A beautiful woman lay trapped in a thick layer of ice. A bird flicked past overhead before descending to peck her free from her frigid prison. The woman – really a fox demon in human form – then made a run for it before the all-powerful forces that govern spirits could trap her again and set out on a journey to devour men’s hearts to sustain her demonic existence.
So opens the Chinese blockbuster “Painted Skin 2: The Resurrection,” the highest-grossing Chinese movie of all time in the mainland. The movie shows how far Chinese cinema has come in terms of production value, dazzling with big-budget special effects, elaborate costumes, epic scenery and martial arts.
That mainland production company Ningxia Film, in partnership with Chinese distribution titan Huayi Brothers, spent US$23.5 million to make the film is testament to the challenge of competing with Hollywood. Since China first opened to American films with Harrison Ford’s “The Fugitive” in 1994, Hollywood has dominated Chinese productions whenever their films faced off on the mainland. Hollywood studios took in roughly two-thirds of the Chinese box office in the second quarter. To compete, Chinese studios must invest more to make the kind of movies Chinese audiences demand and Hollywood delivers.
But a good movie is more than just production value; it’s a good story. In this respect, “Painted Skin 2” falls flat: The movie rehashes a myth already explored in other Chinese films. Character development is thin, and the movie lurches between mechanically plotted scenes.
All too often in China, politics gets in the way of original stories. Studios recycle familiar stories simply because censors are less likely to block them. Meanwhile, Hollywood’s near-total freedom of speech allows for innovative stories, giving them an upper hand that they are unlikely to lose anytime soon.
“There’s no reason to think that China’s storytelling is in anyway inferior to the rest of the world’s,” said Dan Schechter, head of the media and entertainment division of LEK Consulting. “The only barrier that other people talk about is, ‘Is that storytelling free enough to allow them to tell great stories?’”
Protecting the weak
Beyond the production value and in-vogue supernatural elements, “Painted Skin II” also benefited from government protection. The film was released during an unofficial blackout period this summer that stretched longer than usual, from late June into August. Animated films are generally still shown during this period, but live action Hollywood films are not. With the bulk of Hollywood blockbusters coming out in the summer, regulators are obviously trying to protect the revenues of Chinese film studios.
State-owned China Film Group, responsible for distributing all foreign films, also scheduled similar Hollywood movies head-to-head this year in an apparent attempt to reduce each film’s individual box office take. This year, animated flick “Ice Age: Continental Drift” competed directly with “The Lorax” on July 27, and superhero movie “The Dark Knight Rises” was pitted against “The Amazing Spiderman” on August 27. In August, a China Film spokesman told The Los Angeles Times that dates coincided because of a crowded film release calendar, but an official subsequently told state-owned People’s Daily that the films were scheduled to “create a space for domestic movies to survive and grow.”
Regulators have similarly carved a space for Chinese movies by using a long-standing quota system to limit the number of foreign theater releases. Big-budget Hollywood movies generally apply for one of 20 slots that give them a cut of the box office, currently 25%. Smaller movies, including more non-American films, generally apply for one of 30 slots that are paid a flat fee for the film rights.
Yet China continues to open the film industry despite its concerns over the harm to Chinese movies. In February, US Vice President Joseph Biden struck a deal with Xi Jinping, China’s presumptive next president, during his US tour to allow 14 additional movies into the mainland, provided they are 3D or IMAX format.
Regulators will likely continue to gradually open the market, as they must balance lobbying efforts of Chinese cinema owners and Hollywood against the interests of Chinese studios. “I would guess on a long-term basis, they will open up,” said Schechter of LEK. “They’ll see how this goes and there will be a pause before they do any more. So I would guess there would not be any dramatic new moves in the next couple of years.”
