In his recent address to the National People's Congress, Premier Wen Jiabao emphasized that China needed to strengthen its cultural industries, including film. A few Chinese films have been worldwide hits, but the country is a long way from Hollywood's success. What can China learn from other countries? Global Times (GT) reporter Li Yanjie talked with Stanley Rosen (Rosen), director of the East Asian Studies Center and a professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Southern California, on these issues.
GT: Do you see many Chinese films in US cinemas?
Rosen: There are not many Chinese films in the US, and the few Chinese films that are available in the US were directed by famous directors, such as Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee, and so on. There are several types of Chinese films that have played here.
Martial arts films are one type, such as Hero (Yingxiong) by Zhang Yimou and The Promise (Wuji) by Chen Kaige. The other type would be art films, such as those by Jia Zhangke, but these only get a limited release.
However, most Chinese films will never be shown in theaters here, because I think there simply isn't enough of an audience for them. This is also true for most foreign language films. They are more likely to appear on DVD than to be shown in theaters.
Up to now, the most successful Chinese film has been Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wohu Canglong), the second most successful was Hero, and then Fearless (Huo Yuanjia).
The most successful Chinese films at the box office in the West have all been martial arts films, where language is less important than the action on the screen.
GT: What do you think hinders Chinese films from being promoted worldwide, both cinematically and commercially? Do China's limitations on film imports affect its export of films? How?
Rosen: I don't think China's limitations on film imports affect its export of films. The problem with exports is more related to the perceived quality of Chinese films and the nature of the stories being told in the films.
Some Chinese films have been successful with film critics, but not with audiences.
There needs to be a realistic assessment of what "success" means. Michael Barker, a co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics, once said "Too many companies are looking for the home run. We're very happy with a base hit or a double."
Ironically, Sony's Chinese-language production unit in Hong Kong then produced only one film after 2003, Stephen Chow's CJ7 in 2007.
Asian-themed films do have a market internationally, but the most successful films are more likely to be English language films that have an Asian component, including remakes of Asian movies, than the original work.
When one looks at the 346 films that have made at least $200 million worldwide (as of June 15, 2008), the top four Asian-themed films are Hollywood products.
Second, there are certain expectations for Asian films when they play abroad. Less publicized action films from China are also subjected to comparisons with the familiar. For example, when Warriors of Heaven and Earth (Tiandi Yingxiong) played in the West, reviewers immediately compared it (unfavorably) both with Chinese successes such as Crouching Tiger and Hero, and with more familiar fare such as Sergio Leone's Italian westerns and John Ford's American westerns, Akira Kurosawa's Japanese samurai films, American B-movies, historical and other action films such as Mel Gibson's Brave Heart, to mention only the most common references.
If action movies from China face such invidious comparisons, comedies have even less of a chance to be successful. Even art house favorite Zhang Yimou's Keep Cool (Youhua Haohao Shuo) had no chance at distribution in the West.
A third problem, also related to audience expectations, has to do with the perception of Chinese politics and its relation to film. It is not uncommon for critics and audiences to read into Chinese films.
For example, when Postmen in the Mountains (Na shan, Na ren, Na gou) opened in New York, one reviewer, who actually found the film "endearing" and "likeable," also noted in the same sentence that "its benign surface may cover some subtle propaganda on behalf of China's centralized government."
The film, he suggested, idealized the postman as a state official always ready to listen and sacrifice himself for the betterment of the masses, while the villagers were always portrayed as smiling and content, with the lyrical landscape studies foregrounded and the region's desperate poverty played down.
Chinese patriotic films like The Founding of a Republic (Jianguo Daye) and spy films like The Message (Fengsheng) are quite difficult for foreigners to understand because of the historical and political situation being discussed.
Comedies like Crazy Stone (Fengkuangde Shitou), while more understandable, depend heavily on the language that it's difficult for them to be popular overseas. This is especially the case since they're competing with similar local broad and slapstick comedies.
GT: How does the prevalence of piracy in China affect the enthusiasm of filmmakers for Chinese sales?
Rosen: I think it depends a good deal on the type of film. In the past, the box office was affected by pirated DVDs, but now it's a problem of downloading.
The problem is not only in China, but also in South Korea, Russia and the rest of the world, even including the US, although on a smaller scale. Even with such films as 2012 and Avatar, you can buy pirated DVDs or download them, but you can't enjoy the special effects that can only be seen on the big screens in theaters.
This of course is even more the case for Avatar, which should ideally be seen in IMAX 3D to get the full benefit of the experience. So one solution to the problem of pirated DVDs is to make films that can only be seen properly in theaters.
GT: How should China cultivate its overseas film market?
Rosen: The most important thing is to make films that audiences really want to see. Actually, the Chinese government does put an effort into promoting the export of Chinese films. For example, the annual Beijing Screenings festival screens the most recent domestic Chinese films, and foreign distributors are invited to watch and buy the films they like.
However, I think more money has to go into film production. In addition, unlike Hollywood films which have a world market as the target, Chinese films are generally made with the domestic market in mind. The exceptions are art films by brand name directors with a strong international reputation, such as those by filmmakers like Jia Zhangke, who have a very limited market within China, but win international awards at film festivals, and a few movies such as John Woo's Red Cliff (Chibi), which are geared for broader markets, particularly in Asia.
GT: Europeans specialize in art house films, while Hollywood is famous for high-concept and commercial films. What type of movies are best for China in the global marketplace?
Rosen: It really depends on expectations and, in a sense, I think that China can do both. Since I have argued that it is difficult to make, distribute and market high concept films as Holly-wood does, in part because of the large budgets involved in making such films, as well as Hollywood's global reach, I think that China needs to have realistic expectations. The most successful films from China at the box office are still likely to be big budget commercial films on Chinese history, such as Red Cliff.
However, smaller films that tell stories that resonate in any country can also be successful, but only as art films. A film such as Shower (Xizao) did quite well since it told a simple story that everyone could understand and appreciate.
Idk, it always disturbs me when I read things suggesting that people (here mostly) discount things from China (whether it be movies, music, wtvr) just because they don't like the government, or suspect it of pushing propaganda in the form of art.