Film Culture in China

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China is currently the world's third-largest distributor of motion pictures, after only the United States and India, and the popularity of its cinemas and films is only increasing. The movie industry was able to generate an unqualified profit of $6.78 billion in just 2015, and its value has increased to an astounding $ 180 billion. The film business is now narrowly competing with what used to be China's leading businesses such as manufacturing previously, and it is a safe bet that by the year 2020 (Nakajima 25), China will stand as the possessor of the largest and most profitable movie industry in the world. Over the years, the Chinese cinema has used tactics of cultural demonstration and movie depiction to gain its profound popularity and has also been used for functions like spreading propaganda, etc. All in all, there are several sides to the success story of the Chinese cinema. There also needs to be a thorough investigation of what is the best approach internationally for the movie business to grow.

The Chinese film business with its ups and downs has existed for over a century, with its first movie, ‘The battle of Dingjunshan' coming out in the year 1905 (Jihong 430). In the initial stages, the film industry was centered in Singhai. And around the mid of the 1920s, China saw what can only be described as the first golden period of its film industry. The industry continued to thrive and managed even to attract foreigners to come in and dabble in the creative process. The Chinese cinema also saw its fall with the rise of the Communist Party. After the dark period for the film industry had passed, it was soon followed by more successes, starting with China buying its first foreign film in 1994 which was a successful Warner Bros. production; the China continued to buy more and more American films averaging at an annual quota of thirty-four films a year. Today China is home to what is the largest film studio in the world, the Hengidan World Studios (Najkajima 19).

The Hengidan World Studios in China is the place where some of the greatest movies of China ever have been produced. With the start of advancements in China as more and more shopping malls popped up, the entertainment industry also picked up the pace, the malls came with cinemas, and more people were drawn towards the film industry. There was an astonishing amount of twenty-two movie screenings happening every year, and the box office sales have also grown to an overwhelming scale.

In 1949, China saw perhaps one of the greatest landmarks in its history (Rosen 370), the emergence of the Communist party; with the emergence came a turn for all of China's major industries and its associated stakeholders including the film industry. The film industry saw its golden era came to an abrupt end as the Communist party decided to trade off of the artists' imagination in return for being able to spread their propaganda (Rosen 224). For example, the movie Yellow Earth which was released in 1984 was about promoting communism and glorifying Chinese soldiers as depicted in the scene where Wang visits fields to see peasants (01h:05m:34s, Drama film). Innovative freedom was taken away from the hands of the makers, and it all became a matter of getting the government's message or the Cultural Revolution's message across. There was a sharp decrease in the number of people trying to pursue a career in the film industry. Between the year 1966 and 1973, China had no movies made at all The film industry came to a standstill and no longer held the same inspiration for artistic minds as it once had. Following from the year 1979 to 1990, China only managed to produce movies which were approved by the Communist Party. These were obviously ones who could successfully be used for state propaganda and the issue resulted in the film industry to suffer more which was already going through a bad phase. After the past few decades, while the Chinese cinema has managed to take a turn for the better, the industry is still heavily influenced by the government. Breaking Old Ideas was released in 1977 and the movie glorifies the Chinese culture as depicted in the scene where Guo argues with other people about the superiority of the Chinese culture (00h:45m:49s, Drama). In the past, all movies catered for state propaganda and revolutionary heroes and the public was forced to consume the propaganda only as anyone who raised their voices against the propaganda was persecuted and silenced (Nakajima 18).

Today the customer trend and culture has managed to take a turn for the better as the Chinese public is now accustomed to more progress and demand entertainment based upon a different mindset. However, even today the film industry is controlled and dictated by the government and nothing is exposed to the public until it receives the government's approval. The censorship is done on several levels; movies that depict Chinese political rivals in positive lights are banned entirely as well as movies which hold anything unpleasant to the Chinese culture or the Chinese authorities are also banned altogether. As a solution to the editing and to avoid alienating the Chinese audience completely, the West realized the importance of self- editing to make its movies more appealing to China and its specialists. It has been known to censor movies and cut out scenes and plot twists that may be unpleasant to the public or the experts to have their movies sold in the Chinese markets and amongst its audiences.

