Monday 20 February 2017

Pander Express: China in Hollywood

Making a movie that caters to China isn't just important anymore; it's a necessity. Hollywood is increasingly dependent on capturing this key international market - but it doesn't always get it right.

The Great Wall – the biggest, most expensive movie ever made in China – is now in cinemas and heralds the start of the latest chapter in the continually evolving cinematic relationship between America and China.

Tian Jing in The Great Wall
Does it signal the start of a string of success or is it another carriage on the pander express that sees America continue to blunder its way onto Chinese cinema screens? 

Before we answer that question, let’s circle back around and examine why China is so important to Hollywood in the year 2017.

Firstly, China is the second-largest global box office after the United States; since 2011, the average box office gross has grown by 35% year on year, compared to the fairly flat performance in the United States. Somewhere in the region of 26 movie theatre screens open in China every day to cater for the flourishing throngs of moviegoers in a country with a population that has bypassed 1.3 billion and continues to climb.

Secondly, a growing Chinese middle class means more disposable income and a greater awareness of international media, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Hollywood studios are eager to tap into a market that isn’t just big, but getting bigger all the time. In 2012, the Chinese government lifted restrictions on American content, allowing at least 34 non-Chinese productions to be screened in cinemas there each year, a number significantly larger than in the past.

However, this 34-movie quota doesn’t include American/Chinese coproduction’s and so Hollywood studios are increasingly eager to include elements in their movies that signal a working relationship with China, such as shooting or setting the story in the country, including a crop of Chinese acting talent or simply working and receiving funding from Chinese production studios. 

Sebastian Stan, Ridley Scott, Matt Damon and Chen Shu
at the Chinese premiere of The Martian
You’ve probably seen a stark increase in the number of films that open with logos for studios like H. Brothers or China Film Group Corporation, who have contributed to or worked on American films like Furious 7, Pixels, Free State of Jones or The Edge of Seventeen in the last few years. In 2015, Chinese movie studio Bona Film Group invested in TSG Entertainment, which finances major movies from 20th Century Fox like The Martian, a film that went out of its way to show China in a particularly favourable light. I wonder why?

The floodgates have opened as so to speak; China is like the hot new kid in school that everyone wants to be friends with – but more often than not, attempts to cater for Chinese audiences aren’t as successful as America would like, appearing more like pandering than a genuine effort to satisfy.

Movies like X-Men: Days of Future Past, Transformers: Age of Extinction and Independence Day: Resurgence have worked to include big name Chinese actors in their narratives; Fan Bingbing, Li Bingbing and Angelababy respectively. However, in each instance, the reception from Chinese audiences was lukewarm; their inclusion in the films were seen as throwaway cameos or as window dressing to a broader picture that was all about America. Like adding a new set of baubles to your Christmas tree, but only at the back where they face the wall. 

In a 2014 article about Transformers: Age of Extinction, professor Ying Zhu from the College of Staten Island argued that Li Bingbing’s role was “so perfunctorily inserted into the film that [it] amounted to nothing more than another type of incoherent product placement” and that claimed that Chinese audiences found this kind of “special China delivery” patronising.

Fan Bingbing in X-Men: Days of Future Past; Li Bingbing in Transformers: Age of Extinction
Angelababy in Independence Day: Resurgence

That didn’t stop the film from raking it in at the box office. At the time, it went on to become the highest-grossing film in China with an estimated $320 million, thanks to the casting of Li, the reams of Chinese product placement and the fact that the entire third act takes place in Beijing and Hong Kong. 

Conversely, the success of a film in China can sometimes salvage lacklustre takings domestically; just look at 2016’s Warcraft, which made more money in China during its first week ($159m) than Star Wars: The Force Awakens did in its entire run. In the United States, Warcraft was considered a bomb, earning only $47.4 million in total compared with the $220 million it made overall in China. What was the secret to its success? Over half of World of Warcraft players live in China, essentially make the film a slam-dunk to an existing audience base that rushed out to see the game come to life.

Jiang Wen and Donnie Yen in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The recent inclusion of Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen and Chinese actor Jiang Wen in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story also helped give the film a push in the country, along with a range of warmer reviews that found favour with their meaty roles. 

Which brings us neatly back to The Great Wall, the biggest film ever produced in China. Intended to achieve an even split of appeal for American and Chinese audiences, the film has garnered a lot of negative attention since the trailer arrived last year. Choosing to ignore that the film is fronted by a big Chinese director, a mostly Chinese cast, a Chinese storyline and locations as well as pulling from the country’s rich history and mythology, most online commenters have dragged the film down for its inclusion of Matt Damon in the lead role. 

Rather than recognising that the film has reams of Chinese acting talent, the focus has instead been on Damon and the fact he plays the main role in a film about Chinese culture.

However, what they fail to realise is that Damon’s inclusion isn’t to tarnish Chinese history, but to pander directly to American audiences instead. As someone known the world over, Damon is actually opening the film up to American moviegoers who might not give the film a second glance if it didn’t have a known-name on the poster, the same reasoning that was given when Scarlett Johansson was cast in the lead role in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell movie.

Plus, Damon spends the entire film being humbled and learning from the skilled Chinese characters. He doesn’t lead the charge or assert his Western authority; he becomes just another grunt in any army of thousands. 

Regardless, the dominant narrative regarding The Great Wall has been another footnote in the on-going debate surrounding white saviours and whitewashing in cinema. His inclusion has angered some and elicited shrugs from others; I guess it just goes to show that you can never please everyone.

Which is exactly what this is all about; in an increasingly globalised world, Hollywood studios are eager to do exactly that – please everyone. They want to have their cake and eat it too by appealing to Chinese audiences without alienating Americans…or visa versa. They’re simultaneously trying to navigate diversity, tokenism and whitewashing without treading on anyone’s toes, an act proving increasingly impossible when every casting decision (we’re looking at you, Tilda Swinton) or set location is examined under a microscope.

The Great Wall isn’t the rousing success it could have been – but it is an interesting development in America’s increasingly curious attempts to court China. Where the industry goes next will surely continue to raise eyebrows and pose question marks, especially as audiences become increasingly aware of their attempts to find a perfect middle ground.

This article was originally published over at Hooked on Film, a Perth based website where you can find even more new release movie reviews, features, interviews and insight. Click here to check it out.

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