Why rent when you can own? At my neighborhood shop in Shanghai, well-ordered racks are full of the latest Hollywood releases, the Hollywood catalog dating back to the mid-1960s, and a middling selection of Chinese films and television series, most of which sell for between eighty-five cents and two bucks. The majority have English and Chinese subtitles, and all of them, of course, are pirated. On a recent visit, I slipped past a twentyish professional couple considering a boxed set of Desperate Housewives and greeted the store clerk. He’s a helpful guy—he once located a pirated copy of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz for me—but when I pointed to a poster for Chen Kaige’s The Promise, a $35 million martial arts epic that is the most expensive film in Chinese history, and asked if he had it yet, he shook his head no.
Quality pirate copies of Chinese films often circulate in the weeks before an official theatrical release. But in the case of The Promise, which will begin screening internationally this month, unusual precautions have been taken to prevent piracy. “Wait until it is released in the theater,” the clerk said. “You’ll be able to go and see it in English.”
Until recently, Chinese films in English were rare (and, if dubbed, unwanted—in my case, at least). But as Chinese art house filmmakers like Chen Kaige increasingly look to the U.S. for mass audiences and Hollywood-sized money, the option becomes common. China may be the world’s third most prolific filmmaking nation, but its total domestic box office in 2004 was less—by some hundred million dollars—than what Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith brought in on the first weekend of its U.S. release. Indeed, last year China made more money by exporting its films than it did by exhibiting them in its own theaters. Of course, filmmakers there have learned from their American colleagues (and studios) who’ve come to count on foreign box offices to salvage action-film bombs. But in China, foreign sales are essential, which is why in the past five years the country’s erstwhile art-house directors have turned out a host of lush, artsy, martial arts epics geared to please overseas audiences.
Ironically, though, “made for foreigners” is the blackest insult that can be directed at a Chinese film (or any other work of art, for that matter). To an extent, this is a combination of both pride and insecurity in Chinese culture as it opens to, and confronts, the West. The first group of Chinese directors to emerge after the Cultural Revolution was the so-called Fifth Generation, which was concerned with accurate depictions of rural Chinese life. Films such as Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (1989) were quickly compared by foreign cineastes to the work of the Italian neo-realists of the 1940s and 1950s; however, unlike the neo-realists, the Fifth Generation directors never received a populist embrace in their home country. For example, Chen Kaige’s masterpiece, Farewell, My Concubine (1993), is still little known in China. Meanwhile, Zhang Yimou’s films were unpopular there (though this has changed with his recent international success), and heavily criticized for their unflattering portrayal of the Chinese countryside.
However, Fifth Generation films were generating critical raves on the international festival circuit and in art houses, and also doing serious business. Red Sorghum won the prestigious Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, while Farewell, My Concubine is one of the most successful Chinese films ever released overseas. Yet as the art house filmmakers prospered internationally in the 1990s, China’s domestic film market shrank, overwhelmed by a flood of foreign films (particularly from Hong Kong and Taiwan) that were more technically proficient and entertaining than the country’s own. So Fifth Generation filmmakers focused even more on generating publicity and awards and thus winning audiences and revenues from abroad.
It was a risky strategy. Prior to 2000, the last Asian language film that was a major commercial success in the United States was Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon in 1973—and that was a Hong Kong production. Though most Americans refer to Hong Kong and China interchangeably, the two entities are linguistically, culturally, politically, and cinematically distinct. Known for their superbly choreographed action and fight scenes (as well as an irritating brand of slapstick), Hong Kong films have a highly developed visual style that continues to influence both Chinese and American cinema (The Matrix films were choreographed by a Hong Kong Chinese.) Chinese film, by comparison, is still in its youth, and remains a follower.
That may partly explain the Chinese public’s near-insatiable appetite for imperial martial arts epics. According to Xinhua, China’s state news agency, twenty percent of all Chinese television dramas in 2004 involved “Chinese legends,” and that’s not counting all the imperial martial arts sitcoms, feature films, and documentaries. More so than Westerns in the United States, the martial arts period piece—which involves emperors, lavish period costumes, and lots of kung fu—is a well-worn genre, and one that the Chinese see as very much theirs.