The western film industries have also hence become more conscious of its depiction of the Chinese communities in its films as on more than one instance. It has been forced to remove parts of films where the Chinese were shown in a bad light, an example of the incident where the parts from the films were deleted is the film ‘Men in Black,' where the scenes showing the Chinese actors as the ‘bad guys' had to be deleted before the film could be released in China. Hence, despite the unwavering control of the Chinese government, the film industry has still successfully managed to step away from the propaganda films had and are now releasing more and more films for only entertainment purposes. The culture of films going is also now massively promoted by having more cinemas opened in both the small towns and large cities and by having a large number of movie screens pop up across the country which depicts the growing demands for films within the Chinese populous (Su 75).

China is now also expanding its influence over Hollywood and further building up on its capital investment in foreign industries. Dennis Wang, who is heading the Huayi Bros is also one of the leading minds behind the flourishing film industry and has purchased Hollywood Studios with collaboration of the Dalian Wanda group, for $ 3. 5 Billion. Hollywood Studios is one of the most renounce studios in Hollywood which is famous for productions like Jurassic World and the Batman franchises. The American market is also now getting impact via increasing Chinese investment; the impact allows the Chinese minds to ensure that they have control over producing films which have global reach. There has also been a marked change in the way the Chinese film industry previously operated. The change is in line with the fact that to compete with Hollywood and to attain the same international appeal that it has.

The Chinese film industry is now moving towards producing more English films as well as hiring more recognized Hollywood actors to gain more publicity (Jihong 420). Hiring English actors might work in attracting a larger audience. However, it takes away from the local cultural value and is unfair to the original essence of the cinema and compromises on its diversity. To counter the issue and to allow for the local theaters to grow at a healthy pace while still inculcating an international appeal, the Chinese film industry has introduced a quota system (Davis 122). The quota system works in line with the policy that Hollywood can release a maximum of thirty-four movies in China after which the rest of the attention is left for the local industry. The quota has also given rise to movies coming up which try and cater to the cultures and relativity of both China and the Western community. For example, Kung Fu Panda , an animated movie, revolves around both Shanghai and California and tailors to both the audiences; the film was the result of a collaborated effort between Hollywood movie studios and local Chinese film studios. The production of such a film also managed to hack around the quota policy introduced by the Chinese film industry (Su 105).

The elite Chinese man is now also looking for gaining more and more revenue via the film industry, and he understands the importance of accessibility when it comes to earning more revenue. The present Chinese film industry also recognizes that the present quota system is policed to ensure more opportunities for the domestic business. However, once the domestic business grows, and the government has more faith in the work of the local industries, there is a chance for these industries to prosper by removing or increasing the quota and by letting more foreign collaborations happen and permitting for more international appeal. Hence, the cycle will result in any growth being exponential.

The Chinese film industry is also now letting its technical expertise to give it the needed edge when it comes to having the potential to produce even larger projects. The expertise includes seeking help from Jack Ma (founder of Alibaba) who invested heavily in the movie Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and also has a lot of capital invested in online movie and video platforms which he sees as a massive money maker (Jihong 426). Hence China's technology industry is also now helping shape the way the Chinese film industry is progressing (Rosen 370).

In spite of the successes and the work that is constantly going into the growth of the Chinese film business, there remains a gap that the business is struggling to fill. The gap exists on a level where despite the fact that the quality of the films being created is in line with those produced in the West and that the films are very well received in China itself. They are not a blooming success away from home and are not as well received as one would expect after seeing the money they make locally; the issue is also what has further incentivized the big minds of the industry to operate harder and have their films become more internationally accessible. Another reason pointed out for why the Chinese film business may be suffering on international forums is accounted for by the fact that a dichotomy of power exists in the business where Beijing has the most control over patrolling the movies and videos that are released. The control manages to put a firm grip on any movie artist or creator who tries to move away from the norm of the Chinese culture and dwell in any other form of expression when producing these films. Beijing has always had the role of protecting the Chinese culture and heritage the most, and hence it manages to police and control any movie which strays from what it sees as the ideal Chinese form of art.

