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101 East

Inside Chollywood

101 East asks if Chinese cinema is about to enter a golden age that will make it too lucrative for Hollywood to ignore.

Last updated: 29 Nov 2013 06:32
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In 2006, when Tang Long made the long journey from rural Hubei to the Hengdian World Studios in eastern China, he had one dream in mind – to make it as an actor.

Arriving at the largest outdoor film set in the world, where hundreds of productions take place every year, he knew nothing about the film industry and no one in it. Tang started out as an extra, and was paid $4 a day to be part of a large crowd in the background of a scene.

The next step up would be what the industry calls a "contract extra", where he gets a close-up shot, possibly with a line if he is lucky.

"I never made it," says Tang, who stands at about 1.6 metres tall. "I don't have the physique and there was just too much competition. Everyone here is dreaming of stardom and trying to show off their talents."

To feed himself, Tang took on any behind-the-scenes role that came along. As a tea boy with a can-do attitude, he quickly impressed and worked his way up to managing location runners.

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"I don't have to be a star; I just want to be in this industry. I'm passionate about it," he says. "Many foreign filmmakers are eyeing the massive Chinese market, they want to shoot here. Hollywood professionals spend a lifetime accumulating heaps of experience. We can learn a lot from them in co-productions."

Co-productions are a gold-class ticket for Hollywood into Chinese cinema, the world's second-largest movie market, that has been growing at 30 percent a year over the past decade.

The boom lured an A-list Hollywood cast to China recently, to celebrate the launch of an $8bn movie metropolis, built by China's richest man, Wang Jianlin. It will be completed in just four years, and will provide world class facilities for 100 local and foreign productions a year, boosting China's global cultural influence.

Shi Chuan, a film professor at Shanghai University, explains the boom: "Nearly 80 to 90 percent of Chinese had never been to cinemas, which were only found in bigger cities. The current growth is happening in the second and third tier cities where there used to be no cinemas. Therefore there's massive potential."

To cater to Chinese taste, Hollywood is adding Chinese elements to the plot. Shi cites this year's blockbuster Iron Man 3 as an example. The Chinese release had four minutes of extra footage with China-related elements, mostly deleted for the international version.

Hollywood also made the latest James Bond film Skyfall 'China-friendly' - a Chinese security guard who was killed in the original version did not exist for viewers in China.

Well-known Chinese director Zhang Yuan says local filmmakers get a much more rigorous time from the censors. His latest film, Beijing Flickers, explores marginalised communities in Beijing and he says it was held up by the authorities for over a year before its release in early November this year.

Zhang says censors stifle creativity.

"Before government censorship, we were already self-censoring when scripting, shooting and editing," he says. "A flood can flush away the White House in a Hollywood film. Which Chinese film dares to do the equivalent?"

Meanwhile, the Chinese box office is booming - 10 new cinema screens are added in China every day and box office revenue has exceeded $3bn this year and is expected to surpass that of North America in just six years.

In 2013, for the first time, domestic films sold more tickets than imported ones. To protect the domestic industry, China only allows 34 foreign films a year to screen in cinemas. Local productions also get a bigger share of ticket sales, making it even more tempting for foreign studios to work with them.

Bona Film Group is China's leading privately-owned film producer and distributor - its ambition is to find a happy marriage between East and West.

In 2012, it signed deals with Universal Studios and Fox International Productions. Bona is now working with Fox on their first co-production to be released next year.

Its CEO, Yu Dong, says Hollywood will benefit China with its established global distribution network.

"Chinese cinema needs to enter the English language market in a hurry," says Yu Dong. "Hollywood products can enter any market in the world, be it Chinese, Arabic or anywhere else. So co-productions with Chinese film companies will propel its films into the English language market."

But as more Chinese filmmakers enter the industry to ride the boom, film professor Shi Chuan says production quality has fallen compared to the 1980s. Out of more than 700 films produced this year, three quarters were deemed not good enough for theatrical release.

"Many among the production crews today used to be farmers," says Shi. "They weren't making money so they migrated to the cities for jobs. They have no professional filmmaking or technical knowledge."

That sums up Tang Long, although through sheer hard work and determination, Tang says he has found a foothold in Chinese cinema. He reels off a string of blockbusters he has worked on and is getting ready to start a film equipment sale and rental company in Hengdian.

"There's a saying among people here – those who leave are wise, those who stay are heroes," he says.

And with Chinese cinema entering a golden age, Tang believes it is also time for his dreams to shine behind the scenes.

Can Hollywood combine with Chinese cinema to find a winning formula at the box office? Share your views @AJ101East #Chollywood

My journey with Chinese cinema

By Chan Tau Chou

I was a starry-eyed child when the movie Shaolin Temple propelled Chinese wushu champion Jet Li to silver screen stardom in 1982. The film smashed box office records in China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore, where my father paid the equivalent of $1 for my ticket.

