Marco Mueller: Bringing Chinese Films to the West
Main image: Marco Mueller is a film historian, film producer, chief consultant of Pingyao International Film Festival, artistic director of Shanghai University Film Art Center and a distinguished professor of Shanghai Film Academy.
In 1981, Marco Mueller who at the time was the Asian film consultant of the Venice International Film Festival, introduced Chinese films to the world stage by taking The Savage Land to Venice. During his 40 years of leading international film festivals such as those at Pesaro, Rotterdam, Locarno, Venice and Rome, Mueller brought Chinese directors such as Kaige Chen, Zhuangzhuang Tian, Yimou Zhang, and Zhangke Jia to the international stage. Consequently, he is reputed to be "the first person to bring Chinese films to the world".
How is it that these Chinese films able to shine on Western screens and become famous globally? As a "China Expert" who has lived in China for more than 40 years, how does Mueller view the cultural differences between China and Italy? How does he view the development of Chinese films as the Chinese box office is raking in 40 billion RMB a year? During the Pingyao International Film Festival, the China News Service “East Meets West” column conducted an exclusive interview with Mueller.
What prompted you to travel all of the way from Italy to study in China 40 years ago?
I started learning Chinese at the age of 16 (in 1969) and attended a night school run by the Italian China Friendship Association. With the establishment of diplomatic relations between Italy and China in 1970, the two countries opened up student exchanges. I was included in the first group of Italian students sent to China after the founding of the People's Republic of China and studied popular literature at Liaoning University. During that time, I watched a lot of Chinese Model Opera films and films made by socialist countries such as Albania and Romania, which led me to develop a strong interest in Chinese film.
Image: People waiting for admission in front of the WangSu Cinema in Heihe City in 1979. Credit: China News, Qilong Qiu
After Chinese New Year in 1977, a large number of old films hit cinema screens. I realized that Chinese films have a long history and are in fact really diverse. In the space of a year, I watched over 150 Chinese films. One evening in the summer of 1977, I watched Jin Xie's The Red Detachment of Women at a stadium in Nanjing, and was drawn to his unique film style almost immediately. Two years later, I became Jin Xie’s “apprentice”, and it was then that I began to study Chinese films from the 1930s and 1940s. I felt that Chinese films needed more overseas audiences, so in early 1982, I decided to do a large-scale retrospective of Chinese films in Europe (Turin, Italy), which screened 135 Chinese films.
Image: In 1998, the National Ballet of China performed The Red Detachment of Women in Hong Kong, which attracted significant media attention. Credit: China News, Zuoheng Yang
In 1980, you brought Chinese director Zi Ling's film The Savage Land to the Venice International Film Festival, becoming “the first person to bring Chinese films to the world”. What do you think these "exported" Chinese films have in common?
In 1977, China resumed the college entrance examination. After schools reopened in 1978, a group of newcomers appeared at the Beijing Film Academy, and they were full of new ideas for films. At the time, the films I watched were all made by Zhuangzhuang Tian, Yimou Zhang and Kaige Chen. After watching the short film Our Corner, which was directed by Zhuangzhuang Tian, screen wrote by Kaige Chen, and filmed by Yimou Zhang, I told them, "In the future, when you make feature films, I will definitely find a way to bring them to Venice and Europe."
Later, like Yimou Zhang's Red Sorghum, these films brought the strong tones of China’s local culture to Europe. Wen Jiang and Li Gong have shown overseas audiences a different style of performance from previous Chinese actors. It was as if they had suddenly opened a new window for overseas audience to better understand China. Another example is Kaige Chen's Yellow Earth, after it was screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, I sent it to the Locarno International Film Festival. For the first time it was screened in non-Chinese speaking regions. Kaige Chen didn't have a passport at the time. I took to the stage on his behalf to introduce the film and said, "This is an important source of inspiration for new Chinese films."
August 2003, the 9th Huabiao Awards for Chinese Films was announced in Beijing. Hero directed by Yimou Zhang won two awards; Special Contribution Award and Outstanding Co-production Film. The picture shows Kaige Chen presenting the Special Contribution Award to Yimou Zhang. Credit: China News, Zhonglin Wu.
It was at this time that Western media outlets began to discover that popular Chinese films had their unique styles. Although there were still significant cultural differences between China and Europe, these famous Chinese directors decided not to make cross-cultural films, but focused on China’s local culture, allowing more overseas audiences to fall in love with Chinese culture.
One of the important reasons why this group of directors was able to succeed in international film festivals was the significant development of Chinese literature. Many of these films have been adapted from literary works, and those works embody a profound understanding of contemporary Chinese society. Communication between China and European countries has not ceased since. Writers, artists and filmmakers often come to Europe for cultural exchanges. Chinese contemporary literature has begun to be translated into many languages, and Chinese culture has gradually become an indispensable part of Western everyday culture.
May 2014, at the 67th Cannes International Film Festival, the premiere and special screening of Yimou Zhang's new work Coming Home, director Yimou Zhang and starring Li Gong, Daoming Chen and Huiwen Zhang walked down the red carpet. Credit: China News, Jianwu Long.
After more than 40 years of observing China, what do you think are the main differences between Chinese and Italian cultures?
In fact, what I do is to make more people realize that Italy and China are not actually that different. Looking back, the work I have done can be divided into two stages. The first stage was to introduce China to the world through film. The second stage was to enable ordinary overseas audiences to watch Chinese films and understand the world from a Chinese perspective. By the mid-1990s, Chinese films gradually began to be accepted by the western world, and they were no longer regarded as belonging to the "mysterious culture from the East".
In 2021, the total box office of Chinese films exceeded 40 billion CNY, ranking the top in the world. What do you predict for the future of Chinese films?
Over the past two years, there has been a debate in the Chinese film industry. Some ask: "Should Chinese films continue to maintain their own unique cultural style, or should they follow Hollywood and shoot super blockbusters?" We must not forget that Chinese films are very diverse and China's audiences are also very diverse. Taking the hipster (artsy young adults) audience as an example, China has 10 or even 20 times more of them than Italy. For example: I often go to the Grand Theatre to watch films in Shanghai, the largest cinema theatre there can accommodate more than 1000 people, however it is still often overcrowded, sometimes all of the tickets are sold out. This shows that the Chinese demand for films is still very strong, including literary and artistic films. I think the future of Chinese films will definitely move in the direction of this kind of diversification.
February 2021, audiences watch a film at a cinema in Taiyuan, Shanxi. Credit: China News, Yun Zhang.
As the chairman of numerous international film festivals, how important are Chinese film festivals for the future development of global culture?
I think the most important thing is to discover new Chinese filmmakers. Especially those that attend the Pingyao International Film Festival, which focuses on new directors globally. We have been introducing new directors to audiences and media at home and abroad, precisely because they are young, and are able to observe contemporary society. This can make an important contribution to global culture.
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