Chinese movies: The “express way” of development

Chinese movies have now entered the “express way” of development. In 2010, the Chinese box office revenue exceeded 10 billion yuan for the first time, an increase of 63.9% over 2009. Seven years ago, the box office income was only one billion yuan.

Chinese movies
In the mood for love, Wong Kar-Wai (2000)

Confucius Institute Reporters
Sun Ying
本刊记者 孙颖
Chinese audiences are placing higher demands on movies partly because the number and variety of movies are increasing. Another important reason is that, for the Chinese, movies are not only a kind of entertainment, but also play a very important part in their lives.

On a Friday night, a dozen people line up in front of the ticket window at the Capital Cinema, while many others gather before the marquee, checking the show times of more than ten movies of the day. In the waiting lounge, trailers of the movies to be shown soon can be seen on another screen in front of which all the seats are taken.

This is a common scene here every night, especially on holidays like Spring Festival or summer vacation. In the first half of this year, this cinema with the history of 75 years has ranked first among all cinemas in the country, with its box office income exceeding 30 million yuan. Movies have become a very important part of life for the Chinese people.

Chinese movies
From black-white to colors, 2D to 3D, the Chinese movie experiences rapid development.


52-year-old Mr. Wang and his wife are in the lounge waiting for the movie to start. “Now there are so many movies that we two find it difficult to decide which to watch” said Mr. Wang. Finally, they decided to watch the Chinese movie Overheard 2.

Although Mr. Wang seldom comes to the cinema now, he was a movie fan when he was young. He said: “At that time it was a big occasion to watch a movie. I would get very excited every time I went to the cinema. I remember when The Flower Girl was just out, a lot of people stayed up all night waiting in line to get a ticket — just like buying train tickets.”

The Flower Girl was a dubbed film introduced into China from North Korea in the 1970s. At that time, almost all the foreign movies were from the socialist countries and the themes of Chinese movies were generally about revolution; so, people made up a doggerel characterizing the Chinese movie market of that time: “Romanian movies are romantic; Korean – tragic; Albanian – confusing; Vietnamese – war-themed; and Chinese but news digests.”

Theme song from the classic DPRK movie “The Flower Girl”.

Even though the movie market situation was thus, watching them was still very popular because, at that time, there was no TV, Internet or other option. Especially in the countryside, on hearing a movie would be shown in a village, people from far and wide would go to watch it. Sometimes there were so many people that some of them even climbed on the roofs or up into trees for a better view. And others went to the back for the translucent screen because there was no room left in the front. Mr. Wang recalled: “At that time in China, we would watch the same movie many times.”

Chinese movies
Commemorative stamp of the movie Ding Junshan, which made its debut in 1905, marks the beginning of Chinese movie.

This situation didn’t change until the 1980s. With the acceleration of Chinese economic development and urbanization, cinemas began to spring up all over the country. The movie market was also richer in numbers and genre. In 1982, Shaolin Temple was shown, causing a sensation in China and abroad and making Chinese kung fu famous around the world. In 1988, Red Sorghum directed by Zhang Yimou won the Golden Bear Award in the Berlin International Film Festival — the first time a Chinese movie won an award in an international film competition. Since then, Chinese movies have become popular worldwide. Meanwhile, more and more Western movies have been introduced into China and they are no longer confined to those of socialist countries; more movies from countries like the U.S., the U.K. and ROK are shown.

Red Sorghum excerpt

At present, Chinese and foreign movies each comprise 50 percent of the Chinese movie market. More genre of movies can be seen now — comedies, sci-fi, suspense, and animation, as well as classic “costume” and martial arts movies. In addition, motion picture techniques have rapidly improved. With the help of computers, there are more interesting plots and more beautifully framed scenes. Every film season, there are one or two 3D movies offering a total “immersion” experience.

In 2010, the Chinese box office revenue exceeded 10 billion yuan for the first time, an increase of 63.9% over 2009. Seven years ago, the box office income was only one billion yuan. From 1905 to 2010, the Chinese movie went through a hundred years and has now entered the “express way” of development.

IMAX movie is becoming popular in China.
IMAX movie is becoming popular in China.


