Monday, March 6, 2017

China's Search For Crossover Hit

With the failure of "The Great Wall" at the U.S. box office, the Chinese film industry has struck out again at creating a film that appeals to both Chinese and U.S. audiences. "The Great Wall" has been the most expensive attempt to date, with a budget of over $150 million. Starring Matt Damon, Andy Lau, and Pedro Pascal, the film is a historical fantasy about repelling an invasion of monsters. Critical notices were poor on both sides of the ocean, but the film didn't far too poorly at the foreign box office, and will probably turn a profit eventually. However, it's far from the success of the Marvel movies or other Hollywood blockbusters.

It's been an awkward relationship that the U.S. and Chinese film industries have been navigating these past few years. While Hollywood has been eager to jump into co-productions with the Chinese to access the quickly expanding Chinese moviegoing audience, the Chinese have also been trying to jump-start their own film industry to compete internationally on the same level as the big Hollywood studios. The one thing that the Chinese have always insisted on is the promotion of distinctly Chinese elements in their media, which has lead to more U.S. films incorporating Chinese actors, locations, and product placement to win over wary Chinese censors and appeal to Chinese audiences. The success of these tactics have been very hit or miss. When it comes to the Chinese trying to appeal to the American audiences, however, it's mostly been misses.

To date, the most successful Chinese produced films in the U.S. are still "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," from 2000, currently the highest grossing foreign language film in the U.S., "Hero," made in 2002 and released in the US in 2004, and "Fearless," aka "Jet Li's Fearless," released in 2006. Clearly the Americans appreciate period martial arts spectacle. So it makes sense that the big, expensive Chinese blockbusters being pushed hardest at international audiences tend to be period action films. However, the tendency has been toward very serious epic war films, like John Woo's "Red Cliff." These have done okay, but have generated little enthusiasm outside of Asia. And I should note that the highest grossing Chinese films in China these days tend to be comedies like "The Mermaid" and "Lost in Thailand," or fantasy films like "Monster Hunt" and "Journey to the West."

Matt Damon being recruited to star in "The Great Wall" may have caused a kerfuffle over racial politics and claims of perpetuating the stereotypical "white man savior" narrative in the U.S., but clearly this was attempt by the filmmakers to give their movie broader international appeal. Its director, Zhang Yimou, also made "The Flowers of War" with Christian Bale in 2011. Like "The Great Wall," it was clearly making a play for American audiences, with a familiar Caucasian lead and much of the dialogue in English. And like "The Great Wall," it was critically panned and called out for being pandering. I really hope that everyone has figured out by now that just sticking a white action star in the middle of one of these movies isn't helping anything.

I am heartened by the fact that at least the Chinese are trying different things. Last year's "Skiptrace" was a Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville buddy comedy that was a good-sized hit in China. It didn't have a US theatrical release, but a future film in this vein might, and I suspect it would perform better than the big epics. After all, the buddy comedy with a foreigner is a familiar kind of story to American audiences already, and Jackie Chan has successfully starred in several of them, like "Rush Hour" and "Shanghai Noon." And there's no reason why a comedy should be considered any less culturally Chinese than a grandiose war movie.

It's tempting to want to give a list of dos and don'ts to Chinese filmmakers about what would make a Chinese film more likely to be a crossover success. The truth is that there's no real formula, and most of the big successes like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" have been flukes. However, it really helps if the films are good and they're entertaining first and foremost. Including Chinese elements are all well and good, but personally I think developing and supporting Chinese stars and Chinese talent are more important, because that's what's really going to drive the industry in the long run.

A crossover hit is more likely to happen, after all, if they can figure out how to make films that U.S. audiences will want to see because they're Chinese, not in spite of it.

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