BEIJING (AP) — People in China watch them in the subway, on buses, even as they walk down a sidewalk: homegrown short films that are low-budget, intensely popular and accessible to anyone with a smartphone.
Microfilms, uploaded to Chinese YouTube-style and video-streaming sites, offer themes and subjects not shown in the country's strictly censored cinemas. And thanks to video-capturing smartphones and basic editing software available on laptops, anyone can be a director.
"The barrier for making a film has been brought so low it really has become a democratic means for expression," Chinese film critic Raymond Zhou said.
The genre of microfilms, usually less than 40 minutes long, has exploded in China over the past few years, stretching the boundaries of what can be shown, including pieces on gender and homosexuality. It is constrained by the self-censorship the government requires of the country's video-streaming sites, and it has not become overtly political.
What started largely as a hobby among white-collar workers with a passion for cinema has become increasingly professional and profitable, and the content has rapidly veered into the lowbrow and trite as producers chase the mostly urban 20-something viewers.
Sex and slapstick have come to dominate the genre, as opposed to the independent filmmaking in China of earlier decades that focused on social commentary about people on the bottom rungs of society, said Chinese documentary maker Jun Ren.
"The microfilm generation is disappointing," Jun declared.
Among microfilm hopefuls are director Sun Zhendong and a production team that wants to attract product-placement deals and a lucrative contract with a streaming site by building a brand around a series of shorts featuring a character who has awkward Mr. Bean-style escapades.
Sun and his crew of eight people were shooting an episode of "The Embarrassing Stories of Mr. Ball" on a recent day at an unsealed location on a residential street in a northern Beijing suburb. The filming was interrupted by a man who wanted to wash his car.
The scene was an argument over a fender-bender, and the Mr. Ball character wandered up and squeezed between the other characters who were shouting improvised dialogue to inspect the damaged cars. "Don't mind me," he said. "I'm just looking." The crew fell about themselves laughing.
The episode will culminate in Mr. Ball learning to box with a "pretty lady partner."
"People absolutely love to watch fun microfilms on mobile devices," Sun said.
The first episode in the series — with the main character having problems with an inflatable ring at a public pool full of attractive girls in bikinis — has more than 6.5 million hits on one video website alone. Producer Wu Xuejun said he hopes the 15-minute second episode will make 600-700 million yuan ($100,000-$115,000) from product placements.
China's movie theaters offer stories about love or war, perhaps a Hollywood blockbuster or two. Television broadcasts staid dramas featuring soldiers and family strife.
Online, microfilms cover themes that at times cross edgier lines: a woman researching a book on masculinity by sleeping with various men; a piano teacher contemplating a gay affair with his student's sister's boyfriend; a gang member fighting, stabbing and shooting others to death. Even citizen journalists' grainy recordings of protests and the damage wrought by earthquakes are considered microfilms by some observers.
"The phenomenon is certainly redefining what cinema is and offers some intriguing and sometimes subversive alternatives to the norms of mainstream film industry," said Zhen Zhang, a cinema studies professor at New York University.
With a microfilm, you don't need the broadcasting administration to approve your content, or grant you a license to film.
They offer a space for "creative expression of the self," said Paola Voci, a lecturer at the University of Otago in New Zealand who teaches on documentary film and videomaking in China and has written the book "China on Video."
"It's mostly a tool to express individual creativity and that even by itself is relevant in a society like China," where creativity isn't emphasized in schooling, said Voci.
For Voci, the revolution isn't necessarily about the microfilms' content, because independent filmmakers have touched on controversial themes before. But whereas those films are largely banned from the mainland, this generation of films is accessible and visible. "You can now screen those things in a space where either accidentally or willfully you are going to find it. And before, unless you were a prominent intellectual or you were going to an international film festival, you wouldn't have seen it," she said.
The two most popular video websites are Youku and Tudou. Both said they have teams reviewing uploads to make sure they adhere to Chinese laws.
Ren Xuemei, in charge of brand maintenance for Youku's microfilm section, said on average, 10-15 microfilms are uploaded to their site every day. Youku also produces about 40 microfilms in-house each year and sponsors young directors.
Ren said they had a team reviewing microfilms before they appear on the site. "They shouldn't feature any content relating to violence or politically sensitive stuff, nor should they have any content that would cause adverse social effects," he said, referring to a common phrase in Chinese officialdom.
Wu, the producer of "Mr. Ball," says they wouldn't dare to have content that would breach the regulations.
"Bikinis are fine, but less than that isn't," he said.
AP researcher Yu Bing contributed to this report.