The Wolf and the Fox: How Hollywood and Globalization have Impacted the Chinese Film Industry
Since the closing of China’s market in 1949, China has been cut off from advances in the global market and the world of film. This isolation from global market forces created the perfect environment for controlled propaganda through film. When the market eventually opened back up and started to transition from a planned economy to a market economy, “the Party was reluctant to loosen its grip on an important tool for propaganda” (Jihong, 2002) even though it was starting to become more lax on other areas of art such as painting exhibitions and book publishing. Eventually the Party liberalized the film industry and stopped sponsoring filmmakers financially and began importing foreign movies from Hollywood. Instead of losing influence, the Party actually gained even more control over the film industry. The Party used new dapian films modeled after Hollywood blockbusters to cloak their ideals under layers of commercialization that started to run rampant throughout the film industry and filmmakers were more censored under the control of the market economy than they had ever been under the Party alone. “China’s WTO accession will only intensify these adverse effects. A warning of an approaching wolf eight years ago today translates into warnings of an approaching pack of wolves” (Dai, 2002). Hollywood has had their eyes on the lucrative Chinese film market for years, watching and waiting patiently for the perfect moment to pounce. For many Chinese observers, entrance into the WTO signaled the end of Chinese national cinema and a take over of the industry by Hollywood, but even though the wall around China’s market was taken down, China still had the protection of their national identity in mind. Exiting from cultural isolation and entering into the playing field of the global market looked like walking out of a cave to be greeted by a pack of hungry wolves outside. China employed cunning techniques to use the wolves to their advantage and avoid being devoured by the hegemons of the movie industry and retain control of the national industry.
The effects of the shift from a planned economy to a market economy on the movie industry are very apparent when contrasting the cinema of before the shift and the cinema after the shift. Radical changes are apparent even between the small span of ten years between the 80’s and 90’s. The filmmakers of these decades are often referred to as the Fifth and Sixth Generations. The Fifth Generation filmmakers were the last group of filmmakers to produce works before the shift of the economy. Their films are “defined by bold experimentation with artistic form” (Chen, 1997). The One and the Eight (Zhang Junzhao, 1984) was one of the first Fifth Generation films to be made. It shocked audiences with its unconventional approach in portraying the Anti-Japanese War. Zhang implemented new and original techniques such as subjective camera perspectives, arbitrary long shots, and fragmented narration in his depiction of events. This is starkly different from the Sixth Generation who came onto the filmmaking scene as the shift to a more market-driven economy was taking place. The Sixth Generation filmmakers were ambitious and “based their work on individualism and market-oriented opportunism” (Chen, 1997). This is illustrated in the creation of the phenomena known as New Year’s films in the mid 90’s. This new tradition was started by director Feng Xiaogang and took advantage of the holiday market. New Year’s films are typically family-oriented feel-good films that have a happy ending and are made to bring families out during the Chinese New Year. Feng has made such films as Dream Factory (1997), Be There or Be Square (1998), and The Banquet (2006), which are purely commercial and made to boost box office sales.
Big Shot’s Funeral (Feng, 2001) is a New Year’s film by Feng Xiaogang that was premiered only ten days after China’s entrance into the WTO. The film reflects the anxieties and projected outcome of the further opening of China’s market by many Chinese. The film is about a Chinese filmmaker (YoYo) who is hired by an American director (Tyler) to film the making-of documentary for his film. The American director falls into a coma in the middle of production and asks YoYo to film a comedy funeral for him. YoYo agrees and calls a friend to help him start on the project. Halfway through filming, YoYo discovers that Tyler’s estate is bankrupt and has to find other means to fund the film. YoYo gains financial assistance from foreign investors and starts to auction off every nook and cranny of the funeral for advertisements and product placements. They even sell the deceased’s eyes for a contact lenses company. However, Big Shot’s Funeral is not only an entertaining New Year’s comedy, but also “a reflective film mirroring and echoing some of the most pressing cultural and market issues in a fast-changing Chinese society” (Wang, 2003). Feng reflects on his own experiences and obstacles presented from having to become creative and look for sources of funding due to the end of State funding. In Big Shot’s Funeral, Tyler’s major investor for his film is Japanese “whose unrelenting, emotional, and profit-driven demands and pressure are portrayed as one of the major obstacles of the film” (Wang, 2003). Tyler’s eventual breakdown into a coma can be seen as a metaphor for the death of filmmakers in today’s profit driven economy. Many of Feng’s ideas for the movie were vetoed by Columbia Pictures and Feng found that “his latitude diminished radically once he collaborated with foreign investors” (Braester, 2005).
