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Edgy, dark and tolerated: ‘China noir’ seeks Cannes

Gritty stories from the margins of Chinese society aim to turn heads at the Cannes film festival, revealing the growing scope and sophistication of the world’s second-largest movie market


Chinese director Diao Yinan poses with the Golden Bear for Best Film and the Silver Bear for Best Actor trophies during a press conference in February 2015 following the awarding ceremony of the 64th Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin.

Photo: AFP

Tales from the shadowy edges of modern Chinese society aim to turn heads at the Cannes film festival, showing the growing scope and sophistication of the world’s second-largest movie market.

The crime thriller The Wild Goose Lake, directed by Diao Yinan- (刁亦男), is going head-to-head with the likes of Quentin Tarantino’s highly anticipated Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for the festival’s top prize, the Palme D’Or.

Similar gritty themes are expected to be explored in director Zu Fen’s (祖峰) Summer of Changsha, which is competing in the more edgy Un Certain Regard section.

Both films are part of a growing “mainland noir” film movement that is expanding the boundaries of a Chinese film industry strictly controlled by government censorship over topics such as violence, corruption and sex.

Shot and situated far from the gleaming lights of modern China’s metropolises, these films feature haunted anti-heroes dwelling on the edges of society.

The box office success of 2017’s critically lauded Looming Storm — about one man’s hunt for a serial killer stalking a small town — showed that previously taboo subjects are increasingly tolerated by China’s National Film Administration.

Diao’s last crime thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice picked up the Golden Bear top prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 2014 with its gripping tale of a wronged policemen looking for redemption.

It was also a global box office ground-breaker for low-budget Chinese films, collecting around US$17 million after successful domestic and limited international runs.

“These are exciting times,” said Alexandre Mallet-Guy, producer of The Wild Goose Lake. “Our film is noir, with a very complex plot and it is very stylish.”


Diao is currently locked away in an editing suite in Beijing working on a final cut of his new production, made with the support of companies in both China and France.

“It’s even more stylish than Black Coal Thin Ice,” said its Paris-based producer Mallet-Guy. “He is very influenced by noir. Most of the films from China that go international are genre films, actioners and those with big budgets. But hopefully we are seeing a new generation and a new style of film.”

Over the past two decades the Chinese film market has gone from being very humble beginnings to one that produces around 600 movies a year with box office receipts now topping US$8.5 billion — second only to the North American market’s US$11.4 billion.

Chinese audiences have previously flocked to a string of locally produced blockbusters such as the bombastic military themed Wolf Warrior 2 (2017), which became China’s biggest-grossing locally made film with takings of an estimated US$870 million.

But tastes appear to be changing.

Last year saw the surprise phenomenal success of Wen Muye’s (文牧野) Dying to Survive, which focused on the illicit trade for cancer drugs, and made an estimated US$450 million for its investors.

At the same time, China’s arthouse scene has been hotting up.

International festival heavyweight Marco Muller was among the first to introduce Chinese cinema to the world through his work with the Venice and Rotterdam festivals. Since 2017 the Italian has hooked up with leading Chinese director Jia Zhangke (賈樟柯) to put together the annual Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival.

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