Next month, theatres across North America will see the release of the Matt Damon-starrer The Great Wall, a movie about demons, European adventurers and Chinese culture, or something like that.
But who cares about plot? With a budget of $150 million, the film is notable because it is the first serious Chinese attempt at a global crossover film.
It is produced by the Hollywood-based Legendary Entertainment, which was bought out by the Chinese Wanda group in 2016, and Le Vision Pictures, owned by the Chinese tech giant LeEco.
(Wanda’s chairman, Wang Jianlin, has been quite vocal about his Hollywood ambitions. In 2012, he acquired the second largest cinema chain in the US, AMC.)
The Great Wall is directed by Zhang Yimou, a one-time critic of the Communist Party who later went on to produce the spectacle of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It was preceded in 2016 by another China-UK co-production, The Last Race, starring Joseph Fiennes. Another Zhang Yimou effort in 2012, Flowers of War, starring Christian Bale, underperformed at the box office. There was also Warcraft, again produced by Legendary, which was a hit in China but bombed in the U.S.
Interestingly, these crossover efforts dovetail with a Chinese government-led effort to project soft power around the world.
Coincidence? Some would say not, and cue paranoia about Red China filling American cinemas with propaganda.
But Chinese cinema, like Chinese culture, is not monolithic. And the narrative is not as simplistic as the mainstream media would have you believe.
The Tropicalist spoke to two film scholars, Robert Hamilton of the Chinese Film Forum, UK, and a Lecturer in Film Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University, and Roy Stafford, author of The Global Film Book (globalfilmstudies.com) for a more nuanced take on the situation.
Trop: First things first, I think we need to clearly define what we are talking about when we say “Chinese movies.” With so many productions drawing talent from across the globe these days, what makes a movie “Chinese”? Does it have to be made in China?
Roy Stafford: Most film scholars talk of ‘Chinese Cinemas’ and not a singular ‘Chinese Cinema’ – by which they mean the three distinct cinemas of Mainland China (“PRC”), Hong Kong and Taiwan.
To that I would add the Chinese cinemas of Malaysia and Singapore. Some scholars might also want to distinguish Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien etc. as different language cinemas.
I would also include ‘exilic’ films made by Chinese filmmakers fleeing to the West for political reasons. The status of filmmakers such as Ang Lee is particularly interesting of course and perhaps requires special consideration. Lee and John Woo are filmmakers who have successfully operated in Hollywood as well as Chinese industries.
Rob Hamilton: With co-productions and co-funding, it is difficult to define films purely in terms of a strict nationality. The term ‘Chinese film’ is therefore fluid and could be applied on a film by film basis rather than a blanket definition. It would include location, language, production and funding as well as other considerations.
Building on that, isn’t ‘Chinese’ film a reductionist label?
RH: I don’t think there is a Chinese sensibility that is immediately identifiable, though some are easier than others. They don’t have the same genre characteristics as Bollywood or the financial and industry support of Hollywood.
RS: I’m not sure that ‘Chineseness’ is easily identifiable.
’Hollywood’ and ‘Bollywood’ are not national concepts. In both cases they refer to a certain kind of film preferred by American and Indian studios.
The only true Hollywood films are those distributed by the six major studios, members of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America).
Other American films and many international films (e.g. those made by Luc Besson’s Europa company in France) are made in the Hollywood style. The presentation in these films refers to a certain kind of fictional world imbued with universal entertainment values.
Bollywood films only refer to a relatively small number of big budget Hindi films.
India has other major cinema in Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Malayalam, Kannada, Marathi etc. – production of films in these languages is greater than the number of Bollywood films.
What is distinctive about a Chinese film? The genres such as wu xia/martial chivalry/martial arts or various Chinese opera films are unique to China. Hong Kong kung fu and gangster films are identifiable (but also linked now to other cinemas). Chinese comedy forms and Chinese melodramas are identifiable. Other than that there are Chinese ‘national popular’ films about important events in Chinese history or referencing important social issues. These have been termed ‘main melody’ films when they ‘fit’ Communist Party policies.
OK, so the Chinese films that could hypothetically be shown in American cinemas over the next decade reflect a myriad of cultures and viewpoints, not all necessarily in line with the Communist Party’s vision. But what about movies that are directly funded by the state—how much freedom do those directors have to say what they want to say?
