China’s film failures

While China may be releasing a huge quantity of films, and producing a number of new TV shows, to most foreigners living here, there is still a dearth of entertainment (sorry CCTV). Despite efforts to promote “soft power”, China still seems unable to attract followings on par with Japanese anime or Bollywood films. So today we’ll be looking at the factors limiting China’s cultural potency.

As I’ve discussed before (How long until we’re all singing Beijing Opera?), I think one of the major challenges facing China’s efforts is that the gov’t/party seems to be closely involved with these projects, which is a negative to many in the US and Europe. This has been especially true of 2011’s highest grossing film, The Founding of the Party, which was explicitly a propaganda film. The sales though were largely to companies that redistributed tickets to their employees who were given the afternoon off for re-education (several people I spoke to used the two hours in the dark for bonus napping).

It seems that a first step that could be taken, is to simply allow greater freedom in the Chinese film industry, after all, Hollywood creates movies that inspire some of the same nationalist pride without gov’t interference.

Unfortunately, China seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Just this week it was announced that China’s American Idol-type show, Super Girl, would be cancelled. A number of reasons were cited, notably that it “did not conform to the healthy and positive orientation that TV programs should have”, and more interestingly the show producers “received notification from the administration that we cannot make selective TV trials with mass involvement of individuals in the year 2012″ (gov’t speak for text message voting).

Even though the show enjoyed massive popularity, a new article in the state media claims that this was not the case. Considering it was one of the few Chinese TV shows that I had heard enough about from students that I actually recognized the name, it’s hard to believe otherwise. This hints at the second major problem facing China’s entertainment industry, success is often punished. Both Avatar and the Hong Kong film, Let the Bullets Fly, were later subjected to reduced screenings once sensors started worrying about their influence. After all, Super Girl isn’t the only pop talent show on Chinese TV, just the most popular one.

The final problem is that the gov’t continues to promote historical films that have little meaning to audiences outside of China (and often little relevance within, as evidenced by declining ticket sales). This included a film about Beijing Opera shortly before the Olympics, and current efforts to tell the tale of Tang Dynasty concubine, Yang Guifei (don’t worry, there won’t be anything risque).

I get the idea that if you asked the typical American if they had seen any Chinese films the conversation would go something like this:

Them: “Oh yeah, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was pretty awesome.”

Me: “That was a Taiwan/Hong Kong co-operation.”

Them: “Well I’ve seen pretty much every Jackie Chan and Bruce Li film.”

Me: “Those were made in Hong Kong.”

Them: “Dang, uh…Memoirs of a Geisha?”

Me: “That was a Hollywood film about Japan with Chinese actresses, so that’s kind of close.”

Them: “Have I seen any Chinese films? This is ridiculous.”

The gov’t seems to be ignoring the fact that kung fu movies abroad have only had limited success (e.g. Hero, House of Flying Daggers). China seems to be clinging tightly to this failed film formula. However I think American audiences would rush to see a film that dealt with modern China in an honest way, something of a Chinese Slumdog Millionaire (but please don’t just copy it).

Until the gov’t allows films to portray a China that actually exists with real people, doing everyday things, or even just allow teenagers to vote for their favorite singer, China is going to have a hard time spreading their soft power beyond the movie theaters they fill with free tickets.

About T

I have been working in China for nearly five years now. I have traveled to more than 30 cities and towns, and have lived in 3 provinces. I am interested in issues concerning development in China and the rest of the world. I hope to provide a balanced look at some of the issues facing China as it continues its rise to power.
This entry was posted in Chinese Culture & Language, Current Events, Life in China and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to China’s film failures

  1. Baobo says:

    My only wish is that Hollywood not be used as the model for anything. I find Avatar as bad propaganda as any “fourth generation” director could make (and less entertaining).

    Also in the kitsch category, Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” – an Italian film that twisted history through every scene.

