Office Hour with Richard Peña: Chinese Cinema, New Media, and The Future of Film Criticism

Part One

Trip to China, New Blood, and Platform Shift

Q: We know that you went to Shanghai last year for the Master Class. How was the experience?

A: I was at NYU Shanghai. I went there and had a couple of talks. One talk is on Jia Zhangke’s film A Touch of Sin. That was really fun. And then I gave a talk about short films. I was amazed because it was on May Day, or a day before May Day. I thought no one would come, but there’s a huge crowd. I was very surprised. A former student who was our student at Columbia years ago [and she] kind of organized it.

Q: I know you’ve been in China so many times. Do you feel this time, the audience and the student are different or they would like different ideas? What do you think of this time (and) how different did you experience?

A: It’s always hard to say. I mean I taught in China in December (2017) at the Communications University in Beijing. I had a wonderful class. But talking to students, I felt they were less hopeful. Somehow, one of the things that really impressed me (is) that Shanghai was how much energy I felt. You know, a lot of young people. Everyone is doing projects. It’s like somehow in Shanghai there was a different spirit. Beijing is northern and winter, more down. I just felt surprised to people. I used to think people would have so many ideas. As I said, in December, I felt a little bit of narrowing of that. Whereas, for whatever reasons, in Shanghai, I met so many wonderful young people and people (are) doing great projects. A number of them have written to me, sending links to me and stuff like that.

Q: Yeah, it’s more like you’re talking about New York compared to LA in a sense that New York is more like (a city with) film culture, (compared) to Shanghai…

A: That’s really the distinction. I think it’s maybe I can just be the luck of the draw. Maybe just the people I happened to meet in Shanghai were more energetic and hopeful. 

Q: And new projects that you’re interested in…

A: I mean everybody is working. I think the thing that has to happen is, for me, I would like to see China develop some kind of truly independent film sector. That would be independent not in terms of production, but in terms of exhibition. They can continue to have their multiplexes showing all the Hollywood blockbusters and Chinese language blockbusters. But there should also be some greater outlet for all the very good, low budget work. It’s there and I think even more will come. I’d like China to open up that way. They seemed to be reluctant. Control is a big word. I think that they’re a little bit reluctant to give up control just yet. One Chinese official told me, “our audiences are not mature enough.”

Q: like the young filmmakers need to reach out or… 

A: Not it is so great here, but you have all the multiplex and then you have Film Forum, Anthology. If you want another kind of cinema, you can find it. And of course, it’s a small part of the market, but still, it is there. It’s usually vital to the culture that such things exist. Unfortunately, in China there are very little. There are a couple places like Beijing there’s a place it’s like an art center 

Q: Film Archive, museum?

A: It’s the place I lectured. It’s a place like abandoned factory that turned into a very nice art operation

Q: 798. 

A: That place at least they invited me for a nice time. And then when I looked at the wall it’s like “Wow, look like they’re really showing a lot of interesting stuff”:

Q: That place is like a combination of art gallery, exhibition, installation, and film programs.

A: Yes, everything, like a real art center. I think they show more than one or two films a week. But I mean, film is a real presence there. 

Q: And I think still in China, like Shanghai International Film Festival, they focus more on the independent film, even from the US. But also, like want to use that connection to promote and present more independent Chinese films. And they focus more on the like art-house side instead of commercial. That’s more like a reflection of what we are doing here in the United States, like Columbia and NYU. In your class, you teach a lot of world cinema. So, it’s like a very independent site. On the other hand, we also have very commercial Chinese films in China. What do you think, as you mentioned earlier, the gap between them? 

A: As far as I can tell, the gap is when it comes to exhibitions. Because now I think there’s very few restrictions on film makers, as long as you’re not making something obviously loudly anti-government, I think you can get away a lot. But once you get it made, what happens to it? Who gets to see it? That’s still a bottleneck. The regime still pretty much controls film exhibitions and doesn’t seem particularly interested in allowing any kind of place. Basically, for the Chinese commercial films, the blockbuster kind of things, that takes a good portion of course; then you have 30 or 40 or 50 whatever foreign films, most of which are Hollywood films, and those (are) gonna take out the rest. So, I mean there’s no real place for small interesting Chinese films. 

Q: What about the role of film festivals?

A: The film festivals are great for publicity and they have become a sort of alternative form of exhibitions. But the ideal would be that one of those films goes into films theaters and stay for a few weeks, so it can find its audience. However, that’s done. I spoke over the years to a number of Chinese people telling me that they’d love to try and open such cinemas, but they don’t think they can get permission.

Q; Yes. two years ago, we have one of our classmates saying they were trying to open an independent art-house cinema in Shanghai, very similar to the model of Metrograph. By the very end that didn’t happen because of regulations, policies, permit, different things.

A: Yeah. I mean again it’s hard for me to know why they’re such opposition to that. But clearly, I think in meeting the students I met, there’s a real hunger to see that kind of alternative works the future. Now I’m sure people see it on DVD or they download it. That’s not really a good substitute. It’d be really nice if some of these films could have a normal theatrical life. 

Q: Off topic, I worked for the Cinema Guild, for Hong Sang-Soo’s film. We just noticed that for the past weekend is the third weekend for The Day After, and the box-office actually went over the second weekend. So, it’s like the longer periods we are giving to independent films…

A: That’s a good point. The word of mouth. You go to see it, then you tell two friends, and they get to see it, then they talk to two friends, and that’s how your film grows.

