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Feng Xiaogang: China's Best Kept Secret

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Although Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and even the determinedly arthouse Jia Zhangke are better known around the world, Feng Xiaogang is arguably the most popular director and the biggest box office draw in China. After ten years of directing domestic blockbusters that have never quite managed to find an international audience, this woeful situation is finally starting to change, with his lavish 2006 costume drama The Banquet winning a belated Western release under the bizarrely misleading martial arts title Legend of the Black Scorpion, and his latest film Assembly breathing life back into the Asian war genre and introducing viewers in the West to his considerable talents.

Feng has progressed gradually from low budget satires to expensive epics, with his career being characterized by a refreshing openness about the fact that he considers himself a commercial filmmaker who is simply trying to entertain and to reach the widest audience possible. Of course, this is far too simplistic a description for someone whose works have invariably shown a fierce intelligence, and who has been responsible for some truly biting social commentary and criticism. However, it does underline the fact that Feng's continuing success is largely down to the fact that unlike so many others, he knows his public, and makes films that they want to see without patronizing the audience or pandering to overseas tastes. Married to actress Xu Fan, who has featured in a number of his films, he has also turned his hand to writing, producing, and even acting, appearing in small roles in a number of Mainland and Hong Kong hits, all of which marks him as one of the most important figures in modern Chinese cinema.

Early Years and Television

Born in Beijing in 1958, Feng Xiaogang is the son of a Communist Party college professor and a factory nurse. Interestingly, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he is one of the few directors of note who did not attend the Beijing Film Academy, instead spending eight years working as a set designer for a theatrical troupe before finding a job in 1985 on the production side in the art department of Beijing Television Art Center. Here, he worked his way up writing scripts, frequently teaming up with popular writer Wang Shuo who greatly influenced Feng. The populist social satire and humor that Feng would become known for is owed in no small part to Wang Shuo.

Feng's first shot of fame came in 1990 with the popular sitcom Stories from the Editorial Board which he co-wrote with Wang Shuo. His big break came the following year when he adapted and directed a novel about Chinese immigrants in the US, which became the hit television series Beijingers in New York. This helped further his ambitions as a director, leading to more television work and his first feature film in 1994, Gone Forever with My Love, a romantic comedy co-written by Wang Shuo in which Feng also starred. Though pretty tame by the standards of the West, Gone Forever with My Love was one of the first films in China to tackle modern relationships in a lighthearted manner.

New Year Blockbusters

Feng's early foray into film was followed by several more years of television work, which included the popular series Chicken Feathers, before Feng returned to the big screen in 1997 with The Dream Factory, again adapted from a Wang Shuo novel. Following a group of friends who decide to try and make money through helping people to fulfil their dreams for a day, the film starred top actor and comedian Ge You, along with Feng himself and his wife Xu Fan. A distinctly contemporary comedy whose gags relied upon clever dialogue and sly winks at modern social issues rather than slapstick, the film also benefited from a warm, humanistic heart and stuck firmly to the concept of telling the stories of everyday Chinese people and families - vital ingredients for a film released around Chinese New Year, a time when friends and families cross heaven and earth to be together. As a result, it was a box office smash, giving rise to the "New Year's Film" genre (hesui pian) in China and establishing Feng as one of the top commercial directors in Chinese cinema.

The next four years saw Feng build upon his success with a series of equally popular New Year comedies, starting with Be There or Be Square in 1998 which followed a rocky romance between two illegal Chinese immigrants in the US, again starring Ge You and Xu Fan. The film, which Feng also wrote, was another intelligent affair that touched upon and poked fun at a variety of current issues. This was followed the next year by Sorry Baby, in which Ge You played a taxi driver who kidnaps the girlfriend (played by popular Taiwanese actress Jacklyn Wu) of a travel agent who owes him money, only for things to turn out rather differently than planned when she decides to side with him against her boyfriend. Although a comedy, the film also displayed a serious side and explored issues of greed and the growing importance of money in Chinese society, all of which again rang true with audiences at the box office.

Feng's next film, A Sigh, was an even more bittersweet affair, being the first Chinese film to deal with divorce in an open and believable fashion, mixing tragedy with deadpan laughs to great effect. Certainly, the film verged on dark comedy, with its humor being of a deeply satirical vein, encouraging the audience to laugh at the increasingly desperate and depressing situation of its immoral protagonist. The original screenplay for A Sigh was actually written by Wang Shuo in 1996 but did not pass the censors the first time. Four years and a title change later, it would bring Feng's career to another high. In the same year, Feng starred in and co-wrote Wang Shuo's Father, a comedy drama that unfortunately fell foul of the Chinese censors.

Big Shot's Funeral in 2001 was a bit of a step up in terms of budget and scope, with Feng bringing in acclaimed Western actor Donald Sutherland as a Hollywood director attempting to remake The Last Emperor on location in Beijing. Dealing with subjects such as the encroachment of Western culture in China and the inherent madness of big business, although the film was aimed mainly at Chinese audiences, with plenty of local references and humor, it did manage an international release.