Open for business
The Chinese government allows foreign films in because it recognizes that audiences, and thus cinema owners, want them. But Hollywood is no longer content just to take the slots allotted to it. American studios – including major players such as Warner Brothers, Columbia Pictures and The Weinstein Company – are increasingly entering into agreements with Chinese studios to coproduce movies, allowing them to circumvent the quota system. Chinese studios favor the agreements because they can learn from their more technically proficient Hollywood counterparts.
So far, these films have been hit or miss with audiences, with no clear formula for success. Celebrity-driven movies – such as the Lions Gate-Huayi Brothers tie-up “The Forbidden Kingdom” – can be successful but hard to replicate, said Stanley Rosen, a professor of political science and expert in Chinese film at University of Southern California. “‘The Forbidden Kingdom’ had Jackie Chan and Jet Li. How many films will have Jackie Chan and Jet Li in the same film?”
And celebrities are not always enough to carry a film. “The Flowers of War,” a coproduction of Beijing New Picture Film and Hong Kong’s EDKO Films starring Christian Bale, fell flat at the box office, barely eking out a profit on its US$94 million budget. The movie also flopped in the US, taking in a mere US$311,000. That’s because the film – which focused on the Nanjing Massacre of the 1930s and was more than half in Chinese – was too China-specific to appeal to American viewers, Rosen said.
“In reality, many coproduced films ended up as forgettable duds that don’t belong to either culture,” said Yang Shuting an analyst at Ent Group, a Chinese entertainment consultancy. “Those films are a mere production of money and celebrities and largely failed to bring the audience an aesthetic experience.”
Filmmakers might fix this problem by replicating the approach of France’s Canal+ when making movies, whether coproductions or otherwise, said Schechter of LEK Consulting. That studio has produced successful international releases that to the untrained eye come straight out of Hollywood, such as “Taken” with Liam Neeson and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” The films use international actors and stories that appeal to both American and European audiences.
But coproductions face major cultural challenges, said Cindy Lin, president of Infotainment China, an agency that sells Chinese movies to foreign distributors and foreign movies to Chinese buyers. A coproduction is like a cross-cultural marriage, Lin said. Both parties split the rent – in this case the cost of production – but cultural differences can lead to fights over how their partnership will proceed, she said. “If a coproduction gets divorced in the middle of the movie, it will be a big loss for all the producers because you don’t have a final product, and it will just be a sunk cost.”
Censorship unfortunately pushes many cultural fights to a head, Lin said, whose company has also financed and produced coproductions in the past. The Chinese partner must try to convince the censorship board to go along with the demands of the foreign producer, who is accustomed to near-complete freedom. But if the censorship board won’t allow something,
then the Chinese producer must convince the foreign producer to alter the script, an often contentious process.
The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television’s censorship board can veto films or request changes if they disapprove of the script or the finished movie. The board comprises representatives of different government agencies and interest groups, potentially including the police, military and the national women’s federation, said Rosen of USC. If one of these groups thinks the movie undermines public security or demeans women, for example, it could be vetoed or sent back for modification. Higher government officials can also demand to see a movie and influence the board to veto it if they feel it is subversive.
This process may prevent movies with innovative storylines from ever being made in China. Rosen and Schechter cited the example of Hollywood’s “Kung Fu Panda.” “You’re dealing with a fat lazy panda, the symbol of China,” Rosen said. “It’s quite possible the censors might have said, ‘What is your ulterior motive for making this film? Are you suggesting that Chinese people are lazy or fat? Or is this an indirect critique of government bloatedness?” The movie – which both espoused wholesome values and raked in profits in the mainland – might never have been made by a Chinese studio.
In the long-term, the government will likely maintain its censorship regime, and Chinese movie studios will continue to face disadvantages on what stories they can make. The idea that political concerns trump all else in the cultural sphere goes back to Mao Zedong’s 1942 speeches in Yan’an during World War II. Mao made it clear where he and the party stand on censorship, Rosen said. “The worst kinds of films, for example, would be those that are very well made and have high artistic quality but send the wrong political message.