China's (Probably Doomed) Plan to Partner With Hollywood

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Beijing wants to team up with American filmmakers to produce more Chinese films, but politics can sometimes supersede art.

Flowers Feb17 p.jpg

Chinese director Zhang Yimou poses with his cast members before a screening "The Flowers of War" at the 62nd Berlinale International Film Festival / Reuters

Just as Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping and his entourage descend on Hollywood, Zhang Yimou, China's celebrated film director, is enjoying a warm reception at the Berlinale with his latest historical opus The Flowers of War. According to Der Spiegel:

"The Flowers of War" is the most expensive Chinese film ever made, with production costs of $94 million (€72 million) and a Hollywood star in the leading role: British Oscar winner Christian Bale, famous for his portrayal of Batman. Bale, too, is expected in Berlin this week.

In "The Flowers of War," Bale plays a fictional American who becomes entangled in a real life tragedy -- the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, also known as the "Rape of Nanking," one of the worst war crimes of the 20th century, in which Japanese troops murdered or raped hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens when they occupied the city, then the capital of the Republic of China. That period strains relations between China and Japan to this day.

"China's younger generation doesn't know much about the events in Nanjing," Zhang says, something he noticed while working on the film. "But almost everyone here knows 'Schindler's List.' Hollywood movies have a big influence on us in China. What we need to do now is further develop our own film industry. We need to produce films that Chinese people want to see -- and, of course, foreign audiences as well."

Yes, Hollywood has an obvious and outsized influence in China, one reason why Beijing caps foreign movie imports to just 20 a year under the World Trade Organization. (This import substitution policy has also spawned a vast piracy market, as Chinese demand for western films and TV shows far outstrips supply through formal, legalized channels.) Yet just as Zhang bemoans the Hollywoodification of the Chinese film industry, his vice president is poised to officially announce a major deal between DreamWorks Animation and Shanghai Media Group in, where else, Hollywood. What's more, Zhang's own Flowers was the product of a "Chollywood" joint effort starring Christian Bale. Best known as Batman in Christopher Nolan's revived franchise, Bale made recent headlines when he attempted to visit blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng under house arrest, only to be shoved and punched by a rotund Chinese security guard.

That this encounter between Batman and China went poorly isn't meant to serve as an allegory of the sometimes uneasy relationship between Hollywood and Beijing (exhibit A: Richard Gere and Red Corner). In fact, despite the contention over piracy and constraints on free expression, the relationship seems to be on the mend. Chollywood coproductions, for example, are on the rise, including the latest remake of the Karate Kid with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan. And money talks. In addition to the possible DreamWorks deal, Bruno Wu, a Chinese media mogul, has created an $800 million fund to invest in Hollywood-Chinese projects. Some serious financing will be flowing toward these ventures.

Can money alone build a legitimate and appealing culture industry? The Chinese are certainly going to try. Indeed, Xi's Hollywood jaunt is directly linked to developments on the home front. Since Hu Jintao's politically charged culture essay early this year that decried foreign influence, the government has released yet another five-year plan on the culture industry (here in Chinese). The dense plan proscribes a significant role for the state in directing the industry's development. It also calls for creating a culture market and allocates special funds and other sorts of policy support to realize it. And, of course, China would like to have films and culture products that contain domestic intellectual property. In its most Orwellian moment, the plan's language calls for strengthening official broadcasting media (read: propaganda) to proactively shape public opinion.

In short, China's strategy here seems to suffer from a sort of ideological schizophrenia. The only certainty is that its unveiling is an implicit recognition of China's enormous cultural deficit and an attempt to solve it. Indeed, China cannot even match its smaller Asian neighbors, such as Japan and South Korea, in cultural output, let alone the United States. Given its economic power, China punches far below its weight on generating creative output that also has mass appeal.

Such is the contradiction that Beijing is trying to untangle, hoping that a few deals with Hollywood can raise China's global profile as a center of the creative industry. It's unclear whether it's likely to work. Just ask Zhang, whose Flowers was largely panned by critics and mocked by Chinese themselves as playing to the Communist Party's sentiments. Perhaps that's why Beijing is insistent on trumpeting him as director extraordinaire, a "safe" choice.

But playing it safe doesn't always make for good art, and can sometimes seem to lead audiences to seek other outlets that offer more emotional and psychological resonance. The central government lacks the ability to live comfortably with the unpredictability of art, and that's exactly the problem. The current political intrigue in Chongqing could be adapted into a gripping series on China's failing institutions like HBO series The Wire, for example; the betrayal between Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun is not unlike the famous unraveling of Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale. Imagine a split-screen scene with Bo, sitting serenely and Godfather-like at the Chinese opera on the left, and Wang fleeing a trail of police and flooring his Jeep toward the U.S. embassy on the right. The screenplay writes itself. Or at least it would, if the central government were capable of allowing such a thing.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect a show as profound and gritty as The Wire to emerge from the Chinese market any time soon. Even American TV has many more Bachelors than Wires. But if China hopes to cultivate a culture industry that is globally renowned and respected, it is not a bad aspiration to accept that sometimes one of the favorite TV characters may just be a gay Robin Hood gangster terminating drug dealers on the broken streets of a decaying coastal city. And if Chinese leaders are okay with that, then China has made it.

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Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.

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