Movie attendance started to decline in the early 90’s due to the rise of television, the Internet, and the importation of Hollywood blockbusters. Hollywood imports helped strengthen Chinese film markets by “deepening the ongoing process of commercialization” (Jihong, 2002), but they started to dominate over domestic films in the box office. Many feared that Hollywood movies would repress China’s national cinema. Hollywood movies had “Glittery action movies made with the newest technology and featuring international stars” that would “simply overwhelm the ability of Chinese movies to compete” (Jihong, 2002). Hollywood imports, such as The Fugitive (Andrew Davis, 1993) and Titanic (James Cameron, 1997), were immensely popular. The Party was starting to lose their audience, and it was this factor that eventually led the state to liberalize the film industry. They realized that they needed to revamp the film industry to recapture their audience, but were afraid they would lose their hegemony over the ideals expressed through movies if they allowed filmmakers financial freedom to work with the global market. But even though filmmakers were no longer under their direct control, the Party found that they could still manipulate the filmmakers to produce works that enlighten the public and promote Party ideals while stimulating the new economy. They started modeling their films off of Hollywood blockbusters to bring audiences in with higher quality and more entertaining works, cloaking their ideals with the flashy high definition action scenes.
The government still plays a large part in determining what is shown through censorship and promotion of dapian films (big event pictures). The China Film Group (CFG) is a government owned and operated conglomerate whose responsibility is to promote domestic dapian films such as Hero (Zhang, 2002), House of Flying Daggers (Zhang, 2004), and The Banquet. These films serve as propaganda that “glorify the lives of Party officials, celebrating heroic incidents” (Davis, 2010) and engender a sense of national pride. These nationalistic dapian movies are the new face of Party propaganda. The Party wants the film industry to depict a strong and unified China and censors any film that tries to take another approach to history. An example of this is the ban on making movies for seven years placed on director Jiang Wen for his movie Devils on the Doorstep (Jiang, 2000). Jiang Wen is a director that cannot be correctly labeled as either a Fifth or Sixth Generation director. He experiments with cinematography and employs unconventional techniques in his movies, but in a different way from the Fifth Generation. Also, his films have meaning and are not made purely for commercial reasons like the Sixth Generation. Devils on the Doorstep is based off of a novel by You Fengwei, which is about a small rural village and how the Anti-Japanese War affected the lives of the villagers. The film premiered at the Cannes Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize and international acclaim. However, the movie was labeled ‘insufficiently patriotic’ by the Chinese Film Bureau and said to have distorted China’s history. When submitted to the Film Bureau, it was objected to “on the grounds that the Chinese people appeared excessively stupid” (Ward, 2004). With his movie Devils on the Doorstep, Jiang said his purpose was far from mocking the Chinese people, but merely to show the absurdity and cruelty of war. The bumbling Chinese peasants were meant as a caricature, but were interpreted as criticism and depicted Chinese history in a not so flattering light.
To gain a greater insight into the atmosphere of contemporary Chinese cinema, I interviewed six Mainland Chinese people. I asked them to list some movies that are popular right now and what they thought was the meaning behind the films. One of my interviewees listed the movies American Dreams in China (Chan, 2013) and So Young (Wei, 2013). He felt that the movies were about young people’s lives and “how real Chinese young people try their best” (Jiao, 2014). Both of these movies are feel good films that portray a positive image of hardworking Chinese citizens, the aim of the Party. Another interviewee named the movies Love is Not Blind (Teng, 2011) and If You are the One (Feng, 2008). She believed the main theme for these movies was love and they were entertainment films that explored human relations (Ou, 2014). These are more commercial feel good films made to take advantage of the box office revenue. Another interviewee named the New Year’s films Personal Tailor (Feng, 2013) and Where are we Going, Dad? (Xie, 2014). She felt that Personal Tailor did have social criticisms about the financial gap between the rich and the poor and bribery and Where are we Going, Dad had social criticisms about ignoring family (Wei, 2014). The Party’s goal through film is to teach the public Party ideals and stimulate the economy. Social criticisms in New Year’s films are a method of achieving both.