The development of the Chinese movie is now surprisingly fast. But compared with the box office income increase of over 60%, the number of cinema-goers has grown slowly. Statistics show that urban viewers in 2009 were 210 million and only increased by 40 million in 2010; countrywide, this means that the average person in China goes to the cinema every five years. Just like Mr. Wang, many people don’t go to the cinema because they think the tickets are too expensive. “In the past, a ticket only cost less than one yuan, but now it costs 70 or 80 yuan, more than 100 times that of the past. Although our income at that time was low, the current income is not 100 times as much as it was.” Mr. Wang said.

Zhang Kuan, born in 1980s, didn’t go through what Mr. Wang did, but he also believes the ticket price is rather high. Zhang Kuan told us that he usually watches movies online, and if he really wants to go to the cinema he buys cheap tickets through a group purchase. Today there are many people like Zhang Kuan who try all means to get discount tickets, some by group purchase online, some by promotions offered by the cinemas. For example, many cinemas sell tickets at half price on Tuesdays; this has drawn many people to the cinemas on those days.

A movie fan living overseas tells us that in France an average ticket is 9 euro — about 80 yuan, while in the U.S. a ticket is 12 US dollars — about 70 yuan. Taking per capita income into consideration, a ticket costs one-four-hundredth of the monthly income of a person in the U. S., but one-fortieth of the monthly income of a person in China.

Some movie tickets are difficult to get even though the ticket prices are quite high. At the end of 2010, the IMAX-3D Avatar movie was introduced into China and immediately became a hit. Although the ticket price reached 200 yuan, many people still rushed to the cinema to get one. The marquees in most IMAX cinemas showed that the tickets were “Sold Out” — like stock prices in the stock market reaching the surge limit several days in a row. In the first half of 2011, Kung Fu Panda 2 was another huge success; its box office income reached 600 million yuan, becoming the topgrossing movie in China in the first half of this year. A young man who came to watch a movie said: “What I care more about is whether we can see good movies with good stories.” He said it was all right for him to spend one or two hundred yuan monthly to watch a movie if it was really what he liked. “But there are not so many good movies.” he lamented.

Chinese movies


Chinese audiences are placing higher demands on movies partly because the number and variety of movies are increasing. Another important reason is that, for the Chinese, movies are not only a kind of entertainment, but also play a very important part in their lives. People often say that a song can convey the memory of a generation; a movie has the same capability. Many people of Mr. Wang’s age still like joking with each other by referring to some role in a movie they saw when they were young. For instance, a brave man in their words is “a brave Mihai”. This alludes to a character in a Romanian movie. It tells of the Romanian national hero Mihai who led people to fight against oppression and for the independence of the nation. The person who is referred to as “Mihai” will smile meaningfully as if they were talking in the secret code that only people of their age can understand.

Mr. Wang said: “If someone can talk easily about the roles in old movies and sing their theme songs, I feel I have some shared memories and experiences with that person, reminding me of the time I was young — precious and beautiful time.” Not just middle-aged people have such thoughts. Post 80s generation folk like Zhang Kuan have the same feeling. “When I meet people born after the 90s, we talk about newly released movies. There would be nothing to say if we tried to talk about movies I saw when I was a child,” he said.

Chinese movies
Watching movies in the open air has been a common memory of the Chinese people.

Movies are like a time machine that can put the scenes of every era before our eyes. But at the same time, it can provide good opportunities to deepen our understanding. Although TV and the Internet are in almost every household, many young people still like to go to the cinema on holidays and weekends with friends, lovers or families. Now in the Chinese cinemas, the majority of viewers are between 20 and 30 years of age. A movie market research report shows that cinemagoers in China average 21.7 years of age.

No matter whether for the young or middle-aged, on the Internet or in reality, movies are hot topics among people in their spare time, and movies have become an indispensable indulgence in their lives. Movies have such great charm that they can help billions forget their worries and relax, or cry and laugh with the movie characters, or imagine the future world.

The famous film producer Han Sanping once said: “What is a movie? A movie is a dream you are seeing or experiencing in two hours in the dark, something that you cannot see or experience in reality, like human emotions, family love, wars, disasters, or even the doomsday of human beings.” We sometimes really need such a period of time to have a dream.


pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 16. Volume 5. September 2011.
View/Download the print issue in PDF


You may also like


Email Newsletter

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This