Will Covid-19 Change Chinese Cinema Forever? In Conversation With Director Zhang Gang (Gary Zhang)

Summary: Today Oxford China Forum talks to Zhang Gang, noted animation director selected for consideration for the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival.

(This article was originally published in Simplified Chinese on Oxford China Forum’s WeChat Official Account (OCFOxfordChinaForum) on June 4th, 2020.)

Today’s guest: Zhang Gang (Gary Zhang), animation director

  • Set and character designer for the Kuiba trilogy, an acclaimed Chinese animated film series; director of Henxiyou, a fantasy animation series inspired by classical Chinese literature; founder of Chuxin Yinghua Animation Ltd.; children’s picture book author;
  • Animation director and producer for No. 7 Cherry Lane (featuring voice acting by Zhao Wei and Daniel Wu Yan-Zu), which was awarded Best Screenplay at the 76th Venice Film Festival and nominated for the Golden Lion

Topic: Chinese cinema during the pandemic

Left: Poster for Kuiba III; Right: Poster for No. 7 Cherry Lane

Key points:

  • Covid-19’s influence on animation is minimal, but it will majorly impact live-action cinema;
  • The sudden surge in online streaming and rentals is limited to the pandemic, and will not threaten the survival of theatres;
  • Chinese cinema’s future consumer model will be polarized;
  • Movies can be a ‘vaccine for the spirit’;

Interview Transcript

OCF: How has the pandemic affected live showings in Chinese theatres? Compared to other forms of media (television, music, variety shows), how is film uniquely affected?

Zhang: Here the impact is actually really big. Obviously theatres aren’t allowed to have live audiences, right? This cuts off communication with customers. So on the creative level, usually crews are quite large, and since reopening has only just begun, many crews still have all their work paused. So from the beginning to the premiere, especially on the offline market the impact is really quite big. Compared to other art forms, the most fundamental issue is that as long as you can move online, you won’t be too badly affected. But this changes the minute it ties into offline consumption. For example, things like going to a movie theatre to see a film, or running a crew, and especially filming live action. In contrast animation is relatively okay; I’m primarily an animation director, and our animation progress has actually been decent. We have things that can be done remotely, that don’t require many people working together. Basically the pandemic will impact any kind of work that requires gathering, not just film.

@动画导演张刚 (Weibo)

OCF: During the pandemic many people are in lockdown at home, hugely increasingly the demand for internet video content; how should we look at the impact of online consumption models on the film industry, and what are the benefits and drawbacks?

Zhang: I think what you’ve said is really accurate, especially since this phenomenon is very much limited to the pandemic period. If the virus is here to stay then people will only be able to watch films online; otherwise, in my opinion, everyone enjoys the real world more at the end of the day, and will visit movie theatres as a real-life activity once the pandemic is over. I think this model of consumption is fixed, because ultimately people are more interested in face-to-face communication. The pandemic is a unique period,which suddenly increases [demand for] this online consumption model; this is not just limited to film, but also includes education. Its benefit will be concentrated among cultural products that relate to the internet or can be made through remote collaboration. These products have seen their demands increase greatly, such as video games and animation. As for drawbacks, for film this means that crews can’t be assembled regularly; many people can’t work, so the early stages of production will be affected, thereby affecting the quantity of production, because ultimately not everything can be filmed and produced virtually.

@动画导演张刚 (Weibo)

OCF: Is film production exploring hidden new pathways during the pandemic? Might new trends such as the social internet benefit film production in some ways?

Zhang: I think ideas and creativity won’t be affected by the pandemic, but production will be affected. Because ultimately the creation of a film starts with storytelling, starts from real-life sources. So I actually think that there’s no problem in coming up with ideas for new films. In terms of production, it’s possible that with the invention of new technologies, especially VR, there can be new modes of production. And then in relation to the benefits and conveniences of the internet: at the moment I haven’t felt that there are any particular benefits. Personally I still prefer face-to-face discussions, there’s the right atmosphere.

OCF: Christopher Nolan recently said that with the closures of cinemas the film market is in great danger, but it can recover from short-terms losses. On the whole, what do you think about preserving the future of the film industry?

Zhang: I think the industry will be polarised. What I mean by that is those who have always stuck to watching films in cinemas will continue to do so. But let’s say the virus stays for the foreseeable future: in that case, those who don’t regularly visit the cinema, or those who have been consuming films online since they were born, these people will be very used to this mode of online consumption. I suppose this is about nurturing consumption habits.

@动画导演张刚 (Weibo)

OCF: After reopening, there definitely will be a lot of pandemic-related films. In your opinion, what themes should these films present?

Zhang: I think pandemic-themed films will come out for sure. The most important topics for them are definitely going to be sacrifice, fearlessness, and heroism, because I think these are the basic needs of human emotion. Since our human nature is selfish, self-preserving, and weak and cowardly, it is exactly this type of noble virtues that we look for. In facing a disaster, maybe a nation is able to develop these potentials. I think China performed very well this time, as many people went to the frontline to contribute their efforts. No matter if it’s doctors and nurses, PLA soldiers, our delivery workers, or company owners who didn’t fire their employees, these people all helped ensure stability in our society.

OCF: As an artistic form, what responsibility should film take on? Can film become a ‘vaccine for the spirit’ and heal the audience’s emotional trauma?

@三文娱 (Zhihu)

Zhang: I think any sort of pandemic-related art must bolster innate positivity among viewers, and let people know that art has power, that art is able to move people and make positive impact. These kinds of art have to take on social responsibilities. I think art is not only personal expression, but also socially impactful to a certain degree, and also socially responsible. I think film will for sure become a ‘vaccine for the spirit’, because in that moment, in that process of watching or the few hours afterwards, film moves you. But regarding the healing of emotional trauma, it can’t do that, but it can make people feel more optimistic.

Credits

The ‘Industry Handbooks for the Pandemic’ Interview Series is an original column by Oxford China Forum, aiming to explore how the Covid-19 pandemic brings about enormous shifts and severe challenges for Chinese and global industries and sectors.

Planning: Harry Liang, Qifeng He

Execution: Ronglin Ouyang, Jimmy Shi

Interview: Jimmy Shi

Copywriting: Harry Liang

Editing: Qifeng He

Typesetting: Ally Bo

Translation: Irene Airuo Zhang

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