BEIJING — Eva Jin isn’t the only female director making waves in China. This year alone, Zhao Wei’s “So Young” made nearly $115 million and Xue Xiaolu’s “Finding Mr. Right” took in $85 million.
Shaoyi Sun, a professor of film and TV at Shanghai University, attributed their success in part to the demographic of Chinese filmgoers. “Today’s audiences are composed of white-collar office workers and dating couples, which is why rom-coms and films with sex politics in the office are on the rise,” he said.
But Tan Ye, a Chinese cinema expert at the University of South Carolina, said credit also goes to these women’s strong storytelling chops. “They have a good nose for audience appetites and cook up what they want.”
See video trailers from each director below.
After a succession of flops, actress-turned-director Zhao Wei silenced critics with her directorial debut “So Young,” about a love triangle among three college students set in the 1990s, when Chinese society was swept up by economic reforms. (The movie was her Beijing Film Academy graduation project.) The doe-eyed actress shot to fame in 1998 after playing the leading role in a TV series, “Princess Pearl.”
Li Xun, a fellow at the China Film Art Research Center, said Zhao, 37, was skillful in evoking a sense of nostalgia. “Chinese audiences are getting nostalgic for the past despite being relatively young in age, which reflects how fast society is changing,” he said. “She capitalized on this … and created a very college-specific dialogue mixed with terms from both the ‘90s and more recently, which appealed to a wide range of moviegoers.”
Imagine polymath James Franco being Chinese and female and you’ll get an idea of actress-turned-director Xu Jinglei, 39. On top of writing China’s most-read blog (100 million page views in 600 days, according to China Daily) and editing an online magazine, she has picked up multiple awards in her 15-year acting career.
Her first two films — “My Father and I” and “Letter From an Unknown Woman” — earned critical acclaim (and best director at the San Sebastian Film Festival in 2004). Critics panned her third movie, “Dreams May Come,” an experimental film shot in one setting, and since then, she has dived headfirst into directing romantic comedies, such as 2010’s “Go Lala Go!” for which “Sex and the City” stylist Patricia Field served as the costume advisor.
Li Yu, 39, burst onto the scene in 2001, selling her house to finance “Fish and Elephant,” billed as the first mainland Chinese feature to deal with lesbians. The movie scooped up prizes at the Venice and Berlin film festivals. Her next films, “Dam Street” and “Lost in Beijing,” won her a reputation for being provocative, with their unflinching portrayal of sexual politics and nude scenes.
But since “Lost” was banned from Chinese cinemas after five days, Li has walked a fine line between not upsetting the censors and tackling serious subjects. Her 2010 “Buddha Mountain” took on the subject of China’s one-child policy and earned a respectable $11.7 million.
It’s an age-old story of a materialistic woman eschewing riches for true love, but in China — where a dating TV show contestant’s defiant quote, “I’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh on the back seat of a bicycle,” became a national catchphrase — “Finding Mr. Right” was a fresh breath of air. Xue, 42, a Beijing Film Academy professor and acclaimed screenwriter, wrote and directed the box office hit, her sophomore effort. (Her debut, “Ocean Heaven,” a tear-jerker about a father and his autistic son starring Jet Li, flopped at the box office despite critical acclaim.)
“Mr. Right” appears to be a slapstick comedy but cleverly weaves in touchy issues such as money worship, mistresses-for-hire and going abroad to give birth. Sun said that he liked the film “not for its plot but for how Xue could pull this off as a coherent and engaging story.”