Where Does China’s Virtual Reality Industry Stand in 2017?

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The Chinese VR industry is increasingly making headlines, both for Bloomberg’s much quoted estimate that it will be worth $8.5bn by 2020, and because it has been the first to monetize VR in any meaningful way.  Surveys show that Chinese consumers are willing to pay more than $15 per month for good content. The problem, and the opportunity, is that currently, there is very little of it.

Kevin Geiger is here to help.  The former Disney CG artist first landed in Beijing in 2008 to produce projects and teach, going on to serve as Disney China’s Vice President and Head of Creative.  A little over a year ago he founded the International Animation & Virtual Reality Research Center (iAVRrc), a virtual and augmented reality content development studio operated by China’s leading film school, the Beijing Film Academy (BFA).  Between the center, his content production company (Magic Dumpling), a regular LinkedIn presence, AWN.com blog and his own online journal, the Ohioan has become one of the more prominent western voices in Chinese animation and virtual reality.

We joined Geiger to get his take on the domestic industry at the end of 2016.

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PIG: In traditional media, China is generally seen to be a step back from the rest of the world.  That appears to have changed with VR.  Would you agree? 

Kevin Geiger:  In many areas of VR, China is ahead of the game.  In terms of the energy level, China ranks number one.  In terms of just the pervasive amount of hardware and software development, number one.  On quality of the locally developed hardware and software, I would not say number one. Catching up, but still back a step from the rest of the world.  There are far more experience zones in China than there are in the U.S. Even though they may be lower grade, they’re very pervasive.  There’s not nearly as much content being developed here as elsewhere for VR, and not nearly of the quality.  It feels like every VR content startup in the West is drawing on Pixar, Sony, Disney or Dreamworks for people to jump into the fray.  China doesn’t really have that bench depth, and with the investment weariness in content, people are waiting to see who else is doing what before they jump in. And, frankly, there are a lot of restrictions.  If you’re developing VR games, you fall into regulatory restrictions where have a one to four month regulatory approval period.  If you’re a startup trying to get a game onto the shelf so you can recoup your investment, that can kill you.  And of course, the content itself is tempered.  Censorship does have a chilling effect on the entire ecosystem of creative development and production, and that’s not necessarily in the service of the business, the industry, or even, ultimately, the culture.

image2iAVRrc Project: Story Forest

PIG:  Why is investment in content lagging behind hardware?

KG: Investors understand that content is the important thing.  They know it, but they really don’t have the stomach for it.  It’s more secure – but I think a false security – to invest in a widget, a piece of hardware or software, as opposed to an IP.  If you don’t get the returns you want and you’ve invested in something physical, you can sell it off and recoup something.  With IP, it’s not always the case.  I was at an event yesterday where investors were talking about their disenchantment with content, saying, “We’re pulling back from investing in content. We’re going to focus on hardware and hope the content that’s developed uses that hardware.”  I’m biased, because I’m a content guy, but I was a little surprised to hear that stated so bluntly.  It seemed a regressive approach to me, but I respect their points of view.

image3iAVRrc Project: Hutong Hunt

PIG: Do you think that attitude is widespread across China’s virtual reality industry?

KG:  I hope not.  Investors in general run the range from informed to uninformed, and from bold to risk averse.  China has enough people in every area of the ecosystem that even if 200 people say they’re not investing in content anymore, there are thousands more who are. I don’t think it’s necessarily epidemic and certainly Alvin Wang (China Regional President, HTC Vive) said he doesn’t see a chilling effect.  From his point of view, even though investors are asking more questions, he sees a widespread enthusiasm for the entire chain: hardware, software content distribution.

PIG: Which China-created VR experiences have impressed you?

KG:  I was impressed by Noitom’s Project Alice here in Beijing – this mixed reality experience of physically holding a bar stool in my hand, feeling the weight and the shape of it and seeing a digital representation of it in VR.  I was very aware that I was in VR, and the CGI rendering was not photoreal, but it didn’t have to be. It was so compelling that, very quickly, the other things in the room that were not mapped to a physical object became dangerous because I would want to sit on something that didn’t turn out to have a physical corollary.  When I visited their lab, the enthusiasm of the team really had that buzz that you expect at the best places.  It’s a big loft space with a 3D printer for rapid prototyping pieces of hardware on the fly.  There’s this middle aged Chinese seamstress on an old Singer sewing machine stitching together plastic and spandex full body suits. Espresso machines every five meters. Just the energy and the enthusiasm of the people working there is encouraging to me.

paNoitom Project Alice

PIG: With the dearth of truly spectacular experiences or a real business model, the West is arguably in the “trough of disillusionment” when it comes to VR.  Can we expect something similar in China?