    • BILL RICH says:

      I am not holding my breath waiting for a PRC film not doing both propaganda and twisting of history. And that’s been 60 years, and you have only come up with two lonely bad film from the west. ( The Last Emperor was not from Hollywood.)

  2. A lot of these movies are just terrible. Even that Mao movie they released for the party’s 90th anniversary (who celebrates a 90th anniversary? What a weird number!) had a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes the last time I checked. And I would rather endure the Thousand Cuts than watch that Confucius movie again. Yuck! But “City of Life and Death” and “Curse of the Golden Flower” are 2 of my favorite foreign movies ever so there are a few good ones in the mix.

  3. me says:

    Here’s a list of some good Chinese movies (although I’m not sure where they were all filmed)…
    叶问 (kungfu)
    人在囧途 (comedy, downright hilarious!)
    非诚勿扰1/2 (comedy/drama)
    山楂树之恋 (drama)
    活着 (drama)
    十七岁的单车 (drama)
    Anyone else have good movies to add to this list?

    • Tom says:

      I’m not saying there are no good movies, just very few that manage to captivate audiences abroad.

      • me says:

        That post wasn’t a critical commentary; just a list. The biggest thing holding back Chinese films in my opinion is the fact that they’re in Chinese. Sure, you COULD add subtitles, and many movies do. However, if you don’t understand Chinese culture and nuances of the language, you might as well just realize that you’re only going to get a “partial” movie watching experience at best. Take 人在囧途 for example. It’s about the chaos that is the annual migration of 100’s of millions of people during the Chinese New Year back to their hometowns and then back to work/school. If you haven’t experienced that for yourself, you’ll find yourself sitting awkwardly staring at the other people who do have first hand experience of that annual migration and are laughing so hard they’re getting a bellyache. I only make mention of this because I often feel “left out” while watching Bollywood movies (which I love dearly), and many of the Bollywood movies are even in English!

    • Baobo says:

      If you want to see a good mainland satire watch “Basic Interests” (信天游) by director Feng Xiaoning. It’s about a secretary who does everything right, saves everyone, and he even looks like Mao.

      I think the director may get special treatment for being on the film board.

  4. NiubiCowboy says:

    China’s film industry seems to be moving in the direction of Bollywood rather than Hollywood. Bollywood is one of the largest film industries in the world and churns out a ridiculous amount of films every year, but outside of the Indosphere and the South Asian diaspora, no one is really watching these films. That’s not to say that Bollywood isn’t successful in its own right. Most Bollywood films, regardless of the genre, tend to follow a well-honed formula that includes a little romance, a little comedy, and at least ten musical numbers. For those foreign to the Indosphere, these kinds of films seem patently absurd. But, for Indians, Pakistania, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, and their overseas brethren, the typical Bollywood film is perfectly catered to their tastes and their expectations.

    In the same way, the Chinese film industry seems to revisit the same tropes whenever production companies get the green light to begin working on that year’s “epic” film and historical dramas, period pieces, and kung-fu films regularly top the list and, of course, these films do predictably well within the Sinosphere. Period films are fairly common in Hollywood, of course, but those that are marketed for international audiences (Gladiator, 300, Titanic, Forrest Gump) often tell a common story anyone can relate to set in a particular period of history rather than making the history the centerpiece of the film. More recent blockbuster franchises such as Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean have enough action, effects, and silly bits of comedy and romance thrown in to ensure that the average audience member, regardless of nationality, gender, or class will “ooo,” “ahhh,” or laugh at least once while watching the film.