The nature of the Chinese films is while on many levels in line with that of the West but they still are very different. The movies have much more action in them and relatively less immodest scenes as compared to films produced in Hollywood. The policy is in part accredited to the fact that the people of China have always shown great sensitivity towards issues involving taboos and sexuality and at the same time have accepted violence as a realistic norm. Another factor that is often perceived as odd regarding the nature of the Chinese cinema is the way the progress of the plot is accredited to the will of the heaven. Implying that a lot of plot twists, endings, and series of secular events are then accredited to a secular source of reasoning, while the plot settles well with people who hold religion in particularly high regard, it does not settle well with individuals who expect to see plots progress based upon reasoning and complex developments. For example, in the movie ‘Wind and Cloud in Late Qing – One Armed Hero,' the villain was not caught and killed by the protagonist but rather died abruptly from a bell falling on his head which was later regarded as the will of the heavens bringing him to his fate. It is hence often the peculiar nature of the movies produced by the Chinese film industry that hinders their growth on international forums. (Rosen 222)

The film industry in China has also managed to influence its public opinion in a lot of positive ways. Starting from how the advancement and exposure have led the public to raise demand for more entertainment rather than just settle for movies which cater to state propagated ideas. It has also made the life of the average Chinese more accustomed to using screenings of movies and cinemas as a form of recreational activities. The growth of the film industry has also managed to revive and revise the thought structures followed in China. Directors in the early part of the 1980s heavily concentrated on producing material which propagated notions to gender equality and women rights, the emphasis is accredited with bringing about the wave of feminism in China and making the public more aware of fighting social injustices.

The market for the Chinese movies is expected to exist on two very different spectrums when it comes to national and international forums. The situation implies that while due to government influences on the film industry, its strict control and censorship of foreign movies and its blatant favoritism of the local cinema manage to allow local films to generate a lot of revenue domestically. The opportunity also provides disincentives for the small local creator to try and expand to international forums as they are of the opinion that they are capable of earning far more locally than they would be able to make internationally. The market locally also is programmed to target the youth, who has statistically shown to be the largest audience for the industry (Rosen 359).

Another problem that the Chinese film industry faces when trying to reach out to a wider audience is how subtitled movies and movies which are somewhat non-relatable to the western public are perceived and how little they are valued. These movies are often found to be not in demand when they are ranked in comparison with movies that the demographic find to be far more relatable and far worthier of their time. It is at the same time also a struggle for these films to gain funding when working on an international forum. There is a massive risk involved in the making and distribution of such films which do not have a pre-existing international market, and hence make them less likely to attract investments as there is little-confirmed profit to be gained. More often than not, the funding for these movies comes from personal contacts and references. On the other hand, the filmmakers in Hollywood are now turning towards Chinese investors for a new source of investments. For example, there have been deals made between Huayi Brothers Media Corp and Sony in other to work on newer projects (Su 103). Hence, the next logical step for the Chinese film industry is to avoid launching on massive forums and go and target smaller distributors. By doing so, they will be able to test out smaller demographics without having to invest massively in one project; the solution is also the only way for the film industry to move towards expanding its approach without losing touch with its local culture and heritage (Davis 121).

It can then be noted that it is naturally going to a tough struggle for movies that strive to be politically correct in an industry which is inculcated with people who are only trying to achieve commercial viability (Jihong 423). For the Chinese film industry to gain momentum, a trade off needs to be made it will either be a compromise on the culture and heritage that these movies have so far painstakingly protected and abided by, or it will be a compromise on the international fame and popularity that they have the potential to achieve. There are instances where the culture of a country can be very peculiar to its people and history and hence, can alienate a large number of audiences. Despite these factors existing, it is vital to note the way without compromising on its cultural groundings the Chinese film industry has managed to make a stand in the global entertainment industry and put itself out to be a force to reckon with.

Works Cited

Davis, Darrell William. “Market and Marketization in the China Film Business.”Cinema Journal, vol. 49, no. 3, 2010, pp. 121–125. 

Jihong, Wan, and Richard Kraus. “Hollywood and China as Adversaries and Allies”. Pacific Affairs, vol. 75, no. 3, 2002, pp. 419–434.

Nakajima, Seio. “The Evolution of Chinese Film as an Industry.”Art, Politics, and Commerce in Chinese Cinema, edited by Ying Zhu and Stanley Rosen, Hong Kong University Press, 2010, pp. 17–34.

Rosen, Stanley. “The Chinese Dream in Popular Culture: China as Producer and Consumer of Films at Home and Abroad.” China's Global Engagement: Cooperation, Competition, and Influence in the 21st Century, edited by Jacques Delisle and Avery Goldstein, Brookings Institution Press, 2017, pp. 359–388

Rosen, Stanley. “The China Journal.”The China Journal, no. 53, 2005, pp. 222–225.

Su, Wendy. “The Film Industry as Negotiation of Space.”China's Encounter with Global Hollywood: Cultural Policy and the Film Industry, 1994-2013, University Press of Kentucky, 2016, pp. 75–104.

April 06, 2023

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