KG: Friends of mine in Chinese companies, whether they’re developing content or software, have said it was much easier to get money in Summer 2015 than it is has been this Summer (2016).  The people who are still investing have more questions than they used to, whereas before they were just throwing money at you.   The silver lining is that it will separate the serious from the non-serious and have everybody take a breath and figure out, okay, what is the business model?  Everybody with their heads on fire, as they were a year ago, doesn’t necessarily mean that something’s being accomplished.  If everybody just starts developing hardware, software or content, without any real way to distribute it, with no pipeline, then it’s all just a lot of pomp and circumstance for nothing. 

Investors need to really think about if they’re in it for the long term or not. Especially in China, many investors are very unrealistic in terms of the simple mathematics of how long it takes to get a return.  Take the time of development, production, post and the approval process time – which in China is one month to a half year – then add the distribution, and only then is your first revenue trickling back.  You’re talking about a year or two at least before you can start to see any kind of revenue, let alone profit.  So if you’re not in it for that, don’t waste your time or the time of the people who you’re giving money to.  A VR startup with investors that want a quick turnaround on profit is always required to undercut the more innovative things it’s trying to do and come out with a dumbed-down, scaled-down version, just to try to make a quick buck.

If investors do have a stomach for it, I think there’s a payoff.  I see a future and that’s why I’m involved, but it’s not a quick buck kind of situation.  It’s going to be about putting money in, whether that’s an investor, or a producer like myself deferring fees on a project that I think will advance something.  I think that’s really what’s required to get the seriousness that you need for true progress.

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PIG: What does the International Animation and Virtual Reality Research Center do?

KG: We’re squarely focused on content, across virtual, augmented and mixed reality.  We’re trying to demonstrate that it’s possible to create Chinese content in China by Chinese that follows the prescriptions of what’s permissible, but can also still be engaging.  The Deans of the school gave me a pretty wide berth, but the two guidelines are: one, everything we do has to represent Chinese culture and represent it in a favorable way, and two, that there should be some educational component.  That might sound like a recipe for disaster, where you’re going to end up with this didactic or preachy bit of content, right?  That’s what we’re trying not to do.  We’re trying to have the medicine taste good so that you don’t notice that you’re being taught something.

Ang Lee’s Whole Shebang

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Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is the first feature film ever to be shot at 120 frames per second, overtaking second-placed The Hobbit (48 fps), which had doubled the industry standard 24 fps.  Lee describes the combo of 3D, 4K HD and 120 fps as “The Whole Shebang”.

China has embraced the film, a China-US-UK coproduction, more than any other market, bringing the greatest box office returns, partly due to Lee’s popularity and partly because of a widespread penchant for new technology.  Two of the six theatres worldwide capable of projecting the film in all its glory were in China.  Hollywood executives and US audiences meanwhile, were largely unmoved. 

Critical reaction to the 120 fps has been mixed. Some have called it “too real” or a distraction.  Others have pointed out that the ‘hyper-realism’ it creates exposes the artifice of the performance.  Variety’s Brent Lang delivered a balanced critique, concluding, “[the film] represents both a massive step forward for moviemaking and a painful reminder that innovation comes at a price. It is a beautiful mess.”

At the ICEVE conference at the Beijing Film Academy this month, the movie’s 3D Stereographer & Stereo Supervisor, Demetri Portelli proclaimed on stage, “I want to document this film in history as an important event.”  We caught up with him to find out why.

Ang LeeAng Lee

120 fps “the ultimate solution”

When Ang Lee was looking for an “independent spirit” to help him realise his ambitious new project for under $50m with just 49 days shoot, he came looking for Portelli and digital engineer partner, Ben Gervais.  Following $150m-plus budget 3D projects with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, and 47 Ronin, the duo had confounded critics by proving that 3D could be efficient and affordable, delivering the 3D and VFX for Jean Paul Jeunet’s The Young and Prodigious T.S Spivet for under $2m in an overall project that cost less than $30m.

OZ4A4513Demetri Portelli, 3D Stereographer & Stereo Supervisor of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk at the ICEVE conference, Beijing

After Life of Pi, Lee was looking for a crisper image.  Working at 24fps, he encountered a problem with motion and strobing when editing close-ups. “It was an ability to ‘lock in’ your eyes and look at somebody”, says Portelli. “He wanted to go to a high frame rate so that when you look at the face, you can lock in and hold your gaze on an actor’s eyes and stay there.  That’s really important in communicating with the audience and having a true experience.” 