The total revenue of the Hong Kong production was $4.7m, unheard of in Chinese cinema at the time. But my neighbours heard, loud and clear, my parents' reaction to the eye-watering cost of me emulating Li's lightning fast moves on their now broken furniture.

Four years earlier, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms laid the ground for Li's debut, the first Hong Kong film shot in China. Its success, boosted by the mainland market, signalled the potential of such co-productions. Hong Kong was then a British territory with a mature film industry. But it was not until post-1997, after it returned to Chinese rule, that such collaborations grew common.

In between those years, the rise of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige boosted the global profile of Chinese cinema. In the late 1980s, I grew up dazzled by the rich colours of scenes from their films like Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern and Farewell My Concubine. Their work often received critical acclaim by Western art-house viewers, winning prestigious awards, before gaining traction among worldwide Chinese audiences.

But Chinese cinema remained outside global popular culture as government censors clipped the wings of mainland directors to avoid negative portrayals of China. During this time, Hong Kong cinema, the third-largest film industry after Hollywood and Bollywood, was the mainstream staple for Chinese viewers worldwide.

But triads plagued the lucrative Hong Kong scene. Top actors like Andy Lau talk of being forced at gunpoint to work with poor scripts about gangland feuds. From the mid-1990s, Hong Kong cinema hit a slump. Many blamed piracy, the Asian financial crisis and competition from Hollywood's increasing push into Asia. For me as a viewer, storylines had simply become tired and stale from overproduction.

This period coincided with the entry of Jackie Chan and Jet Li into Hollywood, usually in action flicks that required simple lines for them to speak in English. Rush Hour made Chan a Hollywood star in 1998, the same year Li made his debut in Lethal Weapon 4 as a villain.

A sociology undergraduate at the time, I became drawn into understanding Hollywood as a cultural export, an avenue of soft power for the US to influence global views.

China wants this power. It is no coincidence that Chinese cinema has enjoyed heavy investment in recent years, contributing to a post-2000 revival for Hong Kong cinema as collaborations increased. The lines between Hong Kong and Chinese cinema quickly blurred with cast and crew often coming from both circles.

It was a winning formula: Hong Kong boasted greater filmmaking expertise and stars with regional pulling power, while China - with its rapid economic growth - fed the demand with a burgeoning upper and middle class more hungry for cultural consumption than in need of rice on the table.

Hong Kong filmmakers knew then what Hollywood is discovering today - to clear government censors, unflattering Chinese elements are out of bounds.

One of my favourite films, crime thriller Infernal Affairs (2002), required an alternative ending for its mainland release. The original version saw a triad mole, played by Andy Lau, hoodwink his police force colleagues and continue his meteoric rise up the ranks. But mainland viewers saw him arrested for his crimes. All is well that ends well. Never mind that it made no sense to a sequel already in production, Chinese law enforcers are not to be fooled.

Striking gold with both box office sales and awards, Infernal Affairs took things to another level - global recognition in a genre cornered by Hollywood and in a plot that did not involve a single kungfu sequence.

Its Hollywood remake, The Departed (2006), won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Director Martin Scorsese also took home his first Oscar for best director - and to my disappointment, he did not mention the original film in his thank you speech.

Growing 30 percent a year for the past decade, China's movie market has become the second-largest in the world. Its revenue is expected to surpass Hollywood by 2020. Studios in the US want a piece of the action but co-productions with China mean playing by the rules, sometimes resulting in clumsy efforts to please.

This year's blockbuster Iron Man 3 is a prime example. The international version is four minutes shorter than the Chinese one which includes mainland actors, locations and even a product placement for a Chinese brand of milk. Interestingly, the milk manufacturer Yili suffered bad press last year when forced to withdraw its mercury-tainted baby formula.

These scenes were dropped for viewers outside China, indicating how critical they were to the plot ... or not.

Other than Iron Man 3, recent Hollywood hits like Skyfall, Men in Black 3 and Mission Impossible 3 have all been made 'China-friendly' for mainland release.

Chinese insiders tell me they do not need Hollywood investment as much as Hollywood desires the Chinese market. Many super rich local investors have taken to 'playing' movies, the way they 'play' stocks and shares, or real estate. They say these days, a good run in the box office offers better returns than other forms of investment.

What China wants most from Hollywood is its worldwide distribution network, a ready vehicle for the world power to flex its cultural muscle through co-productions. In short, China is turning Hollywood into its public relations machine to shape mass opinion; the idea being if you keep seeing something, and others see the same thing, you will think it is true.

But it is a flawed logic. As most Chinese will tell you, we do not know Kung Fu. 

101 East airs each week at the following times GMT: Thursday: 2230; Friday: 0930; Saturday: 0330; Sunday: 1630.  

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