The Chinese blockbusters are made to rival the popularity of their Hollywood counterparts, and as such we’re seeing the expansion of Hollywood star appearances in Chinese movies. It seems the presence of Hollywood faces is necessary for scoring global releases and enchanting international audiences.
Even though China’s box office slowed down somewhat, by 21% during the first half of 2016, the market is still seeing a significant rise when you look at the past five years, and it might be on its way to rival North America for the privilege of being the world’s number one movie market.
We’ve also seen a few interesting purchases from Chinese companies in Hollywood – for example, in 2012 when AMC theater chain was purchased by Dalian Wanda Group, or the purchase of Legendary Entertainment in January.
Despite this, however, the Chinese cