While China may be releasing a huge quantity of films, and producing a number of new TV shows, to most foreigners living here, there is still a dearth of entertainment (sorry CCTV). Despite efforts to promote “soft power”, China still seems unable to attract followings on par with Japanese anime or Bollywood films. So today we’ll be looking at the factors limiting China’s cultural potency.
As I’ve discussed before (How long until we’re all singing Beijing Opera?), I think one of the major challenges facing China’s efforts is that the gov’t/party seems to be closely involved with these projects, which is a negative to many in the US and Europe. This has been especially true of 2011’s highest grossing film, The Founding of the Party, which was explicitly a propaganda film. The sales though were largely to companies that redistributed tickets to their employees who were given the afternoon off for re-education (several people I spoke to used the two hours in the dark for bonus napping).
It seems that a first step that could be taken, is to simply allow greater freedom in the Chinese film industry, after all, Hollywood creates movies that inspire some of the same nationalist pride without gov’t interference.
Unfortunately, China seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Just this week it was announced that China’s American Idol-type show, Super Girl, would be cancelled. A number of reasons were cited, notably that it “did not conform to the healthy and positive orientation that TV programs should have”, and more interestingly the show producers “received notification from the administration that we cannot make selective TV trials with mass involvement of individuals in the year 2012″ (gov’t speak for text message voting).
Even though the show enjoyed massive popularity, a new article in the state media claims that this was not the case. Considering it was one of the few Chinese TV shows that I had heard enough about from students that I actually recognized the name, it’s hard to believe otherwise. This hints at the second major problem facing China’s entertainment industry, success is often punished. Both Avatar and the Hong Kong film, Let the Bullets Fly, were later subjected to reduced screenings once sensors started worrying about their influence. After all, Super Girl isn’t the only pop talent show on Chinese TV, just the most popular one.
The final problem is that the gov’t continues to promote historical films that have little meaning to audiences outside of China (and often little relevance within, as evidenced by declining ticket sales). This included a film about Beijing Opera shortly before the Olympics, and current efforts to tell the tale of Tang Dynasty concubine, Yang Guifei (don’t worry, there won’t be anything risque).
I get the idea that if you asked the typical American if they had seen any Chinese films the conversation would go something like this:
Them: “Oh yeah, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was pretty awesome.”
Me: “That was a Taiwan/Hong Kong co-operation.”
Them: “Well I’ve seen pretty much every Jackie Chan and Bruce Li film.”
Me: “Those were made in Hong Kong.”
Them: “Dang, uh…Memoirs of a Geisha?”
Me: “That was a Hollywood film about Japan with Chinese actresses, so that’s kind of close.”
Them: “Have I seen any Chinese films? This is ridiculous.”
The gov’t seems to be ignoring the fact that kung fu movies abroad have only had limited success (e.g. Hero, House of Flying Daggers). China seems to be clinging tightly to this failed film formula. However I think American audiences would rush to see a film that dealt with modern China in an honest way, something of a Chinese Slumdog Millionaire (but please don’t just copy it).
Until the gov’t allows films to portray a China that actually exists with real people, doing everyday things, or even just allow teenagers to vote for their favorite singer, China is going to have a hard time spreading their soft power beyond the movie theaters they fill with free tickets.