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China's aggressive film industry tied to nation's rise to power

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor

Gary Xu
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
According to Gary Gang Xu, author of “Sinascape: Contemporary Chinese Cinema,” several converging forces – transnationalism, privatization and the lifting of strict government controls, a strong pan-Chinese film tradition and the current Hollywood penchant for remaking East Asian films – have made China “one of the film production centers of the world.”

Released 4/9/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. —  Just so there’s no confusion: Current Chinese cinema is no crouching tiger, no hidden dragon.

Alternately absorbing and being absorbed by Hollywood, China’s film industry is attacking, highly visible and “one of the most crucial aspects of China’s rise to power in the 21st century.” So says the author of a new book that analyzes the complex and ever-morphing, robust and transnational state of modern Chinese cinema.

According to Gary Gang Xu (pronounced GONG shoe), author of “Sinascape: Contemporary Chinese Cinema,” several converging forces – transnationalism, privatization and the lifting of strict government controls, a strong pan-Chinese film tradition and the current Hollywood penchant for remaking East Asian films – have made China “one of the film production centers of the world.”

Xu, a professor of cinema and China studies at the University of Illinois, coined the word “sinascape” to describe the complex web of transnational film production and consumption centered on and in China. In his wide-ranging study of transnational Chinese-language films and filmmakers from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, he also analyzes the most critical issues in the industry today: copyright, digital technology, global networking, cross-cultural viewing, and piracy.

Pirating Hollywood blockbusters is “rampant and tolerated,” according to Xu.

“Piracy serves as a form of local protectionism,” he wrote, “preventing the flood of Hollywood films into Chinese theaters.”

But because most Chinese people prefer watching television programming for free, piracy of films has helped create “a strange yet functional symbiosis” between the Chinese film and television industries.

“Piracy makes most Chinese films unprofitable, but television series – soap operas, comedy sitcoms, martial arts melodramas, etc. – based on pirated films are immensely popular and profitable.”

So, Xu explained, a film director makes an excellent film, it is quickly pirated and “thus attracts no interest from state-controlled distribution chains.” He then makes an “eponymous” TV series based on the film and often using the same cast.

“The film has already served to advertise the TV series, TV stations purchase the series, and the director reaps healthy financial gain.”

TV series pirating, often done on condensed DVDs that hold 10 times more data than regular DVDs, “is even more ruthless and brutal in China than the piracy of films.”

Another significant phenomenon Xu examines is Hollywood’s remaking of Chinese films – a trend he describes as “Hollywood’s way of outsourcing.”

Book cover
Click photo to enlarge

Courtesy of China Film Group Corp./The Kobal Collection/Bai Xiao Yan.

Cover of Gary Xu's new book features a film still from “House of Flying Daggers,” (2003) directed by Zhang Yimou.

“Sooner or later, the unions within the Hollywood system will come to realize the outsourcing nature of remakes. But for now, remakes are making Hollywood leaner, stronger, more efficient, more profitable, and more dominant than ever. This is an irreversible but well-disguised trend.”

Xu explained that by changing the ethnicity of the characters from Asian to Caucasian, the remakes are “completely severed from the original ethnic soil and become solely the product of Hollywood. Caucasian faces in the remakes cover up the significant contributions of East Asia as the provider of intense labor that the film industry requires.”

A most recent example is China’s “Infernal Affairs,” starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Andy Lau Tak-Wah, which became Hollywood’s Oscar-winning “The Departed,” starring Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio.
With all this cultural exchange, Chinese cinema and Hollywood are “increasingly absorbing each other and the boundaries are increasingly blurred.”

“Cinema consumption used to follow a unidirectional trail of popularity: whatever proved successful in North America would surely be welcomed in East Asia as long as those countries opened their markets to Hollywood,” Xu wrote.

“Now, thanks to transnationalism, the trail has traffic in both directions: Whatever proved successful in East Asia would most likely succeed in North America as long as the original ethnicity is changed to that of Caucasian.” Other findings:

• While the boundaries between Chinese cinema and Hollywood are increasingly blurred, national boundaries ironically have been strengthened, for behind the assimilating film industries are “national powers jostling to control the 21st-century copyright industry.”

• Chinese filmmakers are thinking outside the box: Wang Zhongjun, a giant in production and distribution, made the film “Cell Phone” primarily to market cell phone-related products, including a distinctive ring tone, Xu wrote.

After he found the one he liked for the movie, he sold rights for it to Motorola.

• There are considerable differences between Chinese and American film tastes.

Hollywood emphasizes the happy ending, which is “never a chief concern for Chinese films”; Hollywood is “American first, global second,” while Chinese cinema is “global first – gaining international recognition – and Chinese second”; action is foremost for Hollywood, martial arts for Chinese; cinematic realism ranks high for the U.S., while social realism – reflective of social issues – ranks high for Chinese audiences.

While China’s film aesthetics likely will cast “increasing influence on Hollywood,” Xu thinks China is unlikely to surpass Hollywood in the foreseeable future.

“Some studios may be bought by Chinese corporations, but they will remain ‘Hollywood,’ continue doing what Hollywood does best: the star system, mega productions, glossy pictures.”

Born in Nanjing, China, Xu was trained as a literary critic at Columbia University. Studying modern literature, he said he “could not dodge the question of the increasing dominance of cinematic visuality on world cultures during the 20th century.”

“Also, my experience growing up during China’s Cultural Revolution, when colors were all gray and cultural life was dominated by propaganda, starved me for visually sumptuous films that are both well made and socially engaging.”