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Chinese Cinema’s Absent Allure

by Guest Blogger for Elizabeth C. Economy
April 21, 2017

Feng-Xiaogang-award Director Feng Xiaogang poses backstage after winning the best director award for his movie “I Am Not Madame Bovary” at the fifty-third Golden Horse Film Awards in Taipei, Taiwan, on November 26, 2016. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

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Larry Hong is an intern in the Asia program at the Council on Foreign Relations and a senior at Columbia University. This is the second post in his three-part series on the relationship between Hollywood and the Chinese film industry. Read part one here.

When I ask my American friends what they know about Chinese cinema, most respond with blank stares. Less than half can name a single Chinese actor besides action giants Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Donnie Yen, who are for the most part Hong Kong-based actors and have long been part and parcel of Hollywood. Even fewer can name a Chinese director, though a handful know Zhang Yimou, whose cinematic vision, signature style, and long career have made him understandably the face of mainland Chinese cinema. A few more artsy friends offer up names of pan-Chinese directors including Hong Kong-based filmmakers Ang Lee and Wong Kar-Wai. But Chinese cinema is more than just Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee, or Jackie Chan. It is also Jia Zhangke, Jiang Wen, Chen Kaige, Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi, Ge You, and many more. Sadly, much of the diversity of Chinese cinema remains largely unknown to U.S. audiences. While it is unclear exactly why Chinese cinema has yet to catch on in the United States, the limited exchange has cultural costs.

Not only do Chinese films rarely garner widespread popularity in the United States, but they also face significant hurdles in entering the U.S. market to begin with. While it might not be surprising if more niche Chinese films struggled to find an audience in the United States—after all, American indie films often face similar challenges—even big budget, commercially successful Chinese films have not earned much at U.S. theaters. For example, Jiang Wen’s hugely popular postmodernist comedy farce Let the Bullets Fly has not even managed to find a U.S. distributor. John Woo’s historic epic Red Cliff, which set a box office record in China, did not even surpass one million dollars in revenue in the United States. By contrast, in Italy, which has a film market less than one-tenth the size of that in the United States, the movie earned close to two million dollars. Even Zhang Yimou, whose movie Hero was a tremendous commercial success in the United States, failed to attract U.S. moviegoers to his 2012 film The Flowers of War, which had been a box office smash in China.

To be sure, many American cinephiles are well versed in the poetics of Chinese cinema. For example, New Yorker critic Richard Brody’s enduring critical engagement with Jia Zhangke’s work surpasses those of most Chinese critics. But a few seasoned critics such as Richard Brody can hardly make up for the general apathy in the United States toward Chinese cinema. So why have both Hollywood and American viewers been slow to embrace Chinese films?

The relatively poor quality of Chinese films in general likely contributes to some of Chinese cinema’s lack of popularity in the United States. This point has even been recognized in the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, which accused the domestic film industry of producing some “mediocre” and “terrible” films. However, this explanation still does not account for why higher-caliber Chinese movies—as judged by both international and Chinese standards—have not become more popular in the United States.

Certain cultural differences between the United States and China could also explain the limited American interest in Chinese films. As some analysts have pointed out, many recent Hollywood blockbusters are superhero movies with predictable plots and familiar characters. These movies reinforce age-old American narratives centered on individualism and heroism and have proven popular with U.S. audiences. Even in films that celebrate community or team values, one character often stands out from the crowd. Chinese blockbusters, meanwhile, often emphasize collective values, a break from frequently used Hollywood formulas.

Another potential explanation, which affects both Chinese and other foreign-language films, is that Hollywood studios remain reluctant to distribute films with subtitles and U.S. audiences are reluctant to watch them. According to the online arts site Indiewire, as of 2014, U.S. box office sales for the top five foreign-language films had declined by 61 percent over seven years, even while overall U.S. box office sales remained the same or slightly increased. Translating Chinese films into English can be tricky as well. Because English and Mandarin are so structurally different, some subtleties of the Chinese language inevitably get lost in translation, making it more difficult for U.S. audiences to appreciate a given film.

In an attempt to counter these trends and increase the international appeal of Chinese movies, filmmakers are also now casting more Hollywood stars. For example, Christian Bale appeared as a priest in Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War; Donald Sutherland appeared as an American director in Feng Xiaogang’s comedy Big Shot’s Funeral; and Adrien Brody and Tim Robbin appeared in Feng’s Back to 1942. Chinese cinema also seems to be adopting more Hollywood-style narratives and technical effects. Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly, for example, centers around the ideal of heroic individualism and is replete with violence and sex. These efforts to internationalize, however, have not been particularly successful either commercially or critically. The foreign-language film with the highest U.S. box office sales remains Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which came out nearly seventeen years ago.

Even as the maturing Chinese film industry becomes increasingly internationalized, many Hollywood studios may remain risk-averse and find it in their commercial interests to distribute predominantly English-language movies with familiar tropes and formulas. However, China’s growing global importance and the need for cross-cultural exchange offer good reason to increase the distribution of Chinese and Chinese-language films. This will not only allow U.S. audiences to diversify their viewing experiences, but also offer lessons about Chinese culture, an especially urgent task as China becomes a more active participant on the international stage. Distribution choices in the coming years will show whether American studios are ready to seize this opportunity and expand their offerings.

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