Few Chinese-language films — with the exception of Zhang Yimou's "Hero" and Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" — have done well in big Western markets. Chinese-made Earthquake blockbuster "Aftershock", from Legendary's partner Huayi, fizzled in United States cinemas, where subtitled films rarely perform well. Patriotic hits such as “Founding of the Republic” do not travel well either. in 2012, 75 films were sold overseas but took in disappointing $160 million at the box office. So even though China made more than 700 feature films in 2012, it was unable to cash in on the lucrative overseas market. So while it is doing better at home, Chinese film still has a long way to go make an impact internationally. [Source: China Daily, June 20, 2013]

According to China Film Insider: “While President Xi called on the industry to make films that can gain acclaim around the world, not since Ang Lee’s 2000 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has a Chinese-language film managed to resonate with overseas audiences. (It remains the top-grossing foreign language film of all time in the United States, and was made by a an American director with roots in Tawian, not in the mainland film industry). Efforts to develop a serious Oscar contender with the collaboration of French director Jean-Jacques Annaud helming the adaptation of bestselling novel Wolf Totembackfired when the Academy deemed the film insufficiently Chinese for consideration, and the film had limited success at the U.S box office. [Source: Jonathan Landreth, Sky Canaves, Pang-chieh Ho, and Jonathan Papish, China Film Insider, December 31, 2015]

Ian Johnson wrote in the The New Yorker: “People who work at Hengdian know that their productions are provincial. During another visit to Zhang’s photography studio, he named a few recent films, and asked me if I was familiar with them. I wasn’t. “See,” he said, turning to a couple of young actors sitting next to us. “No one watches our movies!” “It’s ruined by the censors, that’s why. They’re boring.” “There’s nothing from real life in the movies! Who wants to watch them?” [Source: Ian Johnson, The New Yorker, April 22, 2013]

“Abroad, Chinese cinema tends to be represented by a few élite directors, such as Chen Kaige (“Farewell, My Concubine”) and Jia Zhangke (“Still Life”). Their work is sometimes banned at home for being too political. I mentioned a Chinese director whom I admired, Ying Liang, whose 2006 film, “The Other Half,” offers a withering portrait of life in a modern industrial town — a place not unlike Hengdian itself. This time, it was Zhang who shook his head.

A book titled “A Silver Book: The Annual Report on the International Communication of Chinese Films in 2013" by the Academy for International Communication of Chinese Culture that is affiliated with Beijing Normal University examined the obstacles that Chinese films face in achieving overseas success at that time. Huang Huilin, director of AICCC and editor-in-chief of the book, said the study found that kung fu and action movies are the most popular Chinese film genres for overseas audiences. But fewer overseas audiences are willing to watch these movies in theaters. The study also examined the global marketing goals of the Chinese film industry in 2013, including garnering cooperation deals with international film industries. According to statistics in the book, although Chinese films participated in 76 international film festivals in 27 countries in 2013, winning 116 awards in 22 festivals, more than 55 percent of overseas viewers polled by the study said they were not aware of any film festivals in China. [Source: Liu Xiangrui, China Daily, September 25, 2014]

Websites: Senses of Cinema; dGenerate Films is a New York-based distribution company that collects post-Sixth Generation independent Chinese cinema; Internet Movie Database (IMDb) on Chinese Film ; Wikipedia List of Chinese Filmmakers Wikipedia ; Shelly Kraicer’s Chinese Cinema site ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Resource List ; Wikipedia article on Chinese Cinema Wikipedia ; Film in China (Chinese Government site) ; Directory of Interent Sources ; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia and Zoom Movie

History of Chinese Films in the West

Mainland Chinese cinema landed on the global stage in the 1980s and early 1990s as the country began to open up to the West. The movies of the so-called Fifth Generation sought to tell filmmaker-driven stories that were unimaginable during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Several of those pictures, such as Zhang's "Ju Dou" and Chen Kaige's "Farewell My Concubine," found a Western audience but were mainly restricted to the art house. [Source: Steven Zeitchik and David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, July 03, 2011]

The early 2000s brought the Western box-office success of so-called wuxia martial-arts films such as "Hero" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." (Hong Kong and Taiwanese cinema have followed separate arcs, thanks to the different political histories of those territories.)

But now the stakes and expectations have risen considerably. Production on the mainland has grown to more than 500 films per year, according to some estimates. The country is moving into 3-D films and budgets are swelling; with the lavish price tag on films like "Flowers of War," the movie almost certainly needs to make a splash overseas to turn a profit.

