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Reel China: Lauded 'Black Coal, Thin Ice' hopes for audience at home

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BEIJING -- The Chinese Film “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” which took home the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival last month, has cleared censorship and will arrive in mainland theaters March 21. But the question now hanging over director Diao Yinan’s noirish tale is: Will anyone go see it?

At a press conference last week unveiling new posters for the film, Diao was peppered with questions from Chinese reporters, asking him whether the festival win would brand the movie as “too artistic” and scare off prospective viewers.

After his victory in Berlin, the director had predicted big box office for the film, which he said is both commercial and artistic. But he backed off a bit in Beijing, telling reporters he “was drunk” when he made his boastful prognostications. His lead actor, Liao Fan, even asked Diao half-jokingly if he wanted to “apologize” for winning the Berlin prize and dooming the box office.

FULL COVERAGE: Reel China

“Black Coal, Thin Ice” tells the story of a washed-up former police officer investigating a series of killings. Liao, who plays the cop, took home the Silver Bear for best actor, the first Chinese actor to do so.

It is the fourth movie from the mainland to win the Golden Bear. Previous winners were Xie Fei's "Women From the Lake of Scented Souls" (a.k.a. “Woman Sesame-Oil Maker”) in 1993, Zhang Yimou's "Red Sorghum" in 1988 and "Tuya's Marriage," by Wang Quan'an in 2007.

It took some eight years for Diao -- an artistic type who speaks softly and could easily be mistaken for a mathematics graduate student -- to complete the movie.

Asked his biggest challenges, he noted that some of the shooting took place in bitter cold in northern China, with the temperature dropping to 45 degrees below (Celsius) and some of the equipment ceasing to work.

But that was “nothing compared to the pressure of finding investors,” he said. “The former was a physical test, but the investors -- that was psychologically trying.”

'Robocop' is no match for 'Smaug'

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” topped the mainland Chinese box office for the second week in a row, grossing $26.98 million in the seven days ending Sunday, consulting firm Artisan Gateway said Tuesday.

That was enough to hold off challenger “Robocop,” another MGM production, which opened Friday and scored an estimated $20 million over its first three days, according to data from Artisan.

Next week, the Aaron Paul-starrer “Need for Speed” will arrive in theaters in China, getting a day-and-date release with the U.S. on March 14.

Paul is well known to audiences in China from his TV series “Breaking Bad,” which is popular viewing online.

China still waiting for 'A Touch of Sin'

Chinese director Jia Zhangke took home the best screenplay award at Cannes last year, and many stateside critics -- including the L.A. Times’ Kenneth Turan -- put it on their lists of top foreign films for 2013.

The New York Times’ A.O. Scott and Mahnola Dargis went a step further, saying it deserved to be nominated for Oscars, including best picture, screenplay, supporting actress and supporting actor.

The film has been released stateside, but because the movie hasn’t been seen in theaters in China, it wasn’t even eligible for an Academy Award.

And at this rate, it’s looking as though censors may never let it be.

On the eve of the Oscars, Asia Society writer Jonathan Landreth took a look at what’s behind the delay for the much-lauded film, which is full of violence, corruption and despair ripped from the headlines of modern China.

China’s official Oscar entry, Feng Xiaogang’s wartime hunger epic “1942,” didn’t make the final cut of five nominees.

“The Grandmaster,” from Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, was a contender for best cinematography and  costume design but went home Sunday night empty-handed.

Tommy Yang in the Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

Twitter: @JulieMakLAT

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