Guest Post: What the Chinese Film Industry can do to Compete Abroad

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.

0 thoughts on “Guest Post: What the Chinese Film Industry can do to Compete Abroad”

  1. Berry makes good points.

    Mainland Chinese movies are boring, even the ones which received “critical acclaims” in the West like Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou and Red Lantern which make him internationally famous. People don’t generally like slow melodramas which appeal to the Chinese. The Hong Kong movie industry on the other hand had a great run in the 90s. HK directors made some awesome action films (usually involve cops) but at the same time you get great directors like Wong Kar-Wai who proved that you don’t need to have super slick special effects, overabundance of Kung Fu action, or strong “cultural identity” to have a wonderful film. Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman is also fantastic in that regard. He is one of the few Asian directors who actually made some successful hollywood films.

    In the last decade however it was the Koreans who made the best breakthroughs in terms of film making. Their gangster movies like Oldboy and horror films are without doubt the best movies coming out Asia.

    The Jiang guy is reason why mainland Chinese movies suck for anyone but few Chinese.


  2. In many cases, international film success stories are rarely about a ‘country’ or a ‘people’, but are simply a damn good story, free of any outside interference (CCP and your political harmony goals…I’m looking directly at you).

    Making movies for the Chinese about the Chinese, full of culture, melodrama and Mainland history..fair enough (the overdose of Chinese period pieces comes to mind). But this formula isn’t going to turn the Mainland into at international cinematic powerhouse.

    I completely agree with lolz comment regarding Korean films.


  3. The biggest problems are the obsession with “protection” and promotion of culture as well as censorship. Chinese culture may appeal to some because of exoticism (which usually goes away once they discover what it truely is and the injustices it perpetuates), but in reality it doesn’t have much respect because it hasn’t earned it. What achievements does it have? For hundreds of years it has invented nothing, contributed nothing to the advancement of humanity, and instead has the dubious distinction of having the highest suicide rates in the world as well as a massive gender imbalance caused by rampant sexism. Of course that doesn’t even begin to touch the ever prevelent racism and xenophobia, as well as other unfortunate characteristics as below average creativity, below average critical thinking and reasoning abilities, and below average professionalism on the job. Is any of this really worthy of respect? I don’t think so, but chinese think this because of an arrogant, unjustified, deep rooted sense of cultural superiority.

    And as for chinese films appealing to chinese, while this may be true of the older people, the thirst for pirated foreign films amoung the youth of today clearly indicates that it is changing. Even though it wasn’t that good of a movie, Avatar’s victory in the Avatar vs. Kongzi movie battle early this year proves this without a doubt.

    See here for those who don’t know what I’m talking about.


  4. “Professor Lu noted that stories where “good guys always defeat evil powers are a positive example for the film industry.”

    So in other words, Chinese movies have to become like American movies in order to be successful?


  5. “So in other words, Chinese movies have to become like American movies in order to be successful?”

    One can say what they want about American cinema (I know I do) yet it is difficult to deny that their film formula is easily accepted and digested by a good chunk of global film-goers.

    If the goal is international fame then…yes…be like American films (I suppose that is just they way it is).

    If global film dominance is a desired goal, the name “Huai-llywood” should be dropped immediately. Nothing says a serious creativity deficient quite like stealing your rivals name.

    I’ve never understood the incessant need for branding places, ideas and products on the Mainland relative to a foreign counterpart.


  6. I’m eagerly waiting for the day when the Chinese are confident enough in themselves, their country and their culture that they can fully embrace the world. No more secrets, no more image management from Beijing, just the unvarnished China flaws and all. On that day, China will be able to become the world power (that’s what we’re really talking about here, not just movies) it’s people want her to be. As long as scared old men such as Jiang run the show, China will remain caged.


  7. I’m always surprised by well-written opinions that are either completely wrong or coming from such a one-sided perspective it cannot be possibly taken seriously. Because, in some weird way, I believe that people who are good at writing should be smarter. But even smart doesn’t equate to balanced or well-thought out.

    This dynamic is evident in both the article and comment section. I guess they don’t call it ChinaGEEKS for nothing.


  8. lolz is wrong. Wong Kar-wai has a strong cultural identity, that of Hong Kong’s. His movies are uniquely Hong Kong, even My Blueberry Nights.


