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The Flowers of War
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The Karate Kid
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Let the Bullets Fly
A richly entertaining Oriental Western anchored by a well-honed, ironic script and terrific performances.
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Speaking a new language: Chinglish
By Patrick Frater
Thu, 17 May 2012, 14:45 PM (HKT)
English-language Chinese movies; it sounds incongruous. Except that in a matter of months many leading Chinese film groups have re-tuned their international strategies from being focused on selling more Chinese films abroad, or making co-productions within Asia, to one where they are instead hatching plans to work with Hollywood.
"There are so many people doing it now, they can't all be wrong," says Pietro VENTANI, the US and Beijing-based business partner of Rob MINKOFF who directed The Forbidden Kingdom 功夫之王 (2008) (pictured), the most successful Chinese-US co-production to date. "One of the imperatives for Chinese companies is to create content that can be exported. English-language is seen as that vehicle."
The US media conglomerates and the Motion Picture Association of America Inc (MPAA), have for years struggled to get what they wanted from the Chinese government (more film imports, better IP protection, theme parks and landing rights for US TV channels), so in Hollywood the new thinking has been welcomed with open arms. It comes down to money and the realisation that more can be achieved by working together than squaring off belligerently across the Pacific Ocean.
From the US perspective, Hollywood has learned that its domestic North American business is no longer growing, but that international export markets can replace that lost momentum. For certain kinds of films such as Transformers or 2012, the Chinese theatrical returns can outstrip even the more established mature markets of Germany, Japan and the UK. The recent Titanic (1997) re-release obliterated the film's previous box office record and saw the $126 million China take account for 48% of the film's cumulative gross outside North America.
Meanwhile Chinese firms and the Chinese industry regulators stopped pretending that their Chinese-language films were gaining ground in overseas markets. (The 2010 overseas box office figures for Chinese titles were greatly flattered by The Karate Kid 功夫夢 (2010), a largely financial co-production between Columbia Pictures and China Film Group Corporation 中國電影集團公司 which made a no better than okay impression at Chinese theatres.) For all that classy local films such as Let the Bullets Fly 讓子彈飛 (2010) or Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame 狄仁杰之通天帝國 (2010) could drum up fabulous box office in China, they were not selling or playing well abroad. And with budgets rising that was becoming a problem for Chinese film investors.
Attitudes and strategies have changed very quickly.
Only 3-4 years back the clever talk was about setting up co-productions that would allow US films a back door entry into China around the country's infamous, but in fact quite porous, import quota barriers. Paramount Pictures shoe-horned Mission: Impossible III (2006) in that way and, two years later, Universal did the same with The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor 神鬼傳奇３ (2008).
After years of fretting about censorship and local cast and crew requirements, last year some of that co-production talk turned into corporate structures. These included Relativity Media LLC's tie up with two financiers and Huaxia Film Distribution Co Ltd 華夏電影發行有限責任公司 , a state-owned film distributor; Legendary East Ltd, a Hong Kong-based joint venture between Legendary Pictures LLC, Huayi Brothers Media Corporation 華誼兄弟傳媒股份有限公司 and construction industry money men; as well as a $300 million fund launched by China's DMG Entertainment ＤＭＧ娛樂傳媒集團 to bring US partners in to China. With only slightly less fanfare, Village Roadshow Entertainment Group Asia 威秀電影亞洲公司 also got underway, headed by Warner's former chief in China Ellen ELIASOPH.
Late last year Bona Film Group Co Ltd 博納影業集團有限公司 and Huayi Brothers, China's two largest private sector film outfits, both said that English language films would be a new priority.
"Hollywood has done a fantastic job promoting its industry to the world and projecting its universal values," says Bona CEO YU Dong 于冬. "We would like to leverage this Hollywood strength and add Chinese elements." As if to hammer home his point Yu had Catherine Zeta-Jones, who until now has had no role in a Bona-made movie, ring the bell at NASDAQ with him.
Then in February this year, after a long- running dispute that went to the World Trade Organisation for arbitration, Chinese and US ministers agreed to dramatically change China's quota and distribution regimes. More Hollywood films will be allowed in and they will earn better rental terms. Suddenly, executives openly asked whether the hard work of making co-production films could be ditched in favour of simply distributing more Hollywood tentpoles in China.
The answer seems to be no, or rather there will be more imports and more co-productions and probably other permutations as well.
Wealthy entrepreneur Bruno WU 吳徵, who grandly calls the latest cross-Pacific initiative Chinawood, says simply that Chinese companies have broadened their horizons and gone global. "We are entering a global industry that utilises the best talent available. Obviously, we want to build on the existing base of talented Chinese filmmakers and actors, but if you review the elements of the majority of successful films, non-native filmmakers and actors are involved no matter their nationalities."
