Give us respect, not patronizing gimmicks

Updated: 2013-05-24 08:50

By He Feng (China Daily)

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Give us respect, not patronizing gimmicks

Chinese cinema audiences can see through the contrived add-ins

As is typical of the genre, Tony Stark, the hero in Iron Man 3, the latest installment of the sci-fi action series, finds himself in trouble early in the film. Somewhat less predictably though, the film abruptly cuts to a middle-aged Chinese man speaking into the mobile phone about how he is the only person in the world who can help Stark wriggle out of this one.

As the plot unfolds over the next hour or so, no reference is made to the mysterious Chinese character again. A veteran of Hollywood movies, I was convinced he had to be an important piece of the puzzle, and my mind kept trying to weave him into the plot. Alas, the answer is revealed at the very end, through a four-minute dialogue between the Chinese man (we learn that he is a medical surgeon) and a nurse: they are the chosen healthcare providers for the US billionaire superhero.

Besides being a conspicuous endorsement of how far China's healthcare has come, the out-of-place scenes made me leave the theater scratching my head in bewilderment.

It was easy to see through all this. Someone thought playing up China's role in the film, and the appearances of a couple of familiar faces, would make the film more appealing to Chinese audiences. But even for an industry whose sole purpose is to find out what people want and give it to them, it comes across as a little over the top. I had to do a Google search to confirm that, indeed, what I watched was a special Chinese version, with the extra scenes inserted, presumably to appeal to Chinese sensibilities.

But the effort seems to have backfired. The scenes get in the way of the plot and look out of place. On Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, users railed about the scenes. One disgruntled viewer wrote: "Don't they know that when you buy imported branded clothes the first thing you do is cut off the Made in China label?"

Indeed, all signs suggest that when Chinese viewers buy tickets to a Hollywood film, what they want is authentic Hollywood, not a localized version altered to fit perceived Chinese tastes. These days, half of the Hollywood films screened use the original English soundtrack. People prefer it to the dubbed version, despite the trouble of having to read subtitles. This is a significant change from just a few years ago, when dubbing was the norm.

Such trends seem to have been lost on Hollywood, but then again it might be excused for trying anything it can think of. Despite China's impressive double-digit box office growth this year, Hollywood blockbusters have performed dismally in the country. Local, low-budget films such as So Young and Lost in Thailand have stolen the limelight. In fact, among films such as G.I. Joe and Skyfall, Iron Man 3 is one of Hollywood's better efforts of late. However, you can safely say its success was despite the tailored scenes rather than because of them.

These days, Hollywood producers seem to have an impossible task: pleasing both US and Chinese viewers. With mounting production costs, they can ill afford to lose in either of these markets, ranked No 1 and No 2 global film exhibition markets respectively. Somehow they have to cater to the drastically different cultural backgrounds and sophistication in tastes.

Perhaps it is time Hollywood learned a thing or two from other industries.

One of the most admired video games last year was a Sony PlayStation 3 release called Journey, from a Shanghai-born, US-educated game designer. The game was deliberately non-cultural specific (even non-demographic specific, as most video games are), yet with broad cross-culture appeal.

The game evokes a sense of awe in players, and although not intentionally built on a religious theme, players around the world have identified elements of their own religions in it, be it Christianity, Buddhism or Hinduism or something else. By staying away from artifacts associated with any one particular culture (the game does not even use language), Journey has won over players worldwide.

A more distant example, but one that is just as illuminating, is Apple, which has done a great job at making its products appeal to global consumers, not least Chinese. Its late CEO, Steve Jobs, reportedly never visited the country. In fact, Apple did a poor job at what people normally think of as localization, and the Chinese input method on its mobile devices is still a pain to use. Yet that has not stopped Chinese lining up at Apple stores to buy the company's products.

If the examples of computer games and Apple products are not conclusive, at least they hint at the possibility of universal appeal. More tellingly, US sit-coms, the less glamorous cousin to movies, have long been popular in China. From Friends to The Big Bang Theory, they have engaged the minds of many young Chinese viewers, even though their themes are quintessential US culture and lifestyles. The American-style nerd culture, for example, is so alien to the Chinese that there is not even a Chinese word for it. Yet people have easily crossed the cultural barrier to find the socially awkward Mr Sheldon loveable.

The Croods, an animation film from DreamWorks, opened in China about the same time as Iron Man 3, with fewer than half of the screen numbers. Yet it has done surprisingly well for a non-franchise film with limited marketing. The film is recognizably modeled after a typical middle class US family, which arguably is more cultural-specific than Iron Man's futuristic high-tech world. Yet the universal human relationships explored in the movie were enough to draw the audience in, making them laugh and cry with the characters.

Hollywood remains the undisputed cultural export in the world. Scenes from Iron Man 3 notwithstanding, it has historically done a great job at distilling the universal human condition, and telling stories around it. Perhaps owing to the cultural melting-pot nature of the country, it took a US genius, Joseph Campbell, to formalize the universal storyline, and another US genius, George Lucas, to make Star Wars from it. It will probably continue to do well sticking with what it does best, as The Croods has shown.

Localization is certainly welcomed in some cases. But it needs to work at a deeper level, rather than slapping on a couple of recognizable faces and adding a few lines of dialogue in the local language. Ultimately it comes down to respecting the audience, and not trying to pander to them with gimmicks.

Paul Graham, the successful Silicon Valley investor and mentor to hundreds of startups, has pointed out that the best-designed products are by designers who designed for themselves. As a result, they simply built things that they thought were best, rather than appealing to some imagined consumer need.

Tell a great story, and the box office will take care of itself.

The author is an independent commentator based in Beijing. He can be reached at The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily 05/24/2013 page9)