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Is 'King Fu Hustle' Un-American?

February 27, 2005|Christina Klein | Christina Klein is an associate professor of literature at MIT.

It is a common observation that the Academy Awards offer Hollywood an opportunity to celebrate itself. And, indeed, the Los Angeles-based film industry generated most of the nominees in this year's best picture, best director, best actress and best actor categories. Yet these movies, as well as others in less prominent categories, can tell us quite a bit about the state of filmmaking around the world. One of the things they tell us is that the era of distinct national cinemas is fading. Globalization makes it increasingly difficult to define a film as unambiguously French, Chinese or even American.

As Hollywood focuses on exports and takes an ever-greater share of the world's box office, its audience becomes ever less American. "Troy" (nominated for costume design) is a good example of how today's export-oriented Hollywood tailors its movies for a global audience. Its story, a Reader's Digest-like version of Homer's "Iliad," has the dual market advantages of being familiar to audiences throughout Europe (Hollywood's biggest overseas market) and of lacking any of the specifically American content that sometimes alienates film bureaucrats in China (Hollywood's dream market). "Troy's" pleasures, however, are not primarily narrative. Made with a budget of about $185 million, it emphasizes computer-enhanced visual spectacle and confines its dialogue to brief, subtitle-friendly interludes. The film was shot entirely outside the United States, with its lone American star, Brad Pitt, surrounded by lesser lights from Britain and Australia. Despite being tepidly received at home, "Troy" succeeded with its target audience: It opened nearly simultaneously in 45 countries and earned about 75% of its box office receipts abroad.

Most film industries operate in global Hollywood's growing shadow and try to make movies that communicate a distinct, local identity. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's French-language film, "A Very Long Engagement" (nominated for art direction and cinematography), fairly shouts its Frenchness. Its World War I-era story about love trumping reason unfurls along the Brittany seacoast and amid beautifully re-created Paris neighborhoods , while its characters display such "typical" French qualities as panache, a love of good food and a healthy regard for sexual pleasure. Its production was equally national. Based on a French novel, it was filmed by a French director on French locations using a French cast and crew. Even its post-production occurred, remarkably enough, at French special-effects houses. In spite of all this, a French court recently declared it ineligible to receive French government subsides because it isn't a French film at all, but rather a Hollywood film in disguise. Why? Because the France-based company that financed and produced the film is jointly owned by Warner Bros. and the employees of Warner Bros. France.

"A Very Long Engagement," it turns out, exemplifies Hollywood's latest strategy of globalization, known as local-language production. As foreign audiences show signs of tiring of Hollywood's formulaic blockbusters and express interest in seeing portrayals of their own cultures on screen, Hollywood has responded by making "foreign" films.

Today, the studios have overseas divisions that finance and produce local-language films aimed at audiences in Germany, Spain, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, India, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere. Hollywood's notable "foreign" films include Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which garnered four Academy Awards in 2002, and Stephen Chow's "Kung Fu Hustle," which is currently breaking box-office records in Asia.

China's film industry has been struggling for years, and "House of Flying Daggers," a nominee for best cinematography, represents director Zhang Yimou's effort to compete head-to-head with Hollywood imports. In this nationalist effort to reclaim the Chinese market, however, Zhang has borrowed from the competition's globally popular style. His sumptuous production combines the conventions of the period martial arts film, a distinctly Chinese genre, with a love story and visual effects that carry strong whiffs of Hollywood.

Zhang's calculations paid off. "Flying Daggers" outperformed every picture in China last year except one: Columbia Pictures' Chinese-language film "Kung Fu Hustle." Although privately financed, Zhang's film received a little help from the Chinese government. After announcing a campaign against cultural pollution, officials in Beijing shut out all foreign films -- including Hollywood's biggest blockbusters -- for seven weeks during the summer, clearing the market for "Flying Daggers."

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