While English is usually the preferred language for Asian-themed movies aimed at international audiences, that could change in the next decade as America's grip on the title of world's biggest movie market weakens, Trench predicted. "There's a time right now that all of the studios, if they're going to do movies with Asian elements, they're going to be in English," she said. "But that's not going to be forever."

Difficulty Chinese Films Have Finding a Western Audience

Few Chinese-language films - with the exception of Zhang Yimou's "Hero" and Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" - have done well in big Western markets. Earthquake drama "Aftershock", from Legendary's partner Huayi, fizzled earlier this year in United States cinemas, where subtitled films rarely perform well. Patriotic hits such as “Founding of the Republic” do not travel well either. Foreign bottoms are less biddable.

Steven Zeitchik and David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “When the Chow Yun-fat action-comedy epic "Let the Bullets Fly" opened in China last year, it quickly became a phenomenon. Lured by its splashy fight scenes and whip-snap dialogue, filmgoers swarmed theaters. The movie wound up taking in more than $100 million at the box office in China, the most for a homegrown film. [Source: Steven Zeitchik and David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, July 03, 2011]

Yet despite its Hollywood-style violence and an actor with international name recognition, "Let the Bullets Fly" hasn't even managed to find a distributor in the United States. When it played the Tribeca Film Festival in April, there were walkouts. "It's not going to be for everyone," director and costar Jiang Wen said in an interview afterward. "I just make movies and hope people appreciate them."

Jiang isn't the only Chinese filmmaker who's making blockbusters at home and feeling unappreciated abroad. Feng Xiaogang's 2010 earthquake action drama "Aftershock," with nearly $100 million in receipts, received a token release in the U.S., where it took in only about $60,000. And John Woo's two-part war epic "Red Cliff" was a Hollywood-sized hit in China several years ago. But it didn't even crack the $1-million box-office mark when Mark Cuban's Magnolia Pictures released a condensed version stateside in 2009. Europe and the rest of Asia have been only slightly more receptive to these blockbusters.

The government and private companies are pouring significant resources into the film industry; officials are eager to boost their country's cultural exports in a way that matches the already booming business in factory goods.

"We often hear that the Chinese market will quickly approach the U.S. market," Zhang said. "But it will still take a long time for a Chinese film to create international influence."

China’s Investments and Marketing Chinese Film for the International Market

Zhang Xianmin. Professor of Beijing Film Academy, wrote: Only Hollywood and a few other big conglomerates have the power to market domestically successful Chinese blockbusters in the international market; maybe one film per year with a box office revenue of $20 million gets that attention. China distributes two to four of its films in 20 countries worldwide, but the countries are small countries like the one that trapped its coal miners underground for over a month. There is nothing to be proud about the sales because they are basically effortless deals. China makes about 5 million yuan for each of these films. But the domestic Chinese audience cannot care less about them — either they cannot find these films or they will not watch them.

Chinese cinema is not competitive when it comes to box office. Westerners control almost all the channels for distribution. At the same time, Chinese cinema will not develop any particular type of popular film genre because of prolonged years of cultural suppression. The most influential genre we have had is kung fu films. Yet it was the Hong Kong film industry that first capitalized on them. What original genre can the mainland Chinese film industry come up with? If anyone knows the answer please let me know.

The late 1980s when private capital first entered the Chinese film industry, some Chinese investors invested in overseas projects as a way of laundering money. By the 2000s, some began wondering if a Chinese company might buy a major Hollywood studio as Sony did when t bought Columbia Pictures in 1989 for $3.4 billion. That became Dalian Wanda bought Legendary Entertainment (“Jurassic World”) for $3.5 million in 2016.

In recent years as sources of investment have dried up at home Hollywood has been seeking Chinese investors flush with cash.In 2015, China Film Insider reported: “China continues to make its mark in Hollywood just as it does in the rest of the world: with money. The most notable Chinese-funded films of 2015 included The Martian (Bona Film Group), Furious 7, Jurassic World (both from China Film Group) , Mission — Impossible: Rogue Nation (Alibaba Pictures, China Movie Channel), and Southpaw (Wanda Pictures). Broader deals, such as the Warner Bros.-China Media Capital joint venture, Bruno Wu’s $1.6 billion film fund, and an 18-film partnership between Huayi Bros. and STX Entertainment are all signs of bigger things to come in 2016 and beyond. [Source: Jonathan Landreth, Sky Canaves, Pang-chieh Ho, and Jonathan Papish, China Film Insider, December 31, 2015]