LPLife of Pi, directed by Ang Lee, 2012

Lee also wanted to separate himself from the classic film aesthetic. “Ang said, “I think you guys were all wrong on Hugo.  You got the Alexa and tried to make a digital film look like an old movie.  What’s wrong with taking a digital camera and trying to find new aesthetics that are intrinsic to digital cinema?  We need artists to explore.”

The initial thinking was to shoot at differing frame rates – 24, 48, 60, 120 – which would have required commitment to decisions in principal photography.  Shooting everything at 120 would mean capturing substantially more data – around 7.5 to 10 terabytes a day, roughly 40 times that of a normal 2D film – but would provide high quality images for every shot and ultimate flexibility in post.

In Lee’s office, in a custom-built postproduction unit cooled with powerful air conditioning, Lee exercised that freedom, adjusting the frame rate, depth and resolution to complement and enhance the action. “There are shots at 24 and 60 where he drops the aesthetic down to 2K to give it the old movie feeling,” says Portelli.  “You can ramp scenes from 18 fps to 30 to 48.  Maybe you’re in 2D but then you get into a close-up, and you go to 3D-120.”

The BIG close up shows the technology best. The human face gives all the information.

The big close up shows the 120fps-4K technology best. The human face gives all the information

Ultimately, Portelli believes shooting at 120 fps makes every shot better, even if the frame rate is eventually dropped, “24 is better if you shoot 120 and deliver 24.  The reason is you can control the shutter in postproduction. The hard thing for us in 3D was strobing and judder at 24.  120 is so smooth because you have all those frames, so nothing hurts.”

He continues, “By gathering more information, you’re delivering a better movie for everybody all the way down the line, including 2D, 3D, 24, 60, because you’re controlling the sequence of the frames, and you’re controlling clarity vs. blur.  You’re controlling a cinematic look vs. a hyper real look.”  That flexibility ultimately enables delivery in various different formats to suit any screen.

On set, Lee and Portelli would qualify each shot using a one-to-five “gear system” shorthand.  For what Lee saw as “fantasy” characters like Billy’s love interest, they would go to 2D, a “low gear”.   The fifth gear was reserved for the big half-time show and climactic battle scene. “For Ang”, says Portelli, “the whole shebang meant realism.”

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Early on, the team had thought 120 fps shooting would best lend itself to action scenes due to its strength in capturing motion, but the real revelation was in the close-ups. “The beauty of 120 is that it shows everything, and it shows more.  You start to understand the beauty that’s there in a simple close-up. It shows muscles, it sees through the skin.  You can count the hairs in eyebrows and see the little expressions in someone’s eyes.”

“But,” he warns, “You have to be careful. It’s a very powerful tool.  You can make somebody look very interesting but you can also make someone look a little bit ugly.”

He continues, “It reveals the artifice of filmmaking.  The performance and the direction has to change, because if you see the actor thinking about his lines and looking down at his marks, he gives himself away.”

Portelli says naturalistic subjects are best.  “We’re trying to show the world in a different light.  Ang wanted to be bold, a project that put us in a natural environment in Morocco… and have you look at those little details in the sand and the dust.” 

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People call it hyperrealism, but Billy Lynn is really just closer to just being a realistic project.  I think 120 shows the world much closer to how we see it in daily life.”

Portelli calls Billy Lynn “the brightest film you’ve ever seen.” The initial idea was to project at a standard brightness of 14 foot-lamberts, “But before we had calibrated [the projectors], Ang looked at full brightness (28 foot-lamberts) and said, “My god, that’s amazing!  He was trying to make a bold statement.  We’re trying to give you an experience.”

Portelli describes it as a “sensory overload.”  In fact, he says, “There are people who have gone to the film who have had a bit of anxiety because they’re not used to being put in that position as the viewer.” 

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There is room for improvement in the next 120 fps outing.  The first challenge is to create smaller cameras than the hulking F65.  In terms of postproduction, Portelli says, “I think we can do more variations and soften the DI a bit and be a little less heavy handed.”  And of course, for more people to enjoy the experience, many more theatres will need to be capable of screening the full frame rate.

Lee’s next film, ‘Thrilla in Manila’ will be shot at 120 fps.  “Ang does not want to work at lower than 120fps”, says Portelli.  Lee hopes this will be the beginning of a movement.  Whereas James Cameron has called 120fps a storytelling tool, Lee is calling it a format.  “It’s not just a tool, this is a new way to see, so let’s start looking and let’s start talking about that. [Ang] is just beginning to discover a lot of new things.  You will see a lot of change in his next film.  Billy Lynn is just the beginning of what can you do with this.”

 

Hollywood’s Search for a Chinese Superhero

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Can a Chinese hero save Hollywood from cultural irrelevance?