In the past few years the 'non- natives' working in China were primarily Hong Kongers and Taiwanese. The future it seems will involve more from across the pond.
These days US film-makers Rob COHEN, Bill PAXTON, Doug LIMAN and Minkoff are already warming up China projects, while Keanu REEVES is actually directing his first feature (in Chinese, not English!) for Village Roadshow. Universal Pictures Inc and musician turned filmmaker, the RZA have The Man with the Iron Fists in the can, though it is not clear this will qualify as a full official co-production.
So far, actual green-lighting has been slow. DMG, run by Dan MINTZ, an American who has made his way through the Chinese advertising and film industries for nearly two decades, is exec producing Endgame and FilmDistrict's sci-fi movie Looper 環形使者. But it takes a big step up with Iron Man III, which it will next co-finance, co-produce and co- distribute with Disney.
Large amounts of money seem to be ready, waiting to be put to the service of the new 'Chinglish' tentpole films. In addition to the Hollywood studios' own resources, Wu's Chinawood has earmarked $450 million for production investment, China Mainstream has announced a fund which will take big stakes in tentpole titles, while Ryan KAVANAUGH's Relativity can call on the resources of SAIF Partners, a leading Asian private equity firm, and IDG China Media ＩＤＧ中國媒體基金. Bona, Huayi and others are also understood to be readying structured funds.
The challenge, as it has been for every film since Forbidden Kingdom, is to get the culture right. Chinese Odyssey, being hatched by Minkoff and Ventani, exemplifies the problem. "We are working with China Film Group and Beijing Galloping Horse Film Co Ltd 北京小馬奔騰影業有限公司 and with Jim Hart on something that is originated and developed in China. It is not a super hero movie, but needs to work in Beijing, Chicago and Munich," says Ventani.
"Conflict is very important in Western story-telling, but that is not held up as a value by Confucian cultures. The character-arc, or hero's journey, is not so common in Chinese literary tradition. The bladesman is still a bladesman at the end."
One of the biggest wake-up calls for Chinese film-makers in recent years was the global success of animated film Kung Fu Panda (2008). It took cultural symbols of China and fed them back to global and Chinese audiences with an irreverent appeal that Chinese film-makers might have struggled with. Yet the film's co-writer Glenn Berger says he did not see it that way.
"It is a classic underdog story. I never thought of it as particularly Chinese," he says. "It's the story of a man who had a dream, was poorly equipped to fulfil it, but pressed on anyway. It is largely independent of setting." Only after the first film did Berger (an Asian studies major at college) take a research trip to China to consciously soak up more Chinese elements for Panda's sequel. "Similarly Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 臥虎藏龍 (2000) is not a Chinese-themed movie. To me it is a love story," says Berger.
Panda gives DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc an unmatched calling card in China, where stories abound and the local animation industry has been stuffed with public money from city and state authorities. Dreamworks Oriental, its new joint venture with the Shanghai SME-New Media Technology Co Ltd 上海文廣新媒體有限公司, should be able to choose to work with number of well- equipped local partners all hoping that some of Dreamworks' story-telling and script development magic will rub off.
However, pitfalls abound on the way to achieving a smooth 'China-wood' harmony — perhaps more so for live action producers than for the animation sector. Counter-pointing the upbeat fund launches and the new-found political entente, the past year has witnessed several sticky moments along the way.
These have included the late December rejection of the finance bonanza promised to Legendary East by Hong Kong investors and the embarrassing overseas flop of The Flowers of War 金陵十三釵 (2011), ZHANG Yimou 張藝謀's very Americanised take on the Nanjing siege which its producers thought was a shoo-in for the Oscars. Disney last year closed its Shanghai-based script development team and VoD player turned film producer Le Vision Pictures Co Ltd 樂視影業（北京）有限公司 found it impossible to set up The Expendables II as a Chinese-qualifying co-production.
Human rights problems butted in awkwardly into Relativity's 21 and Over, which in order to qualify for co-production status shot briefly in Shandong province, home of dissident Chen Guangchen. Chen recently escaped house arrest and sheltered in the US Embassy in Beijing, causing a diplomatic firestorm.
Most recently, US financial regulator, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revealed that it is conducting preliminary investigations into the China dealings of the Hollywood studios. It is concerned that to win business in China bribes may have been paid in contravention of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. That has caused at least one Chinese company, perhaps temporarily, to suspend further co-prod ventures.
But others seem determined to press on. Legendary Pictures, which has a slate of Chinese-interest pictures in development, this month gave a new kick start to Legendary East with the hiring of former CAA China boss Peter LOEHR as its rainmaking CEO in China.