Movie makers seek to please Chinese

Updated: 2012-08-29 01:26

By Li Xiaokun and Liu Wei in Beijing and Kelly Chung Dawson in New York (China Daily)

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Not too long ago, Western movie audiences' idea of a Chinese character was Fu Manchu — an evil mastermind who plotted to take over the world in the 1969 film The Castle of Fu Manchu.

But eight decades later, Hollywood and the silver screens of the West are acknowledging the growing importance of the film market in a country that is also rising in influence on the global stage.

Most recently, the American action film Red Dawn, directed by Dan Bradley and scheduled for a November release, changed its villains in post-production from an invading Chinese army to one from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The Western film industry is now aggressively pushing beyond the negative portrayals of Chinese people — and even the iconic kung fu roles of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li — to tap what promises to be one of the world's most lucrative movie markets.

"True, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li have freed the industry from some preconceptions, but they have made a new one — Chinese can (only) fight," said film critic Luo Jin.

But things are changing, given that Hollywood is always interested in expanding its market, said Ken Jurkiewicz, associate professor at the School of Broadcast and Cinematic Arts at Central Michigan University.

"In general, Chinese characters were either inscrutably intelligent, or they were treated like comic relief. Something mysterious and exotic, and that would be true of the female characters too," Jurkiewicz said.

But the Western film industry is now aware that "there's this sort of virgin territory in China, millions of people could be exposed to the Hollywood product. So they can't really denigrate or demean people using those old stereotypes.

"Hollywood is being very careful about how Chinese people are portrayed because they don't want to lose a potential audience", Jurkiewicz said.

Guy Aoki, founding president of Media Action Network for Asian Americans, an organization that monitors how Asian Americans are portrayed in US movies, TV and the media, said movie roles are actually being altered to avoid provoking or angering Chinese audiences.

"The most recent example is Red Dawn, where they changed the villains to be North Korean. I think that's a very big sign of how much they want to make money off of China. They don't want to offend China or Chinese audiences," Aoki said.

In June 2010, release of Red Dawn was delayed because of financial difficulties and amid growing controversy in China after excerpts of the script were leaked onto the Internet. Chinese media sharply criticized the film, with headlines such as "US reshoots Cold War movie to demonize China".

"They had to digitally alter everything after the fact. So many American movies do not make back their budget on domestic box office, and they have to rely on overseas markets. China is becoming bigger and bigger, so they really need China now," Aoki said.

"It's positive in the sense that they're less likely to cast Chinese villains ... The reality is that when they have villains from China and Japan, it still affects Asian Americans. It's positive to have less Chinese villains in Hollywood movies."

A promising market

These are indeed wise moves for an increasingly important Chinese movie-going market.

According to the Motion Picture Association of America, US domestic box office takings in 2011 fell to a 16-year low.

Ticket revenue in the world's largest movie market fell 3.5 percent to $10.2 billion, while the estimated number of tickets sold dropped 4.4 percent to 1.28 billion, the lowest figure since 1995's 1.26 billion.

On the other hand, overseas revenues of US films surged 7 percent to $22.4 billion in 2011.

In 2011, China's box-office revenue was 13.1 billion yuan ($2.06 billion), double what it was in 2009, according to China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.

Domestic ticket sales in 2012 reached 10 billion yuan as of Aug 16, raising expectations for the final annual figure to hit 18 billion yuan and surpass Japan to become the world's second-largest movie market.

Japanese media also noted the trend. The Tokyo Shinbun newspaper on Aug 11 quoted a local movie reporter saying that Japanese roles in US movies were prettified after the 1980s as the Japanese market rapidly expanded and became a major destination of American exports.

"Now, the same situation falls on Chinese roles in US movies," he said.

Investment on the rise

Hollywood roles are also being taken up by Chinese actresses popular in China to lure this lucrative market.

The trailer of Cloud Atlas, a science-fiction movie directed by Lana Wachowski, was released worldwide on July 28, and Zhou Xun portrayed three roles in it.

In June, Fan Bingbing's name also appeared in the cast of The Moon and the Sun released by Bliss Media, a production company in Hollywood.

Last year, Xu Qing was invited to join Looper, a Hollywood science-fiction movie. She portrayed the wife of the protagonist, played by Bruce Willis.

Later, Yu Nan announced she will join The Expendables 2, while Li Bingbing confirmed in October that she was shooting Resident Evil: Retribution as character Ada Wong and fights zombies alongside Milla Jovovich.

"In the era of globalization, Hollywood cannot ignore Chinese actors just as major US companies cannot ignore small Chinese companies," said Wu Yulan, deputy dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Media under the Zhongnan University of Economics and Law. The school is in Wuhan, capital city of Central China's Hubei province.

US film company DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc on Aug 7 announced plans to build a $3.14 billion theme park in Shanghai and open it in 2016.

The studio's newly formed China joint venture, Oriental DreamWorks, also announced it will make the next Kung Fu Panda movie, the third installment in the series, in China for release in 2016.

One day later, Cameron Pace Group, co-founded by Avatar director James Cameron and long-time business partner Vince Pace, set up a division in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin and launched its first film project, a 3-D documentary on Beijing.

"I am making a big investment and forming partnerships here in China," Cameron told a news conference on Aug 8. "We are very excited to be part of the historic transformation of media and entertainment from 2-D to 3-D. We believe the future of entertainment is in 3-D, and the future of 3-D is in China."

Cameron's Titanic and its 3-D version both swept China's box office. When the original version was screened in 1998, it grossed 360 million yuan and was the highest-grossing film in China for 11 years until Transformers 2 broke the record in 2009. Titanic 3-D raked in an amazing 900 million yuan.

In 2010, 3-D epic Avatar brought in 1.2 billion yuan and was the best-performing film at China's box office so far.

With the box office soaring 30 percent every year since 2003, China has become the new land of temptation for Hollywood studios.

China has been making moves to further open its market. A deal hammered out in February has increased the annual quota for foreign films in theaters to 34 from the original 20, and raised the foreign share of ticket sales from 13 to 25 percent.

A long way to go

But experts say there is still some way to go before Hollywood and Western audiences are able to fully — and accurately — integrate Chinese aspects and depictions of the country and its people into their offerings.

"There is a growing awareness that things might be more complicated. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Americans are exposed to other cultures more and more," said Jurkiewicz, from Central Michigan University.

"What I'd like to see happen is more Chinese films coming to this country, that portray contemporary Chinese life and culture. Those films are being made and shown in Asia, but very few of those films make it into the American market," he said.

Beijing-based film critic Bi Chenggong noted the golden period for Chinese films and performers in Hollywood was from 2000 to 2007.

"It was definitely related to the performance of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Bi said.

An American-Chinese co-production, the film was directed by Ang Lee and featured an international cast of Chinese actors, including Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi.

It grossed $128 million in the US, becoming the highest-grossing foreign-language film in American history. The film won more than 40 major international awards, including the Oscar for best foreign-language film.

"At that time, Chinese culture was popular in Hollywood. China had just become a new economic engine, while the 'China Threat Theory' was not talked about that much. We had just entered the World Trade Organization and were scheduled to host the Beijing Olympics ... All these left an open-minded image of China on the world," Bi said.

But now China is no longer a fresh subject, and Bi said Chinese stars have to realize the fact that movies featuring Asian stars as the core roles usually account for only 3 percent of Hollywood products.

"Besides, the Hollywood only picks up those with excellent performing skills who can speak good English. And many Chinese stars lack the motivation to explore Hollywood, given the prosperous market at home," Bi said.

"I expect to see more Chinese players in Hollywood, the most developed movie-industry system, to show our faces and have our voice heard there."

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