The deluge of Hollywood superhero movies shows no signs of abating, with an estimated 63 comic book adaptations set to hit the big screen by 2020.

A sizeable chunk of the global takings come from China, the world’s second and soon–to-be largest film market. However, Hollywood’s future success in the Middle Kingdom is far from assured. With competition from an improving domestic industry and the massive new audiences outside top tier cities less responsive to English-dialogue driven fare, it is predicted that US films will lose market share as the box office grows.

As Hollywood studios increase their China presence, they are recognizing the need for more localized content. Earlier this year, the Russo brothers, directors of the Captain America franchise, announced they were teaming up with Chinese partners to form development and production studios in LA and Beijing, before unveiling plans for a $230m trilogy of Mandarin superhero movies starring an original Chinese hero.

Russo Brothers by Gage SkidmoreThe Russo Brothers. Copyright Gage Skidmore

Mellow Yellow

The Russos are not the first to see the potential in a Chinese hero. In 2011, former Marvel president Stan Lee co-launched Magic Storm Entertainment with a view to producing superhero movies for Asian markets. The first announced project was an English-language film titled “The Annihilator”, about a Chinese expatriate named Ming, “who must choose between remaining in prison or enlist in a secret U.S. super soldier program”. Slated to star Wang Leehom, the project appears to have stalled in the early stages.

The same fate appears to have befallen his latest project, Realm of the Tiger, this time a Mandarin language co-production with different partners featuring a heroine supposedly set to be played by Li Bingbing.

Stan-Lee-in-2015---Gage-Skidmore1Stan Lee and would-be superhero stars, Wang Leehom & Li Bingbing. Copyright Gage Skidmore

Lee has actually been devising Chinese characters for decades, albeit less heroic ones. In 1965 he co-created The Mandarin, a droopy-mustached throwback to the ‘Yellow Peril’ characters of the 1920s and 30s. Back then a xenophobic fear of the perceived threat from the swarming masses in the east saw Chinese characters presented as either primitive peasants or evil masterminds like Fu Manchu or Ming the Merciless.

Yellow-Perils1Spot the difference: ‘Yellow peril’ inspired super-villains Fu Manchu, Yellow Claw, Ming the Merciless and The Mandarin.  Marvel preceded The Mandarin with Yellow Claw in 1956 and actually bought the rights to Fu Manchu in 1973.

In fairness to Lee, The Mandarin was conceived during the height of the Cold War amid fears of spreading communism and nuclear war. Unsurprisingly when Marvel Studios co-produced Iron Man 3 with DMG Beijing, with an eye on reaping huge rewards from the China market, they chose not to present The Mandarin as an evil Chinese dictator with ambitions of world domination. The arch-villain was instead revealed to be a bumbling junkie actor used as a front for Aldrich Killian’s terrorist organization, provoking the ire of nerds everywhere.

Radioactive-Man1Another Lee co-creation, Chen Lu, China’s leading nuclear physicist who transforms himself into a Radioactive Man, a walking blob of nuclear waste recruited to help his government stop Thor blocking the spread of communism into India.

Everybody Was Kung Fu Whitewashing

American comic creators have been inventing Chinese characters for almost 80 years. Despite the prevailing Yellow Peril mindset, some more positive fictional characters began to emerge in the late ‘30s, like the Green Hornet’s sidekick Kato, a character that probably inspired DC’s Wing, a Chinese immigrant working as the driver and sidekick for a wealthy publisher and caped crusader in New York.

Van-Williams-as-the-Green-Hornet-and-Bruce-Lee-as-Kato-from-the-television-program-The-Green-Hornet.The Green Hornet (Van Williams) and Bruce Lee as his sidekick Kato on The Green Hornet TV show (1966-67).  The Green Hornet started life as a radio show in the 1930s
Wing1DC’s Wing, sidekick to the Crimson Avenger (far right).  Following his dignified early appearances in 1938, Wing’s design later descended into a racist stereotype typical of the era.

Chinese portrayals further improved after the US joined World War II and became formal allies with China, ushering in, in 1944 Blazing Comics’ short-lived series starring the Green Turtle, widely believed to be the first Chinese comic book hero, who fights in China alongside local troops against the Japanese.

GT1The Green Turtle – the first Chinese comic book hero?

Attitudes were still far from enlightened. American-Chinese artist Chu Hing supposedly intended to create a Chinese hero but was blocked by publishers who felt an Asian character wouldn’t resonate with a US readership. Chu cunningly kept the Turtle’s ethnicity ambiguous by drawing his eyes obscured and using a surreal shadow of a turtle to represent his hero’s face.GT2

Whitewashing for a US audience endured 30 years later, when white actor David Carradine was cast as the lead in the Kung Fu TV series, in which a half Chinese Shaolin monk fights his way through the American Old West.

