Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Impending Wave of Chinese Co-Productions

If you can't beat them, join them. After multiple efforts to build up its own film industry in the past few years, the Chinese have started warming up to Hollywood, or at least being much more receptive to forming partnerships and recruiting top Hollywood talent to bolster their presence in the international market. The latest joint venture along these lines is Legendary East, a partnership between Legendary Pictures, responsible for last year's hit "Inception," among others, and various Chinese entities. According to this recent LA Times article, the intention is for the new company to produce "one or two English language movies based on Chinese history and culture per year to be distributed globally."

The benefits for the Hollywood side of the partnership are obvious. China is becoming a major film market and the films produced by Legendary East would not be subject to the strict limitations on foreign film imports enforced by the Chinese government. And because the films are technically local co-productions, the percentage of returns they could reap would be greater. Legendary East already has its first project lined up, a movie about the Great Wall of China, to be directed by Edward Zwick, who's always been very handy with a historical epic. The words "global" and "commercial" come up in the quotes a lot. Other studios are taking notice, including Relativity, which has also announced a new Chinese joint venture. Nu Image has the "The Expendables" sequel set to shoot in China as a Chinese co-production.

A line in that last article caught my attention. When Nu Image tried to land a co-production deal for the "Conan the Barbarian" remake, they didn't have much luck, because according to Nu Image CFO Trevor Short, "They seem to have a problem with mysticism and fantasy." "They," of course, means the mainland Chinese film production companies operating under the eye of the communist government. Let's get something straight here. The Chinese don't have a problem with mysticism and fantasy. Chinese folklore is full of beloved stories of demons and monsters and spirits. The Chinese government, on the other hand, hates any sort of escapist entertainment it suspects might be subversive, and does stupid things like try to ban TV shows portraying time travel. Rather, the Chinese government likes self-aggrandizing historical dramas, like last year's maudlin "Aftershock," which was about the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, and "Red Cliff," a four-hour war epic. Both films are perfectly decent and made a lot of money at the box office - but only the Chinese box office. Globally, historical dramas aren't exactly in vogue. The big moneymakers, rather, are the big, fun escapist fantasies that the Chinese government looks down on.

That doesn't mean "they" won't keep funding these films and trying to exert their influence on global popular culture. And plenty of penny-pinching Hollywood filmmakers are happy to make a few artistic compromises in order to gain access to Chinese markets and capital. However, neither side is going to come out of this completely happy. Just because Zhang Yimou got Batman to star doesn't mean that his harrowing drama about the Rape of Nanking is going to be an easy sell outside of China. Ed Zwick's Great Wall movie doesn't strike me as global box office winner either, even if it's in English and even if the budget is astronomical. And though Hollywood has been very careful to always portray China in a positive light in recent years, in order to help ensure their films pass muster with the Chinese censors, the new influx of Chinese funding is going to mean even tighter controls over content. Heck, the the censors may not even have to say anything anymore. MGM's "Red Dawn" remake was shot featuring Chinese infiltrators as the villains, but without any prompting from the Chinese government, MGM digitally altered the film to feature North Koreans instead, citing fears over potentially alienating Chinese audiences.

But none of this bothers me as much as the fact that both sides are keeping up the ridiculous pretense that this isn't all about money on the part of Hollywood, and pushing "soft power" on the part of the Chinese. Legendary is going to make pictures that will make plenty of money in China, and probably do mediocre business anywhere else. Chinese costume dramas and wuxia films stopped being novel for American moviegoers ages ago. Nobody saw "Red Cliff," even after it was cut down to two hours and had nearly every critic on the Tomatometer singing its praises. Adding Hollywood star power might help other prestige pics, but not as much as adding aliens or zombies or a couple of giant transforming robots. And Western filmmakers working for Legendary East are going to discover that they'll be limited in their ability to do anything with their material beyond grand scale spectacle and melodrama. You have to stick to the government's version of events and you can't portray the Chinese in anything but a positive light, remember? That's a creative dead end if there ever was one.

I find it especially galling that while China is happy to pursue these co-production deals with Hollywood, it's also let one of the most vibrant, commercially successful arenas of Chinese cinema wither - Hong Kong cinema. The entrance of Western cinema into China has been at the expense of the Hong Kong film industry, which has been in decline since the mid-1990s. But then, Hong Kong cinema, with its genre films full of sex and violence, never had a good record of toeing the party line. I'd rather watch the "Infernal Affairs" trilogy over "Red Cliff" any day, but I guess I'll have to settle for co-productions between mainland and Hong Kong studios like "Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame," which seems to be the midpoint between the two. And I guess that's the upside. Maybe while the Chinese government is busy trying to spread its influence through these new collaborations, they'll be influenced themselves. And if they finally figure out one day that reaching global success means making films that will not only impress but entertain audiences, maybe they'll learn to broaden their horizons a bit in the process.

I doubt it though.

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