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Reel China: It's rough out West for Chinese films

Films that have been blockbusters in China have failed to find much of a market in the U.S. Zhang Yimou's $100-million "The Heroes of Nanking," with Christian Bale and large portion of English dialogue, tries to change that.

July 03, 2011|By Steven Zeitchik and David Pierson, Los Angeles Times
  • Director Zhang Yimou works with actor Christian Bale on "The Heroes of Nanking."
Director Zhang Yimou works with actor Christian Bale on "The Heroes… (Yao / New Pictures Film )

Zeitchik reporting from L.A.; Pierson from Nanjing — 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.

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.

Now comes Zhang Yimou, the decorated Chinese director of movies such as "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," who just wrapped up filming on a production he hopes will break that cycle. With a budget of $100 million, "The Heroes of Nanking" not only is the most expensive mainland production ever, it also has baked-in cross-cultural appeal: It stars Oscar-winning actor Christian Bale, and 40% of its dialogue is in English.

"I really wish this film can be popular and welcomed in the international market," Zhang said in an interview on the Nanjing movie set. "I personally advocate movies have to be fun to watch, which means ordinary audiences will be able to understand and accept it.... Such international a theme, story and structure will be very fresh."

The stakes are high for China as it seeks to penetrate the global film market. 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.

Yet 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.

"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." (In 2010, U.S. box office receipts totaled $10.6 billion, almost all for American films, while receipts in China were $1.5 billion, with 44% of that going to American films.)

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.

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.

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