when we talked about comedy films. The main issue is that we need to guide the audience’s appreciation by improving the quality and quality, injecting more social and cultural connotations into comedy films.

We have also seen some very good works, such as Go away Mr. Tumour. The theme of the film is tragic connotation, but showing in the expression of comedy. I used to discuss comedy with Peisi CHEN(Chinese famous comedian). He believed that comedy is presentation of pain. The comedy creators might get through suffering to really meet audiences’ needs. So the high-quality comedy usually have tragic core, but it does have comedy’s outcome and expression. Go away Mr. Tumour gives us a good direction in this context.

We have also seen other styles: such as Monster Hunt, which is a magical, fantasy film with massive injection of comic passages; The Mermaid, from which we can find the comedy gene of director Xingchi ZHOUG, and in the mean time the theme has many connections with environmental protection, real estate and other hot issues, which give the audiences deep impression. Some characters in The Monkey King 2 are closely associated with comedy, including the balance with the scene.

So creation is always the driving force behind the development of film. The key point of developing comedy is how to inject fresh elements into the original basis. For Detective Chinatown, although some people do not like the film, or do not like the style of the film, it has laid a good foundation for the development of a series of films, which can extend the film’s production in worldwide Chinatown. By combining comedy with inference, including adding some horror, suspense elements, makes the creation and production being series brand. And series brand is the weakness of current Chinese film market. From Vegas to Macau 3 contains many elements. We can call it “platter”, into which the various elements have been injected.

The tendency of making comedy film to comedy sketch need to be watched out

Let’s see what kind of problems exit in current Chinese films. At present, the tendency to make comedy film by the way of comedy sketch is very serious. I have participated in the “Dialogue” column at CCTV 2 during Spring Festival. On the show, I had a dialogue with director Sicheng CHEN (director of Detective Chinatown) and director Dapeng (director of Pancake Man). I clearly stated that although the current comedy sketch tendency were very effective, we still had to study that whether it is sustainable, since a film is ultimately a story of art. This kind of comedy sketch trend has certain relationship with the Chinese Spring Festival and current fragmented consumption. At present, presenting in a comedy sketch way is still one of the very effective means for Chinese comedy filmmaking. But, in my opinion, comedy films must have breakthrough in its narration, story description and characterization.

Xiaogang FENG, one of the Chinese famous directors, has made great contribution to China’s Lunar New Year film. There are lots of catchwords in his films, which became one of the main features of Chinese comedy film. Chinese action films face a problem when they are showed in a foreign country. There is always a breakdown of narration of the story, and action become a scene for eye-catching. It is the weakness of Chinese action film. So does the Chinese comedy film.

Enormous impact of Internet to the comedy film creation

More importantly, the boom of “Internet + film” or “film + Internet” is rising. It also has great impact on comedy film creation. Film era is now known as “net generation “. The internet has not only changed the way people think, but also change the way people live. Fragmented consumption and reception is now quite normal. The middle-aged audiences may not familiar with this phenomenon at the very beginning, but they will accept it at last. The fragmented consumption, driven from internet thinking and net generation, is also become one of the very important aspects that influent filmmaking.

Current young audiences, have a natural way of internet thinking. They can understand all the nonlinear narrative, sketch’s language and the assembling of internet hot topics. “Internet + Movie,” as well as the internet thinking will affect the creation of Chinese film in a very long time, especially in the creation of comedy film. The point is how we should study these issues and how to lead the internet becoming a more positive factor to comedy filmmaking.

With the appearance of “net generation” films, such as Tiny Times and The Continent, they all comply with the change of culture, such as so-called “fans consumption”. Another bad trend in nowadays is “cock wire”(means loser). Lots of people do not think it could be a problem. And many people called themselves as “cock wire”. All the cultural valuation is likely to pull down the quality of comedy filmmaking.

Comedy films need to build their inherence

Anyway, we want to emphasize that “content is the king”. I noticed that Dong YU (CEO of Bona) has a public statement some time ago. He mentioned that if a company lacks its own brand in the content production, even it has strong capital advantage, or other capital operation ability, ultimately it is difficult to succeed in the field of filmmaking, especially the sustainable development of filmmaking. Although Chinese filmmaking is increasingly diverse in the styles and the domestic box office is also very good, the quality, creativity and imagination of comedy films still have problems, especially in story description and character shaping, which are the weaknesses of it.

Chinese comedy film also has very good tradition. The films, such as  Long Live the Mistress in the 1940s and many Hong Kong movies in 1980s, have their own tradition of excellence as well as some good experience. These experiences are worth a good study, which can be put into contemporary comedies. In the meantime, it needs innovation to expand new styles and to have more effective interaction with new audiences in order to make the tree of comedy film life evergreen.

During last years, the film with the theme of youth was booming. As long as affixed the labels of youth, films could get high box office. However, due to lack of new development, youth film’s plot appeared “traditional third kinds”. There were no fresh factors injected into the stories, which subsequently showed a diminishing trend. We should be alerted that comedy film would repeat the mistake if it could not be developed effectively. The creation of comedy film cannot be a simple “formula” production. Now some people’s understanding of comedy stays in the “formula” level. If we make the comedy film as Chinese herbal formula, simply inviting some famous stars, adding some popular plots, the creation will face some problems after that.

In addition to government’s support, capital raising and some other elements, the more important thing of comedy creation is to focus on its internal strength, and to break through its bottlenecks. We need to find much more elements from reality, which related to vary human emotional relationship. We must pay more attention on the story description and comic character creation. In addition, we should also rationalize the allocation of resources, because the comedy filmmaking may require a long-term cooperation and effective teamwork. In this regard, the current comedy filmmaking in Mainland China still has many problems.

At this moment, there are still some negative factors in young pop culture. We should also consider how to avoid these bad impacts in order to push the creation of comedy towards good direction. Many of our comedy films or sketches laughed at disable people, which is absolutely wrong. It violated the humanity and ethics. In addition, Chinese comedy film market also lacks of some movie stars who can call upon the box-office. Although now we have Bo HUANG, Zheng XU, Baoqiang WANG, etc., but it is still not enough. We need more comedy stars.

In China, the comedy filmmaking is short of long-term cooperation team. Most are temporary patchwork. In the context of globalization, comedy has now become the most effective means of domestic confrontation to Hollywood blockbusters. It has unique advantages. If we cannot create our own brand to enhance the sustainable development of comedy film, there should be some problems. Especially with the improvement of modern film technology system and the modern film communication system, the demands to the comedy films diverse, including the innovation of a number of derivatives. We should also follow it.

In short, despite the comedy film come out on the top of Chinese film market, we still need to improve quality and quality of it, and to promote diversification. By these means, comedy films are able to make more positive contribution to the development of Chinese film industry.

(According to the keynote speech “The Charm of Comedy Films, for the Forum of Exploring the Beauty of Film”, given by the author in April 2016, with some abridgement.)


by Shuguang RAO

China Film Association Party Branch members, the Secretary-General, Researcher, Doctoral supervisor, Chief Expert of History of Chinese Film

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