The following is a guest post by Robert Powers.
Hollywood vs. ‘Huai-llywood’
Thursday, September 2 was the day the Chinese mainland saw the release of Inception, British director Christopher Nolan’s dream-minded and quasi-sci-fi thriller about corporate espionage. Released in the US on July 16 and in Hong Kong on July 29, the 147-minute film with a reported production budget of $160 million has made nearly $620 million worldwide as of August 24. Earlier in the week it was even reported that Leonardo Dicaprio stands to make at least $50 million from starring in the film.
If Inception manages to remain atop the Chinese box office for three weeks, as was the case when was released in the US, it will be going head-to-head with Zhang Yimou’s latest, The Love of the Hawthorn Tree, a city-girl meets country-boy love story that will hit theaters Thursday, September 16.
Distribution of the film in China will be shared equally between China Film Group (CFG), the country’s most influential and de facto state-run filmmaking and film distribution enterprise, and the Huaxia Film (HF) Distribution Company, a private enterprise founded in 2004. A Huaxia spokeswoman told the [Chinese media] that Chinese film distribution markets are “divided geographically into different regions,” but refused to say in which regions HF would distribute the film.
“The Hollywood film industry is pretty strong,” said Jiang Defu, general manager of the CFG’s marketing corporation. “Their style of storytelling is attractive and interesting to most people. Hollywood can crush many other countries’ film industries.”
Jiang spoke at length with the [Chinese media] about what he sees as the coming rise of an internationally prominent Chinese film industry – or what he called “Huai-llywood,” referring to CFG’s purported state-of-the-art studios located in Beijing’s Huairou district. But regarding a movie as a means of telling a story, Jiang was adamant about persevering local traditions. “Chinese directors and playwrights are not concerned with a foreign way of storytelling,” he said. “We keep telling our stories to our audiences.”
“We can learn from [foreigner audiences] and appreciate them, but the cultural essence will remain the same,” Jiang said. “We can’t wipe out Chinese culture and let foreign culture rule our filmmaking. CFG has a responsibility to protect our culture. We are shooting Chinese movies not Hollywood ones.”
Professor Yin Hong, director of Tsinghua University’s film and television research center, told the [Chinese media] “American movies possess 70 to 80 percent of the market share of movies seen around the world.” For Chinese films to attain this level of prominence, Professor Yin said it would be necessary for Chinese films to show “unique cultural aspects” and elaborated by saying it would “mainly depend on social, political and economic situations. I still dare say that – ten years from now – Chinese films will be the mainstream around the world.”
Professor Lu Di, a film and television expert at Beijing University’s school of journalism and communication, also told the [Chinese media] that Chinese films would require a more positive bent to reach a wider audience abroad. “The point is about the responsibility of a culture product,” said Professor Lu. “Movies should always be positive and promoting the bright sides of Chinese to the world.”
“Zhang Yimou’s movies like Curse of the Golden Flower belittle Chinese people and give audiences a false image,” Professor Lu added. “I hope [Zhang’s] movies can be totally abandoned. Many of my friends living abroad hold the same negative opinions towards his movies: too dark.”
Jiang also bemoaned Chinese movies that showed an unflattering portrait of life in the Middle Kingdom. “Films should belong to art but many people make them political, like how they used to give prizes to Chinese movies that had this old style and showed a poor China,” he said. “Many foreigners who don’t know much about China thought that was what China was actually like, but when they came, they were surprised and said, ‘How come your country is like ours? Your city is even better than ours. You are supposed to wear cotton-padded jackets!’”
Professor Lu pointed to films by director Fen Xiaogang (A World Without Thieves and If You are the One) as examples of movies that should be promoted abroad. Speaking on the significance of Christopher Nolan, Professor Lu noted that stories where “good guys always defeat evil powers are a positive example for the film industry.”
Chris Berry, a professor of film and television studies at the Goldsmiths-University of London and a noted Chinese film and TV expert, told the [Chinese media] that raising production quality, relaxing censorship and introducing a ratings system would help wonders to help the Chinese film industry compete globally.
The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), the governmental regulatory body that oversees China’s radio, film and television industries, announced Thursday, August 19 that it would not yet be “appropriate” to introduce a ratings system on the Chinese mainland.
Professor Berry also said that the establishment of a global distribution network for Chinese films would help to improve the industry’s standing. “Critics sometimes claim that people go to Hollywood films because they love them,” he said, “but they also watch Hollywood films because there’s nothing else on at the movie theaters where they live.”
“Maybe it’s going to take something extraordinary that to break Hollywood’s [distribution] stranglehold on a global scale,” he added, “but at least the Chinese government has had the good sense to stop Hollywood companies from being able to take over distribution from inside China itself.”
Jiang was quick to note that China only had one cinema for every 20,000 people whereas the US had one for every 8,000. “In some remote areas there aren’t any cinemas,” he said. “It could be a huge loss economically if we have all these blockbusters and not enough cinemas.”
When asked about the role of the censor in filmmaking, Jiang replied: “All works under cooperation with Chinese companies need to pass the censors. Things that are too bloody and violent need to be eliminated. A pure land should be kept.” He also noted that he considered a film ratings system as its own kind of censorship.
“There are no mysteries regarding censorship or the import process,” Jiang said. “Many journalists ask me these questions. Every country has its own censorship. We have different interpretations about censorship and we don’t dare to interpret it for you because maybe ours could be wrong.”
While a marketing executive for Warner Bros. Asia told the [Chinese media] that Inception had been accepted for general release on the Chinese mainland without any edits for content, a representative at SARFT would not comment on whether or not Inception had been edited for content.
“SARFT is a governmental department, not a company or corporation,” said the representative who would not give a name. “We are just in charge of censorship of films,” adding that “foreign and local films have the same standards” when it comes to editing films for content. SARFT did not respond to a faxed request for an interview regarding the nature of why Inception may or may not have been approved for general release in the Chinese mainland without edits.
Professor Berry noted the problem of getting “government intervention right” when it comes to filmmaking. “Government censorship is one of the main factors driving the demand for pirate DVDs and downloads,” he said, “but without government protection … Hollywood would have taken over.”
Professor Berry also spoke about the difficulty of Chinese film companies finding niches other than martial arts films that would appeal at home and abroad. “The [Chinese film] industry desperately needs to find other genres that global audiences might accept,” he said. “And I don’t think sentimental nationalistic films like Aftershock or Lu Chuan’s Nanjing! Nanjing! are going to work, because audiences outside China are not emotionally invested in those events.”
“I do think that eventually, despite SARFT’s recent insistence that it is not going to adopt a classification system, that the censorship system will change,” Professor Berry added. “How it will change is harder to predict…Twenty years ago who would have thought that China would be the world’s second largest economy today?”
Dai Tian, Ying Kun and Lin Kan Hsuang contributed to this report.