  9. Outcast,

    Pretty sure you’re about to get into a big fight.

    As far as I can see it, one of the main issues with Chinese films is that so many of them can be grouped into a few basic cookie cutter categories: near pornographic pain and suffering nationalist flicks, historical epics/wuxia movies, melodramatic love stories, general movies about how the government is awesome. Some of these categories also overlap a bit.

    There was a period where Hollywood movies were just as cookie cutter, bland, and devoid of creativity. Then someone realized that people like Christopher Nolan, Judd Apatow, and Peter Jackson need to be making movies; not hacks like Michael Bay.

    Good luck with that line of reasoning, though, Mr. Jiang. Let us know how it goes for you.


  10. Nice piece by Mr Powers. Lets the likes of Jiang hang himself with his own words. Berry’s comments – especially about the Chinese film industry needing to find new genres – are spot-on and he was fair with his comment that 20 years ago, who would’ve thunk…

    Indeed, maybe troglodytes like SARFT and Jiang will be replaced eventually by brighter, more open and creative minds.

    One can only hope and otherwise keep buying and downloading pirated material for better fare.


  11. What I said should be taken into context with the fact that the government actually does view films as a tool for cultural protection and promotion. Every negative quality that I’ve listed are really just reasons why it needs to be allowed to change and evolve, free of elite or government interference.


  12. I enjoy watching Chinese movies myself as a CBC(canadian born chinese), but I also feel that there does indeed need to be something produced which is enjoyable by ALL types of audiences, not just chinese people who understand and grew up with the culture.

    I see what I feel are excellent pieces of work from chinese movie makers, but when my Caucasian friends watch them – they think the movie’s boring, or don’t “get” the underlying themes that aren’t spelled out to the viewer in black and white(and shouldn’t have to be).

    People just don’t understand why chinese act they way they do. Or even asians in general, or even when they watch korean dramas, why the heck the word “sorry” is uttered literally a million times(and think, why say the word, where there’s nothing to be “sorry” about?).

    The cultural divide is still enormous, and this will not change in merely 10 years as hinted above. Think of a frenchman watching a chinese flick and see if he gets it. This is not happening in just 10 years time.


  13. @outcast: On the whole I agree with your earlier criticisms of Chinese society and culture, there are obviously many flaws. But I would suggest much of what you and I see that is disturbing is a product of Communism and not something inherent in the people here. I’ve been fortunate to meet people who grew up in former Communist countries and for them, the culture here is very recognizable.

    Also, I would suggest that much of the arrogance and “deep rooted sense of cultural superiority” you see here are in reality very thinly veiled insecurities about themselves and their country.


  14. What’s weird about this whole thing, from my perspective, is that underground Chinese films are pretty well received abroad, especially by critics and at festivals. And there are some Chinese films that do appear to larger audiences. I imagine Lost in Beijing (苹果)would attract people, Suzhou River (苏州河) is filmed in such an interesting way it could make a splash, etc. The creativity is there, it’s just that those aren’t the films the government is supporting.


  15. “On the whole I agree with your earlier criticisms of Chinese society and culture, there are obviously many flaws. But I would suggest much of what you and I see that is disturbing is a product of Communism and not something inherent in the people here. I’ve been fortunate to meet people who grew up in former Communist countries and for them, the culture here is very recognizable.”

    I don’t totally agree because much of chinese culture was already this way even before communism. It’s been a top down centralized society, full of racism and xenophobia. For hundreds of years it closed itself off from the rest of the world, deeming itself to be the only civilized people (the term 中华 comes from this idea, and is quite racist). The policy of government censorship is also nothing new, various dynasties have done it to greater or lesser degrees for 2000 years. If anything communism actually fit very well with chinese culture because of its top heavyness and the idea of having their lives planned by someone else (the only difference being that it would be the government planning your life instead of your parents), also it created systems that would not change (an aspect of chinese culture has long been it’s inability to change).

    “Also, I would suggest that much of the arrogance and “deep rooted sense of cultural superiority” you see here are in reality very thinly veiled insecurities about themselves and their country.”

    Yes and no. More recently that is probably the case, but historically there was a genuine belief that they were the master race.

    Read all about it.