David_Carradine_Kung_Fu_1972David Carradine in the Kung Fu TV series (1972-75). Carradine played Kwai Chang Caine, a Shaolin monk who travels through the American Old West armed with his spiritual training and his skill in martial arts, in search of his half-brother.

Negative though that may appear, the show inspired a martial arts craze in America in the 1970s, leading to more admirable Chinese comic book heroes including ‘The Master of Kung Fu’, Shang Chi. If any US-created Chinese hero is fit for export to modern China it might be Shang. In 2005 he was one of ten characters included in a proposed Marvel Studios slate and, though he never got his movie, there are rumors he may soon appear in the Netflix Iron Fist series, supposedly played by an Asian male that probably isn’t John Cho.

latest-1Shang Chi debuted in 1973, initially as an evil character, the son of Fu Manchu.

It’s unknown whether a Chinese face would attract cinemagoers in China. Would say, a Chinese Superman, fare better than the lukewarm reception for Man of Steel or Batman Vs. Superman. That dream may be closer than we think, after DC recently bestowed the ailing caped crusader’s powers onto Shanghai teen Kenan Kong as part of their Rebirth event.

Kenan-Kong1Kenan Kong, a Chinese Superman

John-D.-and-Catherine-T.-MacArthur-Foundation1Kenan Kong is co-created and co-written by Asian-American artist Gene Yang Luen.  In 2014, Yang also revived The Green Turtle, telling his origin story in “The Shadow Hero”. Image courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

One US created hero that has remained Chinese to the core is Captain China, a Mandarin language series started in 2012 by American-Chinese duo Jim Lai and Chi Wang. Their Cap is a product of Mao Zedong initiative to create a Chinese superhero during the Great Leap Forward, revived after 50 years to demonstrate China’s economic power. Though amusing clashes between Cap’s Maoist anti-American ideology and China’s modern capitalist values ensue, surely no sane studio with designs on China would touch such sensitive subject matter.

Captain-ChinaJim Lai and Chi Wang’s Captain China.  Despite some confusion among netizens, he is not the star of the Russo brothers’ forthcoming movies.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a 16th century Chinese deity?

With 5000 years of history and mythology, it is often said that China already has the raw materials for great movie storytelling. While that forgets the all-important ‘telling’ part, it’s true that filmmakers frequently turn to the perceived box office security of fantasy, dipping into the archives for figures that can be repurposed as quasi-superheroes. League of Gods recently did just this, with the spirits and immortals of 16th century myth Fengshen Yanyi revamped amid spectacular blockbuster effects.

《封神传奇》对决海报横版带-logoCMKY-小League of Gods

US comic creators were riffing on Chinese mythology back in 2004 with Marvel’s Eight Immortals based on the legend of the same name. DC followed in 2006 with the Great Ten, based on the 14th century tale Ten Brothers, about a government-backed posse with excellent names like Accomplished Perfect Physician, Immortal Man-in-Darkness and Mother of Champions.

eightimmortalsMarvel’s Eight Immortals
GreatTen02DC’s Great Ten

Predicting what will work among China’s diverse masses is anyone’s guess. There is no tried and tested formula, though a glance at the most successful movies suggests that Chinese audiences favour escapism, fantasy and humor over the ever darker and more depressing stories told in US hero shows. So far, 2015’s super-silly Jianbing Man is China’s closest successful equivalent to a caped crusader.

Courtesy of Sohu VideoJianbing Man. Courtesy of Sohu Video

If the heroes of the past can teach us anything, it’s that their stories reflect the fears of the society in which they are created. The diverse concerns of China’s cinemagoers are different to those in the US, and transplanting an American genre onto another culture is more complex than simply casting a Mandarin speaking Chinese actor. If Hollywood must keep pushing superheroes, they face an unknown road ahead. Perhaps the most compelling solution is to leave the spandex at home, and focus on learning the true identity of the Chinese audience.

The Japanese Schindler

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Director Cellin Gluck’s Persona Non Grata tells the remarkable story of Chiune Sugihara.

“I may have disobeyed my government but, had I not done what I did, I would be disobeying God”, said Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat whose selfless actions saved thousands of Jewish lives during World War II. Director Cellin Gluck’s latest feature film, Persona Non Grata, tells Sugihara’s remarkable story.

