The right themes for China's success in film

By He Shifei
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, March 5, 2012
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Even though the Chinese film industry has hardly shared Oscar's glory, audiences in China are bathed in excitement, expectation, and perhaps ambivalence looking forward to the New Year's Eve of the industry. In a new U.S.-China trade deal, signed during Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping's visit to the U.S. two weeks ago, China will allow 50 percent more U.S. films in the Chinese market.

To settle a long-running trade dispute, the new agreement permits 14 premium format films (3D and IMAX) to be imported in China, in addition to the 20 films quota that has been in effect for more than 20 years. Hollywood's share in the box office will also rise from 13 percent to 25 percent.

As U.S. filmmakers applaud the agreement for the more favorable split, and Chinese audiences cheer for gaining access to more high-quality foreign movies, domestic movie producers grow increasingly anxious in anticipation for fiercer competition. Critics worry that the new deal would squeeze the fledgling Chinese movie industry and give way to Hollywood's domination in China's market for entertainment.

Poster of the 84th Oscar Awards ceremony [File photo]

Poster of the 84th Oscar Awards ceremony [File photo]  

As I watched the Oscar Awards ceremony, I was acutely aware of the dominance of American movies. Yet, I do not feel unfair or being "squeezed" by the American culture.

On the one hand, I admit that as a picky movie fan, I detest the notorious "Hollywood formula" of commercialized movies – a wise and brave American makes astounding achievement or saves the world through painstaking efforts, accompanied by a beautiful lady as well as stunning special effects and computer graphics.

On the other hand, I would say that the most celebrated movies both by the Academy and around the globe explore themes that transcend boundaries and cultures. One of the world's most beloved films, "Titanic," depicts not only a touching love story, but also the bravery of pursuing one's love and dream beyond the constraint of rituals, class and lifestyle. The movie marks not only the technological breakthrough of filmmaking, but the altruism and unity among people in the face of catastrophe.

Similarly, previous Oscar Award winners Black Swan and The King's Speech were focused on discovering and overcoming the self – a common issue faced by the entire mankind, tracing all the way back to the ancient philosophical questions of "Who am I?" and "Where am I from?"

These movies cited above are far from perfect. Yet, they serve as examples to illustrate that it is not the Oscars or the American culture that is dominating the film industry, but the perspectives expressed.

It is true that successful blockbusters take more casts and set designs; budget and technology also play significant roles. However, there are Chinese blockbusters costing more than US$5 million (over 300 million Chinese yuan) that ended up with mediocre ticket sales and tepid international response, whereas some well-received independent films had only modest budgets to work with.

Chinese film industry needs to come back down to earth if it is to promote the Chinese culture. Analogous to the national image film broadcasted in New York's Time Square early last year, Chinese movies are used to building omnipotent figures divorced from real life rather than appreciating passions of the everyday public. Just as no American would recognize all the popular Chinese faces appeared in the national image film, we can expect that not many foreign audiences will applaud these one-dimensional, "perfect" Chinese heroes.

Scholars in the field of film studies point out that films always carry the thoughts, intentions, and ideologies of directors and production teams. Producing movies absent of ideology and culture is impossible. Yet, attracting viewers with exotic settings and familiar themes can be a shortcut to box office success. Portrait of truthful details in everyday life and reflection on universal topics beyond ideology are all ways to make Chinese films more marketable in foreign markets.

Accounting for 40 percent of the rapid box office growth in the Asia Pacific region and approximately 8 percent around the globe, China has one of the fastest growing movie markets in the world. The great potential should manifest promising returns for both eager U.S. filmmakers and domestic producers.

Hopefully, I could one day see more Chinese stories celebrated at the Oscars.

He Shifei is a Chinese freelance journalist currently living in the U.S. Her research interests include government, politics and policy studies.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of


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