Chinese filmmakers learn to make global impact

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A poster of Chinese film Dying to Survive, a box-office favorite directed by Wen Muye, starring actor Xu Zheng (center). [Photo provided to China Daily]

With a rapidly-modernizing film industry noted for recent hits that raked in huge box-office revenues, China's top filmmakers may finally be learning what it takes to spin a good yarn.

Chinese blockbusters, such as Wen Muye's Dying to Survive; Guo Fan's The Wandering Earth; Dante Lam's Operation Red Sea; Wu Jing's Wolf Warrior 2; Chen Sicheng's Detective Chinatown 2; and Raman Hui's Monster Hunt, have not only made big box-office gains, but also attracted widespread international attention and won plaudits from Hollywood pundits.

"China's film industry has very talented, creative people and great directors. And as they gain experience and pick our brains, you'll see them produce more films with the look and feel of Hollywood movies," says Arthur Sarkissian, an A-list producer of the Rush Hour franchise and The Foreigner.

Speaking about The Wandering Earth, Matt William Knowles, a Mandarin-speaking American actor known for his work in a number of Chinese films and TV series such as Asura and Love Me If You Dare, and who's bullish about China's top filmmakers, says: "It was excellent, a leap forward in quality production values, good storytelling, and superior VFX (visual effects) that didn't pull you out of the story.

"I think China's new filmmakers will be a force to be reckoned with in the future," he says.

The Wandering Earth, China's first homegrown sci-fi epic, has grossed more than $680 million worldwide and ranks among the top 20 highest-grossing sci-fi films of all time.

But the film's young director, Guo Fan, says: "Chinese sci-fi films still have a long way to go to catch up with Hollywood sci-fi movies."

Guo, who spent time at Paramount Studios, the home of the mega-successful Star Trek franchise, says he was stunned at the level of Hollywood's sci-fi film production capabilities, which enable the studios to churn out blockbusters in under two years, while it took more than four years to make his film in China.

"We are still small craftsmen compared with Hollywood's advanced industrialized assembly-line for sci-fi filmmaking. But we are improving every day," he says.

When asked if he would be interested in doing a coproduction with Hollywood, he says he would "be honored" to do so.

The prospects of the Chinese film industry also featured at the recent annual China Night Oscar-Viewing Gala hosted in Hollywood by the American-Chinese CEO Society.

And to help Chinese and American companies generate more trade and coproductions together, this year's gala brought together dozens of stars and heavyweights from the US and Chinese film industries, all looking to do business together.

Speaking about the event, Robert Sun, the founder and CEO of the ACCS, says: "Hollywood is the movie capital of the world and offers much expertise and creativity. And because of the high growth rate of the box office in China, China's film industry wants to learn from Hollywood.

"But creators and leaders from both sides need to spend more time together to build trust and develop personal and professional relationships. Then the deals will flow more easily," he says.

Speaking about China's film industry: Richard Walters, the CEO of Bold Films, which was behind such seminal and successful films as Whiplash, Drive and Bobby, says: "There have been six Chinese films in the past year that grossed over $500 million in China's domestic box office. That's truly impressive growth. But they still have to up their game in the international market."

Other Hollywood movers and shakers are also keeping a close eye on Chinese filmmakers as they get a handle on how to craft stories with wider appeal.

Noting China's recent success in sci-fi and social dramedies, Xian Li, senior vice-president of SK Global, says, "As the Chinese market matures, we can expect to see more great content and more exploration of new genres and mixed genres."

Many accolades have gone to another box-office favorite, Dying to Survive, a poignant, brilliantly-crafted and socially-relevant dramedy, which is directed by gifted first-timer Wen Muye, and stars actor Xu Zheng,

The film, which earned $450 million, is about a reformed con artist who finds himself struggling to smuggle in lower-cost, generic leukemia medicine to prevent his friends and other Chinese cancer sufferers from dying like flies.

Commenting on the film, Brad Parks, chairman of the rebooted Hollywood Film Festival, which co-hosted the American premier of Wen's film along with the International Cultural Collaborative, a Chinese-American cultural organization based in Los Angeles, says: "Dying to Survive was a revelation. Arguably one of the best films in the world in the past decade."

Also paying tribute to the film is Oscar-winning indie filmmaker Billy Bob Thornton, who says: "The film is a great combination of heart and drama. Xu's a natural. He made a movie that entertains, but also has huge social impact. That's what it's all about."

As for SK Global's Li, he says: "This is a groundbreaking work for the Chinese film industry. And it proved that a good story can prevail and a great performance can really resonate with audiences."

But the film was more than just engaging entertainment as the Dying to Survive story went viral, sending out powerful ripples that touched the hearts of the Chinese.

It is in that vein that Jimmy Chin, Chinese American 2019 Oscar-winner for best documentary feature for his nail-biter, Free Solo, says, "I hope China gets into more documentaries, especially environmental ones, because where China goes now, so will the world."

Despite the successes, there are still some cultural differences to iron out to help Chinese movies cross over to mainstream international audiences.

And veteran Hollywood producer Sarkissian, who has successfully combined Hollywood and Chinese elements in his own hit movies, says: "Mixing Chinese and American or European stars in Chinese films would be a good way to expand their appeal to international audiences."

"But you can't force inappropriate actors into the story, it has to organically lend itself to international co-stars," he adds.

As for the future, Alexis Garcia, a partner at Endeavor Content, a leading agency and producer heavily involved with the Asian market, says: "Incredible local movies are breaking out of the shadows in China." And he adds that films of quality like Dying to Survive will inspire more Chinese filmmakers and more Hollywood crossovers.

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