Hollywood’s attempts to crack China’s fast-growing movie market are are both varied and well-documented. In order to work around regulations that limit the number of “foreign films” allowed to show in Chinese movie cinemas each year, there are a number of tactics that help a film become “Chinese.” One strategy might be a co-production, another filming a certain number of scenes in China and most recently–and notably–casting a Chinese star, the path Iron Man 3 took by including an additional five-minute section for Chinese audiences with the megastar Fan Bingbing.
It is rarer, though, to look at the flow of movies in the other direction: What Chinese movies succeed in the U.S. market, which don’t, and why? Despite, the central government’s efforts in recent years to increase China’s soft-power abroad and Wanda’s purchase of AMC, most coverage in the Western media focuses on the more visible aspects of this soft-power push: Confucius Institutes, television news networks and increasing presence of the China Daily in major U.S. cites.
This week’s edition of Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo 南方周末) address this lack of coverage in a very interesting article and interview with Zhou Tiedong （周铁东), the point man for helping Chinese films find a market abroad （his official title is 中国电影海外推广公司总经历). At a macro and micro level Zhou diagnoses why most Chinese films aren’t that successful in the United States and makes some sharp predictions that shift between realism and pessimism about the potential for Chinese films overseas.
At a philosophical level, Zhou believes the main challenge Chinese films face abroad, particularly in the U.S., is the tendency for mainland filmmakers to tell stories about renqing (人情）rather than renxing (人性). The difference in these perspectives, Zhou insists, is abstract but important. Renqing deals with particulars of social interactions that differ between countries and cultures while renxing deals with universal human emotions and struggles. He attributes the success of the 5th generation of Chinese directors to an ability to break beyond the confines of telling stories based solely on renqing to ones that while still based in China deal with more common universal themes of renxing.
With these definitions in place, he gives a series of harsh evaluations concerning the foreign box-office potential of recent hits in Chinese markets. “So young” (Zhi qingchun 致青春), a film that follows the lives of university roommates from the 1990s to today, “Coming to America” (Zhongguo hehuo ren 中国合伙人）a quite compelling story that chronicles the rise of China’s largest English language training academy and “Tiny Times” (Xiao Shidai 小时代） a look at the priveleged, melodramatic and more than slightly unrealistic lives of Shanghai university students, all have, according to him, no potential in the United States. Too much renqing and not enough renxing. At a more practical level, the conclusion to Coming to America is slightly anti-American and Tiny Times, he thinks, is just a bad movie, made, like so many other films, to satisfy a narrow fan base. Zhou doubts it would gross more than $10,000 in the U.S.
Looking forward, he is not that optimistic about the future of Chinese movies in the U.S . The argument is quite convincing and his logic runs as follows. Hollywood movies will always garner ninety-seven percent of the American market. British films will dominate a significant slice of remaining three percent. So, films from the rest of the world must always compete for a very small slice of the American box office. Within this competitive environment Chinese films will never be a main-course (zhushi 主食） in the states or in worldwide market; they can only be a desert (tianpin 甜品). According to him, most Chinese films won’t be getting out of art houses cinemas any time soon.
Even films that do see more mainstream success in the U.S.—martial arts flicks often set in imperial China—have a bleak future in American market. If Americans go to see a Chinese movie, it is likely in this genre: Hero, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and The One. In fact, the most recent edition to this corpus of films , The Grandmaster, the story of Bruce Lee’s martial arts teacher, featuring Zhang Ziyi and produced by the Weinstein Brothers, recently opened in the U.S. with an ok box office performance. But he thinks these stories are stale and the actors who fill them increasingly over the hill.
One thing the article mentions but ultimately elides is the important question of what Chinese movies are popular in the United States and, in the best of all world, what movies should be popular. The films that do well in the U.S. box office confirm existing American conceptions of China, especially among young people: China is an ancient land with wicked emperors and filled with people who are really good at kungfu. That is perhaps and oversimplification, but not by much. Many freshmen enter my Chinese history class with just this view. Ideally the class challenges these pre-existing conceptions about what China was, is and might become. The ideal Chinese film from a teaching perspective is one that does similar work.
If you had to pick one movie to show a bunch of American students that best embodied all the contradictions of life in China today, what would it be?