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Oscar: The Chinese Dream Or Someone Else's Game?

Facing influence and competition from big budget Hollywood blockbusters, Chinese filmmakers and screenwriters ask themselves how to fashion their own film identity.

This year's 76th Annual Academy Awards attracted the attention of an unprecedented number of Chinese thanks to complete live coverage provided by China Central Television, the mammoth national TV station. A survey shows that this year's Oscar Night viewer ratings was about 1.7 percent, a little higher than last year.

Academy award-winning films have attracted large Chinese audiences and generated big box-office bucks, such as Titanic shown several years ago and the current The Lord of the Rings III: Return of the King, a huge hit among Chinese.

Domestic films have also won a few trophies in international competitions in recent years. However, except for Couching Tiger Hidden Dragon, directed by Taiwanese filmmaker An Lee, no other Chinese film has even been nominated for an Oscar award.

Although the grand ceremony is over for this year, film discussion continues in the Chinese movie community. Some insiders hold that following global trends is the only way to develop China's film industry. They liken Hollywood movies to McDonald's fast food. Both are unconsciously changing people's tastes, with the former in food and the latter in film. Purists protest, however, that domestic and regional films should maintain their distinct flavors.

The Oscars: Where It's At

Luo Gang (Professor of East China Normal University): To many people, the Oscars are simply one of the many awards that Americans like to give themselves. However, the show is broadcast live, annually in 50 languages and plays a huge role in shaping the global film industry. It is no wonder that so many people around the world pay much attention to it. The reality is that Hollywood movies account for more than 90 percent of global market shares—this has inevitable worldwide impact.

Hollywood filmmakers create both according to their own wills and conform to specific cultural demands.

In fact, Hollywood, unlike its fast food counterpart, McDonald's, whose goal is to uniform taste all over the world, does create films with various characteristics. Take this year's Academy Awards as an example, nominated movies include both high-cost productions like The Lord of the Rings and subtle, more moderate budgeted projects like Lost in Translation, directed by Sofia Coppola, the first ever American woman director nominated for an Oscar. In addition, the nostalgia-drenched Seabiscuit and the Japanese actor in The Last Samurai were also on the nomination list. These show that Hollywood movies maintain a basic balance in keeping the style of its own and absorbing diverse cultures.

The success of Hollywood movies at the box-office has set the bar for international commercial filmmakers. Famous Chinese directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige have produced their recent films through the lens of a Hollywood-focused world.

The fact that a movie's success largely depends on budget will consequentially lead to a globalized movie industry. China has to face this trend. It would be a tragedy if foreign audiences fail to appreciate domestic films. Apart from learning shooting techniques, culture should be taken into consideration when making a film. Otherwise, China will miss the globalization boat. For instance, Couching Tiger Hidden Dragon was full of Chinese actors and cultural icons, but actually, the style and structure of the movie all conform to a Hollywood formula. This is how a wider range of audiences accepted it.

Ni Zhen (Professor at the Beijing Film Academy): We live in a global, multicultural world. China's movie industry needs to realize this and sharpen its competitive edge.

Since the late 1980s, Chinese movies have taken on a new appearance, with many being well received in Europe. However, whether China can make a big splash in the film world in the next 10-20 years is uncertain. If Chinese films are to make a global impact, then movie production, distribution and marketing organization need improving. Chinese films should adjust to satisfy the variety of social demands. Currently, China has a lot of high-quality directors, but produces limited kinds of movies. This is mainly because of a lack of an effective system. The government should provide policies to spur the industrialization of the Chinese movie sector.

The introduction of foreign successful formulas and technology is a must for Chinese film industry. It is parochial to think that China can only use its national characteristics to define domestic movies. Conservatism will hinder the progress of film industry. If China does not develop its film industry through embracing innovative multiculturalism, Chinese movies will have little opportunity to gain a share in the international market.

Filmmakers in South Korea and Hong Kong imitate Hollywood. They even remake American movies. However, in recent years, American movie companies have purchased copyrights of Asian-produced movies, including My Sassy Girl from Republic of Korea, and The Ring from Japan and Infernal Affairs from Hong Kong. This shows that filmmakers in the United States are also using Asia as a movie resource. The exchange works both ways.

Zhang Weiping (film producer): Being nominated is not the only motivation to pay attention to the Oscars. We hope to introduce Chinese movies to an international market through this premier global film event.

Lu Chuan (director): Of course, the Oscars are very importance to Chinese filmmakers. Nominations are a kind of approval by global peers of their achievements. Academy Awards are basically handed out to the biggest moneymakers, most elaborate production teams and highest-flying special effect technicians of the year. As China's market improves, its movie industry will get stronger and will eventually cash in on the Oscars.

Not Our Game

Guo Fumin (Associate Professor at the Central Academy of Drama): Though Hollywood movies exert long-term influence on the global movie industry, Hollywood movies have their own flaws. They embody limited values: American ones. Creativity is truncated to please audiences and make money. Because of these limitations, filmmakers spend all their attention in superficial style and design that hollows out culture.

Overstressing design makes movies homogeneous and shallow. The films end up lacking spirit and become mere commodities. They become valueless cultural fast food.

Global movies should retain a diversity of regional characteristics. Since the 1990s, a string of Asian movies featuring simple, concise and poetic language have attracted worldwide attention. Such films include Through the Olive Trees, The Wind Will Carry Us and Taste of Cherry by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, Cyclo and The Scent of Green Papaya by Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung and Christmas in August by South Korean director Hur Jin Ho. These movies created a distinctly Asian way to narrate, illustrating that great potential for future development does not mean abandoning one's unique perspective and cultural identity.

Yi Hong (reader): The world has gradually become a supermarket for American movies. However, European, Japanese, Iranian and South Korean movies have recently begun challenging Hollywood dominance. The monopoly on cultural products deprives audiences of the diversity of world perspective. Hollywood movies are not the only movies in the world. China has its own history and culture, which other cultures cannot replace.

(Beijing Review April 9, 2004)


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