Chinese language cinema comprises of three distinct strands: mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. This article intends to look at the movies made in mainland China. During Mao’s era the mainland film industry was used as a means of propaganda with civil war epics were their main subject. For example, during the Cultural Revolution, filmmakers were exiled to provinces and were asked to make films on industrial-training or abandon film-making which nearly destroyed Chinese film industry (Chinawood). However, one needs to look at the developments in Chinese film industry after liberalization and see whether Chinese movies have come off age? Can Chinese film industry rival Hollywood’s popularity both inside and outside China? What are the Chinese government’s and the film community’s strategy to build Chinawood to achieve this objective?
After liberalization there was a change in the themes of the movies. Particularly after 1997 the mainland Chinese film industry underwent a new wave. The propaganda movies were given a humanistic touch and were also commercialized. Movies like Assembly (Ji jie hao) and The Knot (Yun shui yao), released after 2005 downplayed the political themes. The latter was based on a tragic love story about the separation of a Taiwanese girl and a medical student who joins the PLA. Its star-cast comprised of actors from mainland China and Taiwan but it also appealed to audiences from Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Korea.
These efforts gave the Chinese film industry the right ingredients for a new launch pad in international cinema. Crouching Tiger; Hidden Dragon, a martial arts movie released in 2000 was internationally acclaimed and won the 2001 Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film. China’s film industry is now the third largest industry in the world in terms of the number of films produced and the box office collections. Many Chinese film companies have also been venturing into the overseas market. For example, Bona Film Group and Huayi Brothers Media have decided to start the China Lion Film Distribution in collaboration with North America’s second largest theatre chain AMC. The Chinese firms hope that this would not only give a wider audience to Chinese movies but also address the problem of distributing Chinese movies abroad.
The Chinese filmmakers are also imitating the Hollywood film-making styles and themes incorporating them with Chinese cultural and historical themes like Kung Fu among others. The Chinese government is backing the film fraternity by investing huge amounts of money in the industry. This year’s top-grossing film Beginning of the Great Revival was a state funded extravaganza with an expenditure of US$ 10 million.
The problem however, is that even after combined efforts of the government and the film fraternity, Chinese movies have not been able to achieve the kind of success that they desired to, even within China. One of the most important reasons for this is strict state control and censorship of the movies, particularly those on controversial political and ideological themes. These themes are many a times criticized and rejected by communist party leaders on grounds that they are ‘vulgar entertainment’. In opposition to such censorship, cultural commentator Zhou Liming states “you can’t straight jacket artists and have them compete like athletes. Culture is not monolithic. It should be diverse.”
The other major factor is the tough competition from Hollywood movies both at home and in the overseas market. Out of five, four of the top grossing movies of 2011 in China were Hollywood productions. American movies like Kung Fu Panda 2 which is based on Chinese traditions has drawn irk from Chinese artists and scholars for ‘hijacking Chinese culture’. Rather than irking it, they should study as to why even the Chinese audience cannot resist Hollywood. Also how an American film with Chinese culture as its central theme do better than Chinese films on the same subject. Lack of bankable stars, subtitles hurdle, poor marketing and less variety have been the reasons why, with a few exceptions, Chinese movies have not been able to make a mark outside and inside China. Most of the well known Chinese faces like Jacky Chan and Chow Yun-Fat are all in their fifties. Most of the successful movies either draw stars from Taiwan or Hong Kong, thus, making mainland Chinese filmmakers dependent on them. This creates a vacuum of Chinese movie stars known internationally which further makes movies difficult to distribute at the global level.
Though Chinese filmmakers are trying to draw inspiration from the Hollywood movies and are also getting support from the government, the above factors are hampering its growth in the desired way. It is still a long way before Chinawood can do the same that Hollywood did for America as far as reach and popularity are concerned. However, the Chinese state needs to loosen its control further and give filmmakers a free hand as far as themes are concerned in order to stimulate Chinawood. This would help in making movies that would appeal to global audiences rather than limiting the audiences.