Where are we Going, Dad? is a very interesting case study for exploring commercialization in Chinese film. The film industry suffered losses due to the rise of satellite television and the rapid popularity of reality TV shows like Super Girl and I am a Singer. To regain lost footing, the film industry started adapting popular reality shows into movies. A recent cinema project took on adapting the vastly popular talent search show The Voice for theatres, but the project was a failure. However, the cinematic version of Where are we Going, Dad? was a huge success. Where are we going, Dad? is a reality TV show based off a South Korean program and airs on the Hunan Satellite TV station. The show is about developing and strengthening the relationship between celebrity fathers and their children. Many did not believe the film would not do well at the box office, thinking people would not pay to watch something in theatres that they can watch for free at home. But the movie took advantage of the New Year market and set a record for a non- 3D Chinese film at the Chinese box office on its opening day. It grossed about $50.97 million USD in the first four days of its run (Coonan, 2014). The movie marketed the success of the show and the popularity of the celebrities and with the right timing, created a lucrative project involving little creativity and ingenuity. The movie further promoted the sale of various clothing items and accessories with skillful product placement using the celebrities as walking billboards. T-shirts, jackets, and backpacks are selling out on e-commerce websites and many locations used in the film have become vacation hotspots. Where are you Going, Dad? is a prime example of the increased commercialization and market-driven opportunism that has taken over contemporary Chinese cinema.
The Party employs many tactics to protect and ensure the success of domestic films from Hollywood imports. There are often blackouts on foreign releases during sensitive times, like political memorials, that keep theatres from showing foreign films and only showing domestic films. These “domestic film protection periods” are implemented to promote state-backed dapian movies (Davis, 2010). In 2007, the independent distributor PolyBona submitted a formal complaint about the allocation of digital screens in early 2007 because its CEPA (Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement) coproduction film Confession of Pain (Lau and Mak, 2006) was kept out of the lucrative New Year’s market. This government action was implemented to promote Zhang Yimou’s dapian film Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) (Davis, 2010). The Party keeps the superficial image of global cooperation and trade up by continuing to import Hollywood imports while manipulating the box office to their advantage. They schedule Hollywood films to play at inopportune times for box office sales and often pit two large blockbusters against each other by playing them at the same time. In 2013, China opened the movies Gravity (Cuarón, 2013) and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Lawrence, 2013), two films with lucrative potential, on the same weekend, severely hurting ticket sales. They also employ the technique of delaying the scheduling of movie releases, allowing movies to premier first in the U.S. and creating time for pirated copies to make their rounds, which depresses ticket sales.
China was wary about opening up the market and reforming the economic system to a market economy, but realized it was necessary to promote growth and profit for Chinese companies. Even though on the surface it seems that China has opened themselves up to the global economy, they still have a cultural wall encircling their market and ensuring the protection of their national identity. In China today, marketization functions to “spur investment, production, and consumption with the aim of encouraging homemade products that are otherwise unable to compete with imports” (Davis, 2010). The Party was also wary about losing control over the film industry once they liberalized the industry and allowed market forces to take over. But they found that their control over what is produced was even more effective after being revamped to fit the market-driven model of Hollywood. The film industry stimulated the new economy and filmmakers were more censored in their content than ever now that they had to obey the whims of the market. Entrance into the WTO and the importation of Hollywood films have created an atmosphere of nationalism and increased commercialism in contemporary Chinese cinema. Many Chinese viewed Hollywood studios as a pack of hungry wolves ready to pounce and devour the Chinese film market, but the Party successfully manipulated market forces to their advantage with the true cunning of a fox.
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Wei, Jin. Personal interview. 10 March 2014.
Ou, Yangfang. Personal interview. 10 March 2014.
Jiao, Yunpeng. Personal interview. 10 March 2014.
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