Italian filmmaker Cristiano Bortone’s film Coffee, an Italian-Chinese-Belgian co-production, has been selected at the Beijing International Film Festival (16-23 April). We chatted to him to find out more about the Chinese market.
You directed the first Italian co-production with China; what ingredients did you use to succeed with this project?
China is a new territory; nobody knows exactly what the rules are yet. As we have seen, even the collaborations between China and Hollywood can be a bumpy road. Our cultural differences are bigger than we think, and language is only one of them. So one of the most important things is to be very patient and understanding; try to accept that things might be different from what we think is reasonable. The aim is to reach a common ground, a compromise that is acceptable by both parties. I would say that making a film (or anything, for that matter) in China is about mastering the art of negotiation. This might become a challenge on the artistic side, or it might open up new perspectives. It depends on the way we look at it.
One thing is for sure: because there are no rules, we are making them up as we go along. With Coffee, for example, we explored the structure of a multi-layered story. One strand of the story is completely Chinese, with the local language, and a local cast and setting. We hoped that this element would engage the Chinese audience more than a completely foreign movie would. But there are so many other possibilities when it comes to creating films together. We just need to be open-minded and explore them.
What does it mean for you to be selected at the Beijing Film Festival?
Coffee will be released theatrically in China at the end of May, so its presence at Beijing will help the local distributor to promote the film not simply as a foreign movie, but as a production with a local hook. For the Chinese media to see their actors alongside a European director, treading the red carpet, giving some interviews and being photographed, creates a lot of interest. China is a huge country, and that is why – there more than anywhere else – the publicity created by a big show is fundamental in order to have visibility.
How do you think European producers can increase the number of co-productions with China?
First of all, we have to “understand”. As Europeans, we mostly know our own professional environment: the people, the procedures, whether it’s content, funding or promotion. But our long-term experience makes us instinctively believe that this is “the” system. However, if we want to approach China, we must first accept that what we take for granted here might not be valid there. We must somehow reset our codes and be ready to start from scratch. Also, we should realise that the Chinese know more about our world than we know about theirs. Some of us still have a very romantic notion of what China is, and others even refuse to face up to what the country is actually like. I think both approaches are wrong. Understanding is the first step towards facing up to a certain reality. For example, we should be aware of the fact that most of the country’s audiences are very young and are seeking highly commercial films. But also, the rapid development of their society is creating an ever-greater demand for quality movies. That’s an area where European filmmakers can make a big contribution. This need to understand each other and create a link between our film communities is why we created the Sino-European association Bridging the Dragon. And the enthusiasm around it shows that this need is becoming more and more relevant in the industry.
Do you think it is necessary to co-produce with a Chinese partner in order to get distribution there?
Foreign films can be distributed in China, but there is a yearly quota of film imports, mostly reserved for highly commercial studio pictures. In recent times, the quota has been loosened up slightly, but it is still a limitation on free distribution. An officially co-produced film will be considered as a national Chinese production and thus be released beyond the quota. The downside to this is that the film has to fulfil all the criteria for co-productions, including a content check by the censorship authorities. But besides these formalities, I think the crucial advantage of getting involved in a collaboration with a Chinese partner is the possibility of developing a film that is somehow suitable for that market. Making a film with China should mean being interested in bringing one’s story to a potentially enormous public – an audience very eager to be surprised by new and interesting movies. Hoping that China will be a pure source of financing for our European movies is bound to end in disappointment, because Chinese investors are interested first and foremost in their market, but also, this is ultimately a short-sighted point of view.
*By Valerio Caruso / cineuropa.org