Enter Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Made by Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee (whose retrospective is currently screening at Walker Art Center) and released in 2000, it’s the most successful ”Chinese” film in history, having banked $213 million worldwide and $128 million in the U.S. Made in China with a Hong Kong and Chinese cast, the film appeared on the top ten list of virtually every critic in the U.S., landed ten Oscar nominations, and was declared a “Martial Masterpiece” by Time. In China, however, the reaction was nearly the inverse, with many critics dwelling upon the fact that the film’s story line was utterly hackneyed, even by the perpetually low standards of Chinese network television. Worse still, some of Lee’s Hong Kong cast spoke poor, heavily accented Mandarin that elicited derision in both theaters and reviews. Above all, Chinese critics, audiences, and even some directors seemed to resent the fact that someone from Taiwan—the island is considered a renegade province on the mainland—had profited from an overseas market by exploiting the most Chinese of genres.
Despite the critical scorn, a $128 million U.S. box office is pretty much impossible to ignore in a country where a $5 million domestic box office is respectable. So when Zhang Yimou came out with Hero in 2002, no one in China was surprised that he tailored it for the American audience thrilled by Crouching Tiger. Even more than that film, Hero relied upon the tropes and clichés of Chinese period television; and again, the enthusiasm of Americans for this film was greeted with confusion in China. When I saw the film on Christmas Eve in a Shanghai theater packed with families, there were plenty of moments in which the dialogue elicited groans and snickers. While American critics praised the film’s three-stage retelling of Emperor Qin’s planned assassination, their Chinese colleagues rolled their eyes—for audiences in the country, the tale was as profound as a ride into the sunset at the end of a Gunsmoke episode.
Zhang had also hired a Hong Kong fight choreographer and a sprawling team of foreign special effects artists whose credits range from Titanic to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, while Hero’s U.S. distributor, Miramax, came up with a savvy marketing plan that included a “Quentin Tarantino Presents” tag and targeted both the art house audience and the action-loving cineplex crowd. The result was a $57 million gross in the U.S., helping to make Hero the most lucrative Chinese film ever. “One of Zhang Yimou’s main goals is to recapture the Chinese made film-market share,” said Zhang Weiping, who produced the director’s most recent martial arts epic, House of Flying Daggers (2004).
The inevitable accusations that Zhang had sold out may be fair, but the truth is that Chinese cinema sold out to foreign audiences long before Hero—and it did so only to sustain itself. From the beginning, the careers of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige have been defined by the need to please foreign critics and award committees, which often serve as gatekeepers for directors seeking access to the art-house screens; with their martial arts films they have merely shifted to another, more profitable genre. Hero and The Promise are no more meant for Chinese audiences than Red Sorghum and Farewell, My Concubine. At the least, unlike the gritty plot of Red Sorghum, the martial arts epics are actually representative of the sorts of stories that many Chinese like to watch in their spare time. Ironically, what is new and interesting in these films are the visual innovations that large budgets (and foreign box offices) make possible. The lush cinematography of Hero was unprecedented in the genre, as were its gorgeously choreographed fight scenes. Though I have yet to notice Chinese network television mimicking Hero, there is no question that the film has set a new visual standard in the genre, much as John Ford did for the Western.
Zhang Yimou recently confirmed that he is in pre-production on a contemporary comedy that will star Jackie Chan, the international kung fu/comedy superstar who is also a Hong Kong citizen. Several days after the announcement, Chan wrote in his blog, “When you watch Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern … the most brilliant dialogue might become a YES or NO when translated into English.” Nevertheless, he is optimistic about prospects for genres of Chinese film other than martial arts epics. “If the worldwide audience starts[s] to learn Chinese due to their love of martial arts films,” he continued, “then they would not only appreciate martial arts films in the future, but can also appreciate Chinese dramas.”
With all respect to Jackie Chan, that seems doubtful. My DVD dealer says that the Chinese director most popular with his customers is Feng Xiaogang. He is largely unknown outside of China, because he has made a career (and a small fortune) writing and directing earthy comedies with distinctly Chinese humor. Last year’s domestic hit Cell Phone, for example, documented an illicit affair largely conducted via text messaging. Since text messaging is a national pastime, the film’s humor was so linguistically and culturally specific that even foreigners with vast experience speaking Chinese were simply unable to laugh along. It would be like screening Fargo, in English, for a fluent, English-speaking Shanghai audience.
Even without a foreign box office, Cell Phone grossed $6.3 million in China last year and was considered quite lucrative. But China’s most popular director of comedies seems to have become restless for a larger payout. Following Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, and Ang Lee down the martial arts path to riches, he secured $15 million in financing from Chinese and foreign investors to make The Night Banquet, a martial arts retelling of Hamlet—set in the Tang Dynasty’s imperial court.