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(foreground) Chiune Sugihara (Toshiaki Karasawa) and (background)General Hiroshi Oshima, Japanese Ambassador to Germany Hiroshi Oshima (Fumiyo Kohinata)

In 1939, Chiune Sugihara was posted to serve as Vice-Consul for Japan in Kaunas, Lithuania. As the Nazis and Soviet Union seized more land across Europe, persecuted Jewish refugees, finding no unoccupied nation willing to take them, came to Sugihara seeking an escape route to Japan. When Tokyo refuses to issue them entry visas for Japan, Sugihara knows that compliance will condemn the refugees to their fate under the Nazis. A solution presents itself when he learns that the Dutch consul was issuing documents stating that the bearer could enter the colony of Curacao, a territory where no visa was required. Provided with a final destination, it gave Sugihara excuse enough to provide transit visas through Japan, a type of visa he was never explicitly told not to issue, and the refugees a means of getting through the Soviet Union. To buy time, he writes to Tokyo seeking clarification of the original refusal, giving him a grey area in which to act in the meantime. As Gluck explains, “It’s plausible deniability to use a 21st century term. It’s the way diplomacy should work… It’s all games and I think that’s the beauty of the story.” Sugihara’s actions saved an estimated 6000 lives but cost him his career.

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Cellin Gluck (left) directs Fumiyo Kohinata

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Cellin Gluck first become interested in the story after reading The Fugu Plan, a book about proposals to resettle Jewish refugees in Japan. “You can’t write this stuff, the truth is stranger than fiction… the story blew me away”, he explains. In 2014, Japanese studio Nippon TV decided to make a picture to unofficially mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, casting Toshiaki Karasawa to play Sugihara. Karasawa, who had acted in Gluck’s 2011 movie Oba The Last Samurai, insisted that if the film was not going to be in Japanese, nor shot in Japan, then there was only one director with the multicultural perspective that could do the story justice.

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Chiune Sugihara (Toshiaki Karasawa) and Wolfgang Gudze (Cezary Łukaszewicz)

“I speak the language fluently and I understand the Japanese psyche to a certain extent, I can do both. I can make films the American way… but I still have Japanese sensitivities”, says Gluck.

The director was born in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, to a Jewish American father and Japanese American mother. After graduation from college in the US, his first film job was carrying the mirror for famously volatile eccentric Klaus Kinski on avant-garde Japanese director Shūji Terayama’s Fruits of Passion. He moved to New York to become an actor but instead found work directing commercials for a Japanese advertising agency. In 1988, he returned to Japan to work as an Assistant Director on Ridley Scott’s Black Rain.

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Cellin Gluck (right) directs Michał Żurawski

His American-Japanese background has frequently informed his movie career, which has included roles as Japanese unit production manager on Godzilla (2014) and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) as well as the 2nd unit director on The Hunted (1995) and Into the Sun (2005). His directorial highlights include Saidoweizu – a 2009 Japanese remake of the Academy-Award winning US comedy Sideways – and Oba The Last Samurai, his co-written film about the survival of a small group of soldiers after the Battle of Saipan at the end of World War II.

In 1998, Gluck co-founded production company, P.I.G, which now has offices in L.A and Shanghai.

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Irina (Agnieszka Grochowska)

One of challenges in building the story was the limited amount of first-hand information from Sugihara. The fact that he never wrote an autobiography and rarely talked about his actions is telling of the humble character of the man, who acted purely because he felt it was the right thing to do.

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(Left to right)  Dariusz Krysiak (Make up artist), Borys Szyc and Cellin Gluck

In an attempt to accurately capture the diplomat’s character, the Japanese writers Tetsuro Kamata and Hiromichi Matsuo did enormous amounts of research, including spending time with Sugihara’s eldest son’s widow and granddaughter. For the scenes with religious overtones, Gluck consulted with rabbis and Russian orthodox priests. The cast of characters also reflects reality, with Sugihara’s driver Pesch an amalgam of the three or more Polish agents that worked for the diplomat, while love interest Irene is a nod to his Russian first wife.

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Avraham Goehner (Zbigniew Zamachowski) and Chiune Sugihara (Toshiaki Karasawa)

Produced by Cine Bazar and Nippon Television Films, the 42-day shoot was initially planned to be in Lithuania, but an insufficient domestic supply of equipment and crew negated the rebate incentives. Instead the US$6m production moved to neighbouring Poland, an appropriate choice given 90% of those Sugihara saved were Polish. It also brought a wealth of top Polish acting talent, including Borys Szye (Pesch) and Agnieszka Grochowska (Irina). The DoP was Academy Award nominated Hollywood veteran Garry Waller.

