How China Perfected Middlebrow Cinema for Middle-Class Viewers
The past year has not been kind to China’s film industry. Box office receipts are down 60% from the 2019 pre-pandemic peak, and ticket sales hit an 11-year low in November. Poor output, pandemic restrictions, and audience fatigue have cast a pall over the sector — and led some insiders to pine for the bygone boom years of the 2010s.
Not everyone is nostalgic, however. Dai Jinhua, a well-known film critic and cultural studies scholar, had harsh words for Chinese studios’ output during the 2010s on a recent episode of her online show. Dai blames the industry’s smug self-satisfaction and relentless drive to capture middlebrow audiences for its current malaise. “All the cultural phenomena you see today are part of middle-class culture,” she declared. “A big problem in Chinese society is that besides middle-class culture, we can’t see any other culture.”
Dai’s speech, though ambiguous on the point of what qualifies as “middle-class” film, was met with a wave of sympathetic comments on streaming platform Bilibili, a go-to site for young Chinese. Clearly, Chinese filmgoers are burnt out on something, but is the culprit here really “middle-class” film?
In a sense, yes. The golden age of Chinese film production was explicitly based on the pursuit of middle-class viewers. To quote Dai, “the market was created for them.” In the wake of China’s market reforms, the state retreated from the film and television industry. State-owned film studios struggled to turn profits, and state-run television stations gradually turned to private film and TV production companies to stay relevant. These followed a market-based approach, emphasizing and catering to audience preferences in order to boost box office receipts, advertising, and rights revenue.
The primary audience of these studios was a relatively small slice of the Chinese population: educated, well-to-do urbanites who had enough money, leisure time, and interest to go watch a Zhang Yimou film or a subtitled Hollywood flick in theaters. Even when the film audience exploded in the mid-2010s thanks to the previously untapped potential of China’s “small-town youth,” it simply resulted in more films about the aspirational middle class, rather than a more thematically diverse lineup of films.
To Dai, this was a fatal flaw. The middle class, in her view, lacks either the motivation or the ability to reflect on the social system that created it, dooming mainstream culture to compromise and mediocrity. This is hardly unique to China: Social theorist Theodor Adorno famously argued that modern mass culture is rife with mediocre music and films but few truly provocative works.
Dai, a leftist on China’s political spectrum, albeit an ideological nonconformist, places the blame for the resulting bust squarely on the industry. That’s likely an overstatement, given the constraints under which Chinese filmmakers operate, but there’s no doubt the rapidly growing Chinese film industry spent years playing it safe, and great pains were taken to avoid offending both audiences and regulators. Even when films did touch on social issues, filmmakers were nevertheless careful to always end on a happy, or at least law-abiding, note. For example, the 2018 hit “Dying to Survive” tells the story of a real-life smuggler who helped cancer patients obtain generic drugs from India. Although the film seems to question the regulatory authorities who delayed approving cheap, life-saving medication, it ends with a title card sequence explaining the steps the authorities have since taken to lower the prices of drugs and include them in medical insurance.
Another telling trend is the rise of “main melody” films, which repackage patriotic or nationalistic stories with slick storytelling and plenty of special effects. Action films like “The Battle at Lake Changjin” and “Wolf Warrior 2” overturned the conventional wisdom about main melody films, making money and spawning entire cinematic universes of patriotic schlock.
These new-style main melody films are not all guns and machismo. Perhaps the ideal modern main melody picture is this year’s “Home Coming.” In an otherwise miserable year at the box office, the National Holiday tentpole grossed more than 1.5 billion yuan ($215.5 million) peddling melodramatic tales of China’s diplomatic corps.
Meanwhile, the arthouse and underground film circles, important pipelines of talent and ideas, are struggling. Arthouse cinema was reliant on independent theaters and film festivals for distribution and financing, which not only limited these films’ ability to reach audiences but also left them more vulnerable to the pandemic.
The independent, underground film production system, which represents a more radical alternative to the mainstream cultural industry, has seen its reach shrink further over the past several years. Although a handful of die-hards continue to seek out and catalogue independent and underground films, the majority of these pictures are hosted via cloud-hosting sites or screened in tiny venues and basically impossible to find by general audiences. According to Zhang Xianmin of the Beijing Film Academy, who maintains a catalog of underground Chinese cinema, the quality of Chinese underground and independent cinema remains strong, especially when it comes to challenging themes like anger or the supernatural, but few of these films will ever be seen outside of cinephile circles.
The increasingly homogenous nature of Chinese film stands in contrast with the scene of the 1980s and 1990s, an era marked by the liberation of ideas and a “culture fever” for highbrow cinema. China was still an emerging market back then, and producers dared to take risks on experimental films. Dai has implied that even the worker-peasant-soldier culture of the Maoist era, which for decades was written off as ideologically homogeneous and uninteresting, would be preferable to today’s output.
Neither era is likely to make a comeback. Instead, as private firms struggle, their interests, the state’s, and those of middle-class consumers will continue to converge. The state-backed studio system is a relic, but the government has much-needed funds with which to lure private studios and creators into cooperative agreements — a system Dai, with characteristic bombast, has criticized as the “convergence of political publicity (xuanchuan), artistic experimentation, and commercial production.”
Whether or not that arrangement can last remains to be seen. There are signs young audiences are already tiring of aggressively middlebrow filmmaking, and while the state is happy to pick up the tab for patriotic films, its expectations are not always easy to meet. For example, in 2020, director Guan Hu was ordered to finish the Korean War epic “The Sacrifice” in less than four months so it could be ready in time for the war’s 70th anniversary. The resulting product, while a box office hit, clearly lacked the polish of earlier, more commercial offerings like “Wolf Warrior 2.”
Ultimately, change will only come when filmgoers demand it. We can always refuse to pay for opportunistic works, reject vulgar ideologies, and actively try to seek out and understand experimental films. The awareness that we are not mere consumers, that we have the power to shape the market how we see fit, is the real takeaway from Dai’s critique, if not necessarily one she’d encourage. It’s also our best weapon against the further mixing of mediocre politics and commerce.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: People watch a film at a mostly empty cinema in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, April 2022. Yu Jing/CNS/VCG)