RS: ‘Control’ by the state over PRC films is limited to the refusal for certification for release or for export licences. If a filmmaker wants a film to be seen there are usually ways to make this possible – but offending the Chinese Communist Part may mean it is difficult to get funding in future.
RH: Within China all films are controlled by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT). Censorship has proved to be difficult to enforce with China being more open and international film festivals ready to give a platform to films critical of Chinese politics and society. The State Administration itself has been subject to change with periods of liberalisation and tighter controls. The history of film censorship in China is a complex one and should not be reduced to the narrative of continuous strict government control.
What would be the values that the Chinese might try to project through their cinema?
RH: Speaking very generally, they try to project the importance of Chinese history and culture–a number of films are historical dramas– as well as a collective spirit and the importance of filial and social duty as opposed to the individual gratification of the West. But it is difficult to generalise and a closer examination on a film by film basis would provide a more detailed answer.
RS: This is a very tricky area. Most Western audiences are put off by obvious attempts to project values. Hollywood films that do this openly are usually box office failures outside the US.
Zhang Yimou’s Hero was very controversial in North America because the film was perceived as endorsing centralised power.
Is there a certain kind of movie (arthouse, martial arts, historical event blockbuster) that tends to be better at projecting the kind of soft power values that the Chinese want to project?
RH: It is the historical event blockbusters and martial arts film that best project the soft power values that China wants to promote. They deal more specifically with Chinese stories in terms that are more positive. Arthouse cinema tends to be more critical of Chinese society.
RS: Action films can get away with such perceptions if they have mass audience appeal. Art films, however, are expected to be critical of the Chinese government. If they aren’t, they might be shunned by audiences in the West.
Why do certain Chinese films tend to do better (financially) overseas? Why do some Chinese movies get picked up for distribution in the West and not others?
RH: I think it is their perceived independence from Chinese government control or propaganda. They do not make a great impact on the multiplex chains which are still in the tight hands of Hollywood and their product.
[Ed. note: Joseph Nye, who pioneered the concept of soft power, has gone on record saying you can’t have soft power without a robust civil society, and this is where China fails.]
As to your second question, often it is their success at Western film festivals and the attention that they receive from the resultant publicity.
RS: Chinese films in North America and the UK have benefited in the past from a demand by diaspora audiences. This means films were shown in London, Manchester and other cities ‘out of hours’ in commercial cinemas in original languages and also dubbed for release in mainstream cinemas. These were mainly kung fu, gangster or comedy films. There were also specialist VHS and later DVD labels distributing the same kinds of titles. Today these films struggle to get into cinemas (dubbing is now very unusual in the UK) but the DVD trade in martial arts is still strong.
Mainland Chinese films did not appear in the UK until the late 1980s and the ‘Fifth Generation’ films of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. These were arthouse films. Later they were followed by Sixth Generation auteur films such as those of Wang Xiaoshuai and Jia Zhangke.
Regarding distribution, it is difficult to get distribution for any foreign language film in the UK and the US. Arthouse titles now probably have more chance than ‘commercial’ films, but with all films, distribution by a well-known label is only possible if the director is very well-known, the film has an ‘action’ star or if it has been in competition in Cannes, Berlin or Venice. The smaller labels that do take Chinese films find it very difficult to get cinema bookings – or even to get reviewed in the UK.
What model can the Chinese follow to make films with global appeal on the lines of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?
RH: I think the Chinese are exploring their own way as the differences [between China and other movie making cultures like the U.S., India, etc.] politically, culturally and financially are huge and historically specific. They are looking increasingly at international co-productions while maintaining the health of their film industry with a strict quota on foreign films for the domestic market.
RS: My own view, for what it’s worth, is that Chinese producers who want to make global films should use the Hong Kong experience to help them in the international (English language) marketplace and should study closely how the major Indian cinemas are now trying to produce films that get exposure at Cannes and other major Western film festivals.
I’m also a little surprised that China isn’t developing major new stars who have an international appeal/profile.
The Hong Kong industry in the 1980s produced Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Andy Lau – as well as Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat. Chinese art cinema in the West was dominated by Gong Li. Where are global stars of the same stature now in China? Irrfan Khan is a good example of an Indian actor who has gradually developed an international profile in English language films (Slumdog Millionaire, Life of Pi, Amazing Spider-Man, The Lunchbox, Jurassic World) and now has a global presence while still making many ‘local’ Indian films.