    For the Chinese film industry to succeed in making its films more appealing and marketable to audiences outside of the Sinosphere, the government (SARFT) has to loosen its grip on the cultural export sector and allow writers and filmmakers to tell their own stories rather than issue directives in a some vain attempt to boost State soft power. China need only look for inspiration from its neighbor, South Korea, to see the kind of internationally recognized, critically acclaimed films that an East Asian country is capable of producing provided its storytellers are given free reign. Oldboy, Shiri, The Host, Mother, A Tale of Two Sisters, and I Saw the Devil are all examples of South Korean films that have experienced success abroad and have highlighted the expanding reach of the Korean Wave (한류) into Europe and North America. Perhaps when censorship is relaxed a bit more, we’d see, like Tom said, more Chinese “Slumdog Millionaires” and “Winter’s Bones” than “Founding of the Republics” and “Confuciuses.” Until then, the Chinese film industry seems on track to emulating Bollywood’s success in that they’re focusing on catering to domestic audiences and those within the Sinosphere.

    • Simmy Takasoh says:

      I know Bollywood films seem to be popular in West Africa too – To the point where “witchcraft” rumors in Nigeria are based off of stuff in Bollywood films

  5. Varun says:

    Aftershock by Feng Xiaogang was an extremely well made movie, its brilliant & very powerful.
    I highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it already.

    I fully endorse what “Baobo” above said about not copying Hollywood model or any other for that matter.

    Japan post-war consistently produced extremely good movies, classics which even today have cult followings.
    Those guys were trend setters and even influenced Hollywood & world cinema more than most people realize in the West.

    Korea in the recent years are the undisputed leaders in Asia, there is something about the movies they make that makes it special.

    HongKong did well in the past, China is just really starting out for all practical purposes, it will go through its own processes as others did.

    Lastly Bollywood is an abomination, it makes loads of money though.

    • BILL RICH says:

      Is After Shock allowed to screen in PRC ?
      There were many excellent films made in Shanghai back in the 20’s to 40s . All such excellence were lost afterwards. I love many of those 50s and 60s films made in Hong Kong too.

  6. Hua qiao says:

    How did Legend of a Rabbit do at the box office? (The animated film where the rabbit goes on a kung fu life journey, ultimately taking down the evil Panda.)

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  8. izabella says:

    there are many movies about modern Chinese life. It doesn’t have to be a heavy criticizing movie to be meaningful. 非诚勿扰 can be a good choice, and it shows a lot of the middle-upper class aspirations in modern China. The problem in my opinion lies in the Western critics and audience. They want either a big production kong fu film or a heavy painful anti-governmental film. anything that is in the middle won’t do, it’s either Jet Li or a farmer getting raped by a CP official. There are plenty good Chinese films from recent years. 80后,buddha mountain, 非诚勿扰, and more.

  9. izabella says:

    Just recently a new Chinese film 人山人海 was accepted to the Venice Film Festival, and of course, it was a heavy violent one. that’s what feeds critics. here something i edited about it: http://thinkingchinese.com/ren-shan-ren-hai-is-praised-at-the-venice-film-festival

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  12. Mikeem says:

    Interesting post. Very true that less state intervention would be a good thing. I think Chinese cinema has the potential to be huge internationally – they need one ”slum dog millionare-esqe’ film to act as a beach head and reassure audiences that sees Chinese cinema as typecast .
    I recently set up a film festival in Dublin to exactly challenge the belief that there is no good Chinese cinema outside of Kung Fu and period drama. Check it out: http://www.madeinchinafilmfestival.com/

    ‘Piano in a factory’ in particular is a sign of a bright future for Chinese cinema.

  13. M says:

    there are actually OK chinese movies, just check the list of banned movies 🙂 but I saw only Lost in Beijing because I’m not really interested in asian cinema (and it’s also not so easy to find them for download as US)
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0949489/

    but Beijing Bicycle (2001), Sunflower (2005) and Aftershock (2010) look watchable by reading reviews, because I’m not really interested in historical movies and I’d like to watch something from present about nowadays society which is changing so rapidly in China that anything older than 10 years is obsolete

    btw. what has Slumdog Millionare to do with India? so you would like to have british movie shot in China to feel satisfied about chinese movie industry? I don’t think this movie changed indian movie industry, Bollywood is running quite well for long time already

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