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Cellin Gluck (Director), Michał Magoń (DIT), Garry Waller (DP), Paweł Dylik (Grip), Hubert Koprowicz (1st AD), Marzena Wojciechowska (Costume)

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Sugihara’s story has brought inevitable comparisons with 1993’s Schindler’s List. In fact, there were ‘Schindlers’ who helped save Jewish lives in many territories – Estonia, Sweden, Austria, France, China and beyond – the stories of whom started emerging after Spielberg’s movie. “Schindler became a catalyst to get the stories out,” says Gluck “The irony is, Schindler did his work in ’44, whereas all these other guys were saving Jewish lives in 1940 and ’41”.

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Yukiko Sugihara (Koyuki) and Chiune Sugihara (Toshiaki Karasawa)

Sugihara’s actions saw him dismissed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after World War II. Various menial jobs and a life of obscurity working for a small trading company in Moscow ensued. Though the Israeli government named him ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ a year before his death in 1986, a Japanese reluctance to talk about World War II meant he was not formally recognised by his own government until 2000. His name has now been submitted for inclusion in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

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Chiune Sugihara (Toshiaki Karasawa) and Wolfgang Gudze (Cezary Łukaszewicz)

The positive reaction to Persona Non Grata has brought a fresh wave of recognition for Sugihara’s story. At its world premiere in Kaunas last October, the film received a five-minute standing ovation and it has been seen by over a million people in Japan, taking $12m – a substantial achievement in the domestic box office for a historical film. It has been screened at the Atlanta Jewish and Washington Japanese Film Festivals, on Holocaust Remembrance day at the YIVO Institute in New York, and won the Special Jury Award for Cinematic Excellence and Social Justice at the Oregon DisOrient Film Festival.

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(Left to right) Hubert Koprowicz (1st AD), Toshiaki Karasawa, Koyuki, Cellin Gluck (director)

Sino Smackdown!

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The Rise Of Chinese Pro Wrestling

“You SUCK, you SUCK!” The sparse crowd of seventy that has ventured to a repurposed gay nightclub on this stifling May evening is beginning to find its voice.   Middle Kingdom Wrestling World Champion Dalton Bragg prowls the ring, glaring through black eyeliner at the Chinese men abusing him in English. A few paces behind, The Selfie King’s blood-splattered chest heaves as man-mountain Big Sam hauls him into the air and dumps him on to the canvas.

Wrestling is Shakespeare for the modern age”, yells Nikk Mitchell over the chants and sporadic crashes of body on mat. The managing partner of Middle Kingdom Wrestling (MKW), the collective that has provided four fighters for tonight’s show, has just returned to his ringside seat after an altercation with the referee. “Nowadays theatre is so highfalutin”, he shouts, “Back in the day, it was super lowbrow. People would throw fruit at the actors. Wrestling is one of the few art forms left in the world where audience participation is a major aspect. That’s what makes it so special.”

mk2-2073mk2-2086Dalton Bragg handcuffs Sam to the post, pins Selfie King and wins the Triple Threat match to retain the MKW World Championship.  Images courtesy of Eric Garrison.

Build It And They Will Come

To be clear, Mitchell is talking about storyline-driven, scripted, and choreographed pro-wrestling, the entertainment art form combining athleticism with performance that the ill informed deride as ‘fake’. Originated in the US in the mid-20th century, Japan leads the Asian scene, albeit in a more legitimate sport-like form, while Singapore, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong all boast leagues with some degree of popularity and pedigree.

Mainland China remains a sleeping giant, with a lineage going back only as far as 2004, the year that Guangdong wrestler, known as The Slam, left for Korea to hone his craft. On his return to Dongguan, he constructed a mobile professional ring and trained up a group of local Chinese talent that he would later formalize into Chinese Wrestling Entertainment. His traveling arena became the home of CWE’s semi-regular live shows and the shoot location for their online TV show.

mk2-2050Selfie King lays the smackdown on Big Sam.  Image courtesy of Eric Garrison

Chinese wrestling has endured stuttering beginnings, perhaps best exemplified by the events of October 2013, when Paul Wang, a wrestling super-fan with dreams of building a league to match America’s WWE, invited an assortment of local and international wrestlers to Chongqing for four live shows.  After promising big money investment and a glamorous future, Wang botched the operation, cancelled half the shows and disappeared, leaving the wrestlers to pay their own airfare home.

After multiple false starts and isolated shows, the past 18 months have seen a shift in gear. In early 2015, The Slam received a call from Adrian Gomez, an American expat launching a Chinese pro wrestling promotion and wanting to discuss a partnership. Gomez spent the proceeding months building a roster of talent to form the basis of Middle Kingdom Wrestling. MKW’s first show took place in Dongguan in July 2015, followed by a larger winter showcase featuring wrestlers from the US, UK, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Forming around the same time was China’s other main aspiring promotion, China Wrestling Federation (CWF), founded by Fei Wu Xing, the boss of China’s largest wrestling website ShuaiJiao.com.  CWF held its first show in Shanghai earlier this month featuring their own wrestlers and others hired from MKW.

     mk2-3017mk2-3019 mk2-3022 mk2-3046Japanese wrestlers Emi Sakura and Riho fight it out in CWF’s recent promotion in Shanghai.  Images courtesy of Eric Garrison

Wrestling With Chinese Characteristics

Despite commanding a massive online following, world leading US behemoth World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) had until recently been curiously inactive in China. That all changed this summer when the $650m corporation staged a major PR campaign in China, bringing over legends John Cena and Triple H, ostensibly to scout new Chinese talent, but mostly to generate buzz around a live event in Shanghai in September and to announce deals with online channel PPTV to screen its US shows in Mandarin.

WWE’s existing popularity provides a strong foundation upon which local pretenders can develop their own on and offline wrestling content. One of their many challenges will be attracting a local audience that has probably never attended a live show before and, once they are there, generating atmosphere among a small crowd that has never participated in the pantomime before.

1524820748Big Sam and Royal Stu.  Stu, the writer of Royal Ramble on wrestlezone.com, acted as Sam’s manager at the CWF Shanghai promotion.   Image courtesy of Big Sam

The key, says Gomez, is to develop characters to which fans can relate. “Emulating a WWE show for a Chinese audience will not make a successful promotion. Instead, his plan is to bring pro wrestling with “Chinese characteristics”. “China has 56 minority groups and iconic things that all make great gimmicks,” he says, “I watch Running Man and Baba Qu Na. Those elements can be incorporated into pro wrestling to catch a massive audience.”

Gomez doesn’t worry about competition – after all, many wrestlers are shared between promotions – but stresses his character-driven approach differentiates MKW from the rest, “[CWF] really prefer the Japanese style… It looks more like a traditional sport. [We] care more about telling stories.”

1572963715@chatroom_1463374904719_10MKW’s Selfie King with Nikk Mitchell (managing partner) overlooking the ring inside a converted Shanghai Stadium nightclub.  Images courtesy of Nikk Mitchell

A Yao Ming In The Ring

If domestic wrestling is to gain traction with the local audience, it will need its own superstars. Seeking to find a ‘Yao Ming in the ring’, Japanese federation IGF, run by WWE hall of famer Antonio Inoke, opened a dojo in Shanghai in 2013. IGF soon claimed it had found a future icon in the form of Wang Bin, a 20-year old gym coach from Anhui. Wang promptly left for Japan to receive a higher quality of training, just The Slam had done in Korea a decade earlier.

The move paid off. Wang recently became the first Chinese athlete to sign a development contract with the WWE and is currently training at the WWE’s Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, hoping to one day become the federation’s first fully-fledged Chinese star.

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(l-r) Selfie King, Royal Stu, Emi Sakura, Dalton Bragg, Riho, Nikk Mitchell (MKW managing partner).   Images courtesy of Nikk Mitchell

Yet for all the marketing fanfare, WWE will struggle to find more Chinese wrestlers any time soon. Most estimates suggest there are currently only about 20 wrestlers in the entire country, and a shortage of training facilities or world-class coaches means little new talent is emerging.

The scarcity of resources is causing the quality of current shows to suffer.  MKW headliner Dalton Bragg explains, “If you see wrestlers who train three times a week and wrestle once a month, the matches are 100 times better than when they show up twice a year and haven’t trained at all.”

Chinese promoters are also having difficulty maintaining the presence needed to build a fan base. “The key to staying power is staying visible”, says Bragg, “Companies do a show and then drop off the face of the earth for 6 months. There’s no fan retention.”  Running regular shows is easier said than done though. Alongside the financial barriers, Gomez explains it is difficult to explain wrestling to the older generation and therefore difficult to find suitable venues.

The current crop of promoters faces a long and difficult road. CWF and MKW are seeking to keep up the momentum with live events in Shenzhen in September and Inner Mongolia in November respectively, while the WWE increased presence should help by inspiring more athletes, investors and entrepreneurs to get involved in the sport.

For now though, Chinese wrestling is fueled by the passion of its promoters. “The more matches we do, the more I come to love wrestling,” says MKW’s Nikk Mitchell, “I feel like I’m getting to the heart of what makes wrestling popular, and that’s so exciting.”

wrestlers3Chinese wrestlers & wrestlers in China: 9 key figures