No one catches China's zeitgeist -- its passionate embrace of modernism and the tragicomic results -- like Feng Xiaogang, perhaps the most successful Chinese film director working on the mainland today. The 46-year-old Feng has made a string of hit comedies over the past six years satirizing modern China's materialistic society.
In one of his recent films, Big Shot's Funeral, friends and business associates of an ailing film director scheme how to turn his last rites into an opportunity for product placement. "A good commercial film should be connected to reality. And entertainment should not be separate from one's critique of social reality," says Beijing native Feng. He singles out Woody Allen as a favorite director -- and notes that while he likes fellow Chinese directors such as Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou, he thinks they sometimes depart too much from real life in their moviemaking.
Feng's latest hit, Cell Phone, certainly reflects contemporary reality. China is phone-mad. It boasts close to 300 million cell-phone users, the world's largest mobile population by a long shot, and they send some 300 million short messages every day. Cell Phone, which features Motorola Inc.'s (MOT ) 388C model, tells the story of a successful television announcer whose extramarital affairs are exposed when his wife accidentally reads some of the amorous mobile messages he sent to his mistress. Eventually his multiple deceptions -- all facilitated by his mobile phone -- lead to the breakup of his marriage and the loss of his job. Despite the unhappy ending, the film succeeds as a dark comedy through its depiction of how today's urban Chinese use their mobile phones to manage and sometimes deceive lovers, friends, and colleagues.
The movie, which has broken box-office records and has raked in $6.4 million (a large number by Chinese standards), has also created a stir. There have been a rash of media reports saying the film has sown marital discord when one spouse asks to inspect recent messages on the other's mobile phone. The furor prompted China Mobile, the national cell service, to issue a statement reassuring users about the privacy of their phone records. "A cell phone holds so many secrets that it can become dangerous," says Feng. "It can become a handheld bomb." In fact, he decided to make the movie after noticing members of his crew on an earlier film sneaking off to talk in private on their mobile phones.
Thanks to such insights, Feng, 46, is a rare species in China -- a serious filmmaker who makes serious money from his art. But a major challenge for Feng and all filmmakers is China's notoriously lax protection of intellectual property. Pirated DVDs of both local and foreign films usually appear on the street shortly after a movie's release. For Feng, one response has been to shorten the lead time between when a movie is given to a theater and when it is actually shown. "We used to hand over our film one month before release. Now we give it to them the morning of the day it opens," says Feng. He also aims to produce movies whose production values lend themselves to projection on the big screen.
Ultimately, Feng's goal is simple. "Many Chinese directors make movies for the Cannes, Venice, or the Berlin film festivals," says Feng, who got his start as an art designer and then scriptwriter for television dramas. "But they don't think about whether their movies will appeal to audiences." Feng's current project shows the other side of China's boom: A naive peasant takes a train home from his job in the big city, while a husband-and-wife team of thieves first scheme to steal the peasant's precious savings, then have a change of heart after seeing his honesty. Ultimately, they protect him from others out to rob him. A story of compassion and cruelty -- like countless stories in today's China.