Following a string of celebrity scandals, Chinese officials have told young filmmakers entering China’s top film school that their foremost task is to develop the “moral cultivation” necessary to further China’s rise in the world.
The Beijing Film Academy, cradle of the country’s top filmmaking talent, last week opened a major new campus in the capital’s northern Huairou district, an hour’s drive outside the urban center. At an outdoor opening ceremony, more than 1,000 new students sat in socially distanced rows to hear speeches from local government officials, administrators and notable alumni.
The school, which last year celebrated its 70th anniversary with a splashy party, has a deserved reputation for selecting and honing some of China’s foremost directing, performing and craft talent. Past alumni include Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Jia Zhangke, Huang Xiaoming, Zhou Dongyu, Zhao Wei and Ai Weiwei.
The overall message, hammered home repeatedly, was clear: work hard, shun excess and viral success, seek “moral cultivation,” and consider yourself an “art worker” seeking above all to forward the country’s development in accordance with President Xi Jinping’s eponymous philosophy.
“Students, you are lucky because you are in time for unprecedented opportunity in the historical development of our nation,” said Beijing Film Academy vice president and deputy Communist Party secretary Hu Zhifeng in the keynote speech. “You should be proud of this new era, and consciously and confidently shoulder the historical responsibility of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” using a central phrase of Xi’s indicating China’s movies return to its great power status.
Hu added that he hoped the students could “make use of their youth and become the ‘first generation of our strong country’ that can reassure the Party” with the knowledge that cultural production and its related politics are headed in the desired direction.
China is in the midst of its most dramatic crackdown yet on what officials have called an overly “chaotic” fan culture.
In the past month, some of China’s top celebrities have had their astronomically successful careers entirely derailed. First there was pop icon Kris Wu, who was arrested on suspicion of rape in mid-August. Then, there was TV darling Zheng Shuang, hit with a $46 million fine for tax evasion. Days later, Zhao Wei, one of the country’s most recognized names, had her name and past works wiped entirely from the Chinese web without warning or explanation.
Those incidents offer a “very strong warning,” Hu said.
“Even if you get countless fans for a while and your fan club is full, there is no way to develop steadily over the long-term… [without] constantly cultivating our own morality and character,” he said. “I hope that you will be… respected by the world instead of slipping down to the moral bottom, appearing superficially grand for a while before being cast aside.”
He urged students to become “shining stars” of humble virtue rather than blazing then burnt-out “shooting stars,” and to avoid creating the “ridiculed, substandard works” that he said currently plague the industry.
The Beijing Film Academy was founded in 1950 right at the start of the People’s Republic, and is the only public film institution of higher learning directly created by the Party and the state, speakers reminded students.
Its new Huairou outpost will “better serve the needs of the Party and country’s strategy to become a strong cultural power,” the China Youth Daily said.
Students will be helped along by a new campus six times the size of the Academy’s old stomping grounds in central Beijing’s Haidian district. It boasts eight cinemas and five sound stages, ranging from 400 square meters to 1,000 square meters in size.
China has recently banned the use of popularity and attractiveness lists and indexes to rank celebrities. Hu criticized the way those lists drove the widespread use of plastic surgery, calling stars engaging in such procedures “detached from life” and capable of creating only “cookie-cutter, empty and boring works.”
He called on performers instead to adhere to the “laws of artistic aesthetics” deemed desirable by the Party and “be an emissary of a beauty that delights, resonates and arouses the emotions, rather than an agitator for the artificial… [and] a pale, feeble beauty.”
Alum and “Nirvana in Fire” actor Leo Wu summed up the essence of the Party messaging in a speech of his own.
“Does our school train celebrities? I don’t think so,” he said. “I think what our school trains is film workers rooted in the masses.”