In 2003, Feng had his biggest hit yet with Cell Phone, an even darker and more merciless comedy of errors which revolved around Ge You as the host of a popular television program whose life begins to unravel after he leaves his mobile phone at home, allowing his wife to uncover his extramarital affairs. Co-starring Xu Fan, Zhang Guoli and Fan Bingbing (now one of the hottest Chinese stars, having featured in A Battle of Wits, Flash Point, and the controversial Lost in Beijing), the film targeted the new Chinese urban middle class and their growing obsession with status symbols and was a massive box office hit, apparently striking such a chord with audiences that it was the inspiration for a sudden rush of real life divorces. Interestingly, the film's main box office rival that year was Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle, in which Feng himself had a small but amusing cameo role as an ill-fated gangster.

The reasons behind the success of Cell Phone and indeed all of Feng's New Year comedies are easy to pinpoint, in that they offered something fresh and unique, dealing with contemporary social issues, and being unafraid to mock modern Chinese society and shine a harsh light on hypocrisy, greed and infidelity. Somehow, despite his dealing with potentially unpalatable subjects in such a realistic and even ruthless manner, Feng still managed to inject a certain amount of heart into these films, and they are neither cold nor mean spirited in the fashion of other black comedies. At the same time, these films show a definite common touch, being down to earth and believable, and never losing sight of the basic humanity, and essentially Chinese nature of their characters. Indeed, this to a large extent is the very essence of Feng's New Year comedies, and he has commented that while he likes fellow Chinese directors such as Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou, he feels that they often depart too much from real life in their films.

Although they were all hits at home, none of these films registered much overseas, the reason for this being that they are based very much upon uniquely Chinese concerns and local humor. Indeed, as Feng once noted in an interview, "Comedy doesn't travel as well as other genres."

A Change of Direction

With this in mind, perhaps feeling that he had reached his satirical peak with Cell Phone, or at least that he had achieved all that he could with the form in commercial terms, Feng's next film, the 2004 release A World Without Thieves, saw a marked changed of direction. A tale of professional thieves trying to swindle money from a naive country boy, although the film retained the common touch of his early works, it was considerably lighter, more sentimental, and even idealistic. A more traditional blockbuster, it also boasted a notably higher budget, and saw the director for the first time working in action and chase scenes. The film's appeal was further widened by its pan-Asian cast, headed up by Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau, along with Taiwanese singer-actress Rene Liu, Hong Kong actor Gordon Lam, Mainland actress Li Bingbing, and of course, Ge You. Feng proved equally at home with broader fare, and the film was a commercial and critical smash, breaking box office records and winning a number of awards and nominations. The following year, Feng returned the favor for Andy Lau, turning up for cameo role in his bittersweet comedy vehicle Wait 'Til You're Older.

After producing Huang Jianxin's Gimme Kudos, Feng returned to the director's chair in 2006 with his biggest production to date, The Banquet. A loose reworking of Hamlet, the film saw the director attempting to out-do other recent costume drama epics such as Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers and Chen Kaige's The Promise in terms of lavish set and costume design and an all-star cast including Zhang Ziyi, Daniel Wu, Zhou Xun, and Ge You. Despite winning a multitude of technical awards, the film did receive more of a mixed critical reaction than his earlier films, mainly due to its rather slow pace, needlessly flashy visuals, and pointless martial arts scenes which seemed to have been added in mainly to make it more attractive to Western markets. Still, the film certainly served its purpose, being another massive moneymaker, again proving Feng to be one of the top Chinese directors and winning him proper international exposure for the first time by playing at the Venice Film Festival and standing as Hong Kong's nomination for the Oscars. In the same year, Feng also served as producer on Zhang Guoli's The 601st Call, a topical comedy starring Hong Kong actress Cecilia Cheung and Super Girl singing contest runner-up Bibi Zhou.

Assembly and Beyond

With his latest film Assembly, Feng has moved on again with another big budget blockbuster, this time a wartime epic, though in the gritty style of Spielberg's acclaimed Saving Private Ryan rather than that of earlier Chinese propaganda pieces. Featuring a cast of lesser known faces, the film is set in 1948 during the Chinese Civil War, and follows a company of soldiers who are ordered to defend a mine, left waiting for the titular assembly call which never comes. Although the film is perhaps Feng's most ambitious production yet and is grand in scale, it eschews the exotic sheen of The Banquet in favor of brutal realism, attempting to drag viewers into the bloody chaos of the battle scenes. The film was a huge hit at the Chinese box office, raking in an impressive 23 million yuan and managing to fend off stiff competition from Peter Chan's The Warlords, confirming Feng as China's most popular director and again underlining the fact that he is one of the few filmmakers equally comfortable in all genres, whether dealing with commercial or socially conscious cinema.

Following an appearance in Hong Kong director Pang Ho Cheung's scattershot comedy Trivial Matters, Feng Xiaogang has begun work on his next film The Nobles, which sees him return to satire and social commentary with the tale of a member of the new Chinese rich chasing a Western lifestyle. Apparently set to star Shu Qi, as well as The Sun Also Rises actor-director Jiang Wen and, inevitably, Ge You, the film is currently in pre-production and is surely destined to send Feng's stock soaring even higher.

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Published April 14, 2008

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