Novelists open new chapter for booming China film industry

Chinese novelist Geling Yan
Chinese novelist Geling Yan

Acclaimed Chinese novelist Geling Yan has become accustomed to reaching a wide audience both at home and abroad.

But nothing could have prepared her for the attention she has received since film director Zhang Yimou picked up one of her novels and turned it into "The Flowers of War", Chinas biggest box office smash of the past 12 months.

"To see my work made into such a grand piece of cinema has made me very happy, it has been quite a shock," said Yan of the production, adapted from her novel "The 13 Women of Nanjing".

"Im flattered, of course, and it will introduce my written work to a whole new audience. Any novelist in the world would love that."

As Chinas rapidly expanding film industry continues to break new ground -- and set new records -- filmmakers are increasingly looking to literary adaptations for their inspiration.

The Chinese film industry collected an estimated 13.1 billion yuan ($2.07 billion) in 2011 -- up 29 per cent -- and around 2,500 more cinema screens are expected to be unveiled across the country this year.

With the government-enforced quota of just 20 international films allowed in for screening each year still in place, its an industry in need of productions and ideas. Plenty of published authors are ready to share them.

Zhangs production starred Oscar-winning American actor Christian Bale and collected around $90 million from the Chinese box office while picking up a nomination for best foreign language film at the prestigious Golden Globes in the United States.

While a much sought-after Oscars nomination was not forthcoming despite the film being put forward as China's official entry for those awards, "Flowers" is up for six of the Asian Film Awards, to be announced on March 19, including best film and best director.

For Yan, the success could not have come at a better time.

"Any film or television series based on your work is good because in the literary field, the readership everywhere is shrinking," says Yan, who helped write the screenplay for "The Flowers of War" and made her name in the literary world through novels such as "The Lost Daughter of Happiness."

"In China, like in the United States, what you might call serious literature is going downhill but movies being adapted will give these works a wider audience.

"It doesnt really matter how they adapt my work, or what the directors vision of my work is, making it into a film simply means for me that more people will then read the original material. So the more this can happen, the happier I will be."

Yans novel was set around the infamous "Rape of Nanking (Nanjing)" by Japanese forces in 1937. She believes part of the attraction for a filmmaker such as Zhang was the fact that the setting of her tale was historical.

"It is easier to get these sorts of films made because they dont touch on contemporary subjects and so dont have any problems with censorship," Yan explains.

-- Films that work in "the West and East" --

According to Marysia Juszczakiewicz, founder of the Hong Kong-based Peony Literary Agency, the next step is to find work that appeals both inside and outside China.

Juszczakiewiczs company has sold book rights to Yans novel into the US, the UK, France, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Spain, South Korea, Vietnam and Thailand following the success of the film adaptation.

"It is not easy to find stories that will work in film simultaneously in the West and East, a story that would not be censored in China but one that also has mass appeal in the West," she says.

"It is still early days for the film industry. But I think "The Flowers of War" is the beginning of such ventures and there will be many more to come. It is another wonderful way of bridging the gap between East and West."

Film director Pang Ho-cheung has a unique take on the topic, having begun his creative career as a writer of the successful novel "Fulltime Killer" before moving on to direct films such as the award-winning "Isabella" (2006).

He agrees that the weight of demand from the Chinese film industry for stories is opening up unprecedented opportunities for writers to see their work adapted for the screen, a process he believes will be aided by a loosening of Chinas censorship.

"You cant deny that the mass audience still prefers big, historical epics, and they are attracted by the vast scenes and the engulfing atmosphere," says Pang, saying however that audiences' "horizons are broadening".

"On top of that, the censorship boards have slowly started to loosen up, so I think this can be slowly changed, only the change will take a long time."

Hong Kong-based author Duncan Jepson, who has produced the award-winning feature film "Rice Rhapsody" (2004) and was also involved in making documentary "Hanging Coffins" (2005) -- has recently had his "All The Flowers in Shanghai" published.

The novel, which traces the story of a Chinese woman forced into an arranged marriage in 1940s Shanghai, seems tailor-made for a big-screen adaptation and the writer readily admits that this is increasingly becoming a consideration for those who write in and about China.

"I would be very interested to see someone take a crack at it," says Jepson. "It is always interesting, bad or good, to see how one person interprets another's work, particularly, in the case of book to film, from a visual and narrative perspective."

For her part Yan said she was "delighted" by the screen adaptation of her novel and hopes there will be more such projects to come.

"There is lots of hot money in China to make movies and television because the domestic market is so very big," she says. "There is so much money to be made and so much money around to make movies.

"It is a way for the world to see Chinas creative work and a way for our work as writers to reach out to the world."