Reel China: It’s Rough out West for Chinese Films

Zhang Yimou’s latest movie, The Heroes of Nanking, starring Christian Bale, is trying to break into the U.S. market, which other Chinese films, including Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly, have failed to do. From the Los Angeles Times:

Jiang isn’t the only Chinese filmmaker who’s making blockbusters at home and feeling unappreciated abroad. Feng Xiaogang’s 2010 earthquake action drama “Aftershock,” with nearly $100 million in receipts, received a token release in the U.S., where it took in only about $60,000. And John Woo’s two-part war epic “Red Cliff” was a Hollywood-sized hit in China several years ago. But it didn’t even crack the $1-million box-office mark when Mark Cuban’s Magnolia Pictures released a condensed version stateside in 2009. Europe and the rest of Asia have been only slightly more receptive to these blockbusters.

Now comes Zhang Yimou, the decorated Chinese director of movies such as “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” who just wrapped up filming on a production he hopes will break that cycle. With a budget of $100 million, “The Heroes of Nanking” not only is the most expensive mainland production ever, it also has baked-in cross-cultural appeal: It stars Oscar-winning actor Christian Bale, and 40% of its dialogue is in English.

“I really wish this film can be popular and welcomed in the international market,” Zhang said in an interview on the Nanjing movie set. “I personally advocate movies have to be fun to watch, which means ordinary audiences will be able to understand and accept it…. Such international a theme, story and structure will be very fresh.”

The stakes are high for China as it seeks to penetrate the global film market. The government and private companies are pouring significant resources into the film industry; officials are eager to boost their country’s cultural exports in a way that matches the already booming business in factory goods.

Meanwhile, the New York Asian Film Festival is gaining respect and popularity and is helping to bring less mainstream and smaller budgeted films to a U.S. audience, while also explaining why the major Chinese historical epics are not hitting it big abroad:

This year’s festival breaks down fairly evenly into films from China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan), South Korea and Japan, with single films from a few other countries (Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines) thrown in.

In “Detective Dee & the Mystery of the Phantom Flame,” Mr. Tsui’s most recent film, and “Reign of Assassins,” directed by the up-and-comer Su Chao-pin and the veteran John Woo, the festival is offering two light-on-their-feet martial arts capers that stand in pleasant contrast to the bloated, nationalistic epics that are China’s main cinematic export these days. (“If it’s got more than five horses in it and more than two scenes of giant armies massing on the plain, waving flags, we avoid it,” Mr. Hendrix said.)

Read more about the New York Asian Film Festival, now on in Manhattan.

July 3, 2011, 8:27 PM
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