Q: Do you still go to the theaters to see films?

A: Yes. And unfortunately, or fortunately, I travel a lot. Unfortunately I’m not here a lot. I am trying to catch up a few films. They’re screening the Italian show at the Film Society and there’re a couple films I wanna see there while I’m here. I try to go to the movies a lot. 

Q: What do you think about Netflix and other online platforms?

A: I guess I don’t really use Netflix that much for movies. I use it for series. My wife and I just started the second year of The Handmaid’s Tale. We saw three chapters. So that’s what I use. There are very rarely that we will watch a recent release on it. That’s just me. I tend to use television to watch television.

Q: Recent years, platforms like Netflix and Amazon Studios started to work with international filmmakers… 

A: Exactly, lots of options. It will eventually lead to that. As I said, when I’m at home, I usually uses it to find series, like whatever the hot series at the moment. 

Q: Earlier we are also talking like there are so many good Asian films at Cannes this year. It looks like will be a big year for Chinese cinema…

A: Which is great!

Q: including Bi Gan’s new film. He is first discovered in New Director/New Film Festival, Kaili Blues. And right now, his second film is still waiting for distribution. (a question about US distribution of Asian films, unable to get the idea).

A: Listen, I think any aspects of cinema is not only difficult, but incredibly frustrated in film distributions. Because you know nowadays anybody can get anything produced. It’s not that hard or expensive and people can find their ways. As for exhibition, obviously with all the festivals you will find somewhere to show your film. But the actual distribution is really what’s falling apart. For the 25 years that I was at the New York Film Festival, there was a moment by the time I started, reliably everything that was in the festival will get distribution which means that within a year all of them would enter into the art house circuit. That certainly wasn’t true when I left. There were a lot of films that didn’t get any distribution. And the thing is it wasn’t that they were bad films. Often people came up to me, distributors, and others, and say “Oh I like that film so much”. I said, “You should distribute” and they will say “You know, I don’t think it will make any money” (whispering, can’t hear it clearly). Unfortunately, you know better than I do how expensive is it to launch a film. Let’s say you just spend fifty thousand dollars to acquire the rights for film X. Now we’ve got to spend how much on print advertising and all the kind of things? Another 50 or 60? And then you know, you put it in a movie theater, and they take their whatever cut. Unless you are getting a half million people to see it, you probably in most cases end up losing money. 

Q: In that case, any suggestions for young filmmakers or young student?

A: All I can do to encourage people to go to the movies as much as they can so that the distributors make money and they’ll be more encouraged. But it’s an uphill battle. You know more and more people are not seeing films in movie theaters. They are seeing films, there’s no question about that. They’re just not going to screening situations. In fact, nowadays, a lot of distributors I’ve spoken to, these are art-house distributors, except in rare cases, theatrical distribution is what we call in English a “loss leader”. In other words, you know you’re going to lose money, but you do it because it’s a good way to advertise the film, getting reviews and all that, so when the film goes onto cable or pay-per-view or whatever, you will do better. And that’s where you make money.

Q: Home videos.

A: But to make it up to the theatrical release itself is generally considered pretty hard. The audience isn’t there besides in a few major cities.

Q: Are there any young filmmakers that you like very much, or you pay attention to most recently?

A: Well you know, I’m very happy that the director of Kaili Blues is doing well. I really like that film a lot and I’m very happy when we showed it. I think he got a bright future. people. I’m also a great fan of Song Fang that we showed years ago Memories Look at Me. I think she’s really talented and I know she’s got a new project. I mean China doesn’t lack talent. There are an enormous number of bright young people there who are willing to do things. You know, they face obstacles, like all filmmakers face obstacles. There’s a little different. Sometimes they’re tackling a situation that is not just economically cruel but politically ambiguous. I’m not sure why such opposition to let these works get out there. 

Q: since like the recent change of the government…

A: Well, again, I’m not the person to lecture Chinese friends about Chinese government. But clearly this regime is much more conservative than last couple, much more authoritarian and like to be in control. The basic thing for the regime of the communist regimes is that they basically don’t care about film. I mean film is like such a low priority for them. So why allow it to cause trouble? Much better to control it and not think about it. But I think few years ago when they tried 大片, the big films (blockbusters). They were trying to make money like Crouching Tiger made money and stuff like that. And then had great success with Hero and that seemed to them like we found a formula. But it hasn’t really panned out. 

Q: The Great Wall was a loss…

A: and that was a disaster! So, I mean I think at this point they’re probably licking their wounds a bit and say it’s just not important. We have enough of an internal market and we don’t really need to create an international style cinema for anybody right now.

Q: Do you feel there’s still need for more people to see Chinese films here in the U.S.?

A: Of course.

Q: The market for Chinese language film is still smaller than other international films like French’s…

A: There is no country on earth that has a place in America’s future than China has. In terms of just understanding, I mean I guess you could put it in very basic terms and say, “know your enemy”. But I don’t think we’re enemies. I think you just want to know a culture that clearly is going to be perhaps the decisive culture of the 21st century. Films have a way of doing that. Obviously not one film can tell the whole story, but a number of films together give you a certain impression of what’s going on in different cultures. Chinese cinema is a wonderful way to seeing the culture. Obviously, there are literature and other ways you can do it, but those are more difficult for various reasons. If you bring someone to a movie and often they’re amazed what they learn about China in that movie.