  16. This particular bit is telling:

    “The geographical dimension of traditional Sinocentrism was highlighted by Chinese reactions to the publication of the first world map by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552–1610):

    Lately Matteo Ricci utilized some false teachings to fool people, and scholars unanimously believed him…take for example the position of China on the map. He puts it not in the center but slightly to the West and inclined to the north. This is altogether far from the truth, for China should be in the center of the world, which we can prove by the single fact that we can see the North Star resting at the zenith of the heaven at midnight. How can China be treated like a small unimportant country, and placed slightly to the north as in this map?[11]”

    I always wondered why, even today, world maps in China show China as being firmly affixed upon the center, whereas in America, or really anywhere else I’ve ever been, maps show the center as the juncture between the prime meridian and the equator.

    There’s also the notion of the name Middle Kingdom or Celestial Kingdom still being used in modern times.

    Or what about the suggestion that Genghis Khan is somehow considered Chinese? The idea that a man who comes from an extremely small ethnic minority that exerted absolutely 0 political or cultural influence over the majority and was born in a region that was never controlled by the Chinese sovereign is somehow Chinese is beyond a stretch. Seems more like an effort to reinterpret history so that the extraordinarily civilized Chinese don’t come off as having been completely and utterly decimated by barbarians who slept in big tents and ate huge stacks of meat at every meal.


  17. “It’s been a top down centralized society, full of racism and xenophobia. For hundreds of years it closed itself off from the rest of the world, deeming itself to be the only civilized people.”

    This could be said to one degree or another of many large powerful countries throughout history including India, Japan, US, etc…

    In the end, China is like many other places: a conservative, agricultural based society. The main difference being that it has been infected by Communism which preys upon the culture’s weaknesses such as xenophobia, lack of personal responsibility, cheapening of individual life, etc. I suggest comparing the cultures found in Taiwan and Russia today. In all those darker aspects none of us are fond of, you’ll find Russia has much more in common with China than Taiwan has.


  18. I’m of two minds on this one. I don’t see the need for the Chinese film industry to follow the Hollywood formula either, since most of what comes out of Hollywood is crap. “Inception” really is the exception; unfortunately movies that good come few and far between from Hollywood. At the same time, if their goal is an international audience then they need to change something as the world does seem to like a lot of what comes out of H-wood.

    How about starting to export some more hard-hitting movies (like “Lust, Caution”, for example)? Or movies about life in modern China that treat life honestly? (Prof Lu wouldn’t like that, since according to him “Movies should always be positive and promoting the bright sides of Chinese to the world.” What a load of crap). But honestly, how many more period piece kung-fu flicks can the world take?

    I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a number of underground, very non-mainstream movies here in China over the last several years. Ones that aren’t even available on DVD or playing at more than 1 or 2 festivals around the world. I can tell you that there’s a core group of talented young film-makers who want to make drastically different, honest, creative films but they just don’t get the support they need in order to market it.

    Those are the guys who need support, not the wanna be “Huailywood” hacks.


  19. Rhys,

    Nevertheless, using the prime meridian as a basis places the center in northern Africa, not in Europe. Even if the dateline were marked as being in Asia, the center would rest somewhere near the Oceanas, not over China.


  20. Josh – I don’t really buy your point – it seems tenuous. England thought of itself as the “centre” of the world, and dues to its imperial clout, the prime meridien is also known as the greenwich meridien.

    The majority of the Chinese land mass happens to be further south than England so of course it appears to be in the centre.

    Most great powers over the course of history have placed themselves at the center of the earth and even today it continues to be that case in a psychological rather than physical way – and in fact humans believed for a long time that the earth was the center of the universe, and the sun revolved around us. I think what you are saying is not “Chinese” at all – it’s a human trait.


  21. America doesn’t force Chinese in China to eat pancakes for breakfast everyday. Why should we expect others to eat congee? Why can’t we just stay authentic original and unapologetic. When I meal plan for my children, I often return to undeviated Chinese dishes even though there are so many fusion variations from neighboring countries because I know that the original is important to understand, to pass on and to recognize when it is being appropriated by outsiders. Let’s just be ourselves and nevermind naysayers.


  22. When i came to my pal?s home to meet this Ivory Shore friend, I used to be not disappointed. That lady was fucking smoking hot. She acquired huge titties, a nice trim waste, and a thick circular ass that proceeded to go on forever. I started flirting together with her correct away, but I could inform that my pal desired to fuck that African ass far too.


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