Why Chinese Films Have Difficulty Finding a Western Audience

Steven Zeitchik and David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Chinese movies have remained a largely local affair, experts say, for reasons that include a lack of international stars and differing storytelling styles. Moreover, China's censorship rules discourage racy scenes and push screenwriters toward politically safer period pieces (which Western audiences may find difficult to follow) and romantic comedies. Instead of a global-cinema powerhouse, some worry China is at risk of turning into another Bollywood: healthy on its home continent but limp abroad. [Source: Steven Zeitchik and David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, July 03, 2011]

American parochialism is certainly an obstacle — foreign-language titles, after all, rarely find more than a niche audience in the U.S. But cinema experts say the problems speak as much to China's filmmaking conventions as they do to Western resistance.

"Hollywood often doesn't make American movies, it makes globally appealing movies," said David U. Lee, a Chinese movie expert who heads a co-production company and once ran an Asian film fund for Harvey Weinstein. "[But] Chinese filmmakers run on the assumption people already understand the story. It's laziness, and it makes it difficult to tell a story to a global audience."

Many of the current Chinese hits use historical reference points that elude Western audiences. "Let the Bullets Fly" is rife with allegorical meaning about standing up to corrupt leaders, while "Red Cliff" assumes a knowledge of Han dynasty politics. "It does present a little bit of a problem when a 3rd century potentate is presented casually in the way an American filmmaker would present George Washington," Magnolia Pictures President Eamonn Bowles said.

Hollywood producer Janet Yang ("Disney High School Musical: China," "The Joy Luck Club"), who is planning several China-U.S. co-productions, says that the issues go to fundamental differences in narrative. "In China, you have lots of long rambling stories in oral tradition. There is not a classic three-arc structure like the Greeks," she said. "Look at 'Let the Bullets Fly.' The actors look hot. There's lots of energy. But can someone tell me what the story was about?"

And even when Chinese filmmakers go out of their way to tell a Western story, they need to be mindful not to tilt too far away from the conventions of their own country."A successful co-production needs to be the right mix of attractiveness to both sides to actually get financed," said Christopher Chen, vice president of business development at Hollywood producer Endgame Entertainment, which has embarked on several such efforts, including the upcoming Joseph Gordon-Levitt thriller "Looper" and a dramatization of the life of Marco Polo.

For all the strategizing, though, director Zhang Yimou says that his country's cinema scene is facing a simple but bedeviling issue. "The most important thing is there are not many good films’ good stories that people all over the world can understand and be touched by," he said. "Our new film is trying to achieve this with our team, international cooperation and structure.... [But] people won't like the film if the story isn't told in a way to move people, no matter how big the investment and structure."

Is China Really Interest in Spreading It Films Abroad

Christopher Harding wrote in The Telegraph: The Chinese authorities appear to have little interest in supporting films that might generate warm feelings for China abroad. As Chris Berry, professor of Film Studies at King’s College London, tells me: “There is a lot of rhetoric about the desire to export, [but] these films are made for Chinese audiences inside the PRC. The Chinese government is under a lot of pressure, with Covid, the incredible restrictions they are imposing on people in the name of keeping Covid out, the inability to deliver electricity, and the prospect of the housing market collapsing.” [Source: Christopher Harding, The Telegraph, October 27, 2021]

Much effort therefore goes into ensuring the success of the right kind of domestic film. Favoured productions receive the best release slots (timed to coincide with major holidays), the most advantageous scheduling at cinemas, advertising in state media, encouragement of organised viewing-parties, and the chance for aspiring young actors to become “red avatars” (shaping their careers and public profiles by choosing patriotic roles).

“The Battle at Lake Changjin” was a global box office hit in 2021, earning over $850 million at the box office, nearly all in China. In the film, set during the Korean War, Chinese and North Korean troops are the good guys and South Korean and and US-led United Nations forces are the bad guys. “ Evidence for state-media claims that Lake Changjin is fostering sympathy abroad for China appears thin on the ground, given the objections, voiced everywhere from the United States to South Korea, about the film’s pantomime-baddie approach to characterisation and its questionable handling of history.

Yet China’s leaders haven’t given up on influencing hearts and minds abroad — far from it. The twist this time is that, rather than working against Hollywood, they are working with it. Until recently, the way for Western filmmakers to make it past Chinese censors was judicious consideration of the CCP’s sensibilities during production, followed by furious lobbying once the film was finished. Since the 2010s, there has been a trend instead towards Sino-US co-productions.

Image Sources: Wikipedia, Ohio State University: IMDB, Chinese B shots from Asia Obscura

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated December 2021

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