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Chinese art-house film wins at the box office(2)

2014-04-02 16:04 China Daily Web Editor: Gu Liping
A scene from Black Coal, Thin Ice. Provided to China Daily

A scene from Black Coal, Thin Ice. Provided to China Daily

The first draft was rejected by investors, because it was "too art-house".

When Diao was revising the script he read a news item about a man who had been found guilty of killing his wife. He was set free when 11 years later his wife suddenly returned home. It turned out the dead body was not his wife's.

"Life can be stranger than fiction," he says. "I felt a sense of duty to record the absurdities of this drastically changing society."

Producer Wen Yan and Diao took the script to European film markets for investment, but in 2008 the economic crisis hit. European producers and buyers wanted completed films they could distribute internationally. They didn't want to spend money making a film.

Their friend Shen Yang, the former program director of Shanghai International Film Festival, suggested they try the domestic market, which was booming. Box office takings were sky-rocketing, new theaters were being built, and a new generation of moviegoers were going to the cinema.

But the market was unsophisticated. Audiences were not ready for an art-house film. Chinese film-goers wanted genre films. They liked to know what they were going to watch, and did not like to be too challenged.

A detective thriller seemed the safest option. Diao had to make the story intriguing and dramatic. One of the investors, the Jiangsu Broadcasting Corporation, suggested adding a little romance.

Eight years after he completed the first draft, filming started in Harbin, one of the coldest places in China.

The result is a solid genre film with crime and romance, but Diao does not think the end product is a commercial compromise. The core of the bleak tale still explores his thoughts on morality and good and evil.

"I am a minor pessimist," he says. "I am pessimistic the day I find we are all going to die, but if you take another approach, that is also the reason why we struggle to live on, trying to be happy every day. My characters are not successful or perfect. They are guys who linger on the edge of evil, trying to live on."

The film's box-office takings greatly encouraged him.

"It will be a beautiful thing if the film proves that our market can actually accept films that are not that big, but are of good quality and unique in style," he says.

The German award and healthy box office takings may bring him more opportunities and investment for later projects, but he remains wary of the future.

"In the past I knew I had nothing to rely on, except for a good story, so I tried my best to write a good story," he says. "But now I have more say. Maybe I will, consciously or not, put less effort into writing a good story. I am aware of that possibility and don't want to see that happen."


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