By Robert Cain for China Film Biz
March 3, 2012
Last week I had the privilege of attending a luncheon event that yielded two most unexpected gifts. The first was a copy of a beautiful Chinese book, the Three-Character Primer of Film (电影三字经), given to me by the author himself, Mr. Liu Cheng (柳城). The second was the gift of meeting and beginning what I hope will be a long friendship with Mr. Liu, a warm and generous man who has inspired and influenced countless filmmakers in China and around the world.
The luncheon was part of a day-long celebration of the installation of Mr. Liu’s newly translated Three-Character Primer at the Motion Picture Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills. Written in admirably poetic style in just 900 classical Chinese characters, evocatively translated into English, and exquisitely bound on rice paper, the book is a marvel of economy and truthful insights about the art, craft and power of film.
Mr. Liu himself is a unique individual: accomplished and modest, powerful and gentle all at once. He was the man of the hour among an august group** of American and Chinese filmmakers, producers and industry executives, and the respect, admiration and affection for him in the room were as rich and piquant as the Chinese delicacies on the table.
A few choice morsels from his book:
In scene and storyline, less is more,
Stress what’s important, stick to the core.
For subject let obsession be your guide,
Release the yearning that lies deep inside.
Emotional truth is your glue and your weave,
Conflict comes from desires to which we cleave.
Liu Cheng’s career has encompassed teaching and leadership positions at the Beijing Film Academy, at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), and currently at China’s national film channel, CCTV-6. He has been responsible for screenplays and movies at the highest levels in China’s industry, and counts among his friends film luminaries the world over.
The 50-plus commentaries and testimonials to his book reveal the impact he has had on global film industry leaders. A selection of quotes from these testimonials follows:
Zhang Yimou, filmmaker: “It amazes me that he was able to produce a major work using so few words and present a major truth so neatly… This is a book which is deceptively simple, but full of surprises. It seems effortless, but has been carved out through painful effort.”
Im Kwon Taek, filmmaker and the ‘Father of Korean film’: “I hereby recommend the Three-Character Primer of Film to all my Korean colleagues, as well to young people who hope to make a career in film. They will find the wisdom that the writer has acquired through a lifetime at filmmaking.”
Han Sanping, Chairman of China Film Group: “It would not be excessive to hail the Primer as a classic, not because of its three-character format, but because it has put the finger on the essence of the art of film as well as upholding an attitude to life itself.”
Jane Campion, filmmaker: “There is poetry in film, but Mr. Liu Cheng has written a poem on film itself, thus worthy of our attention.”
Janet Yang, Producer: “The Primer has a deceptively light touch. The writing must have been a very demanding job: one must be knowledgeable about film, one must master classical Chinese, and one must understand life.”
Jon Avnet, filmmaker, Chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America: “When I read Mr. Liu’s poetics, I felt he captured the essence of filmmaking. He has done it in rhyme, and he has done it concisely.”
J.J. Abrams, filmmaker: “As a fan of script writing and filmmaking books, this fantastic volume from across the globe has become one of my favorites. It is slight in page count only; the contents herein are critical truisms to which we all should adhere.”
David Seidler, screenwriter: “Please don’t read the Three-Character Primer of Film by Liu Cheng. If you do, you’ll become extremely wise in the ways of screenwriting, and I don’t need the competition.”
It is tempting for those of us in the west who have little insight into the inner workings of China’s film establishment to dismiss it as a faceless bureaucracy, an adversary standing in the way of our ambitions. But we can all take comfort that rare individuals like Liu Cheng, lettered, passionate about art, and optimistic about the future, are there in China, ready and willing to lend us a hand.
(**My table at lunch comprised a convivial group that included producer and former AMPAS President Sid Ganis, producer Janet Yang, Rhythm & Hues president John Hughes, visual effects master Doug Smith, writer-director Anna Chi, Wuxi Studios business development executive Rita Cahill, CCTV on-camera personality Maggie Wang, and Mr. Liu Cheng.)
Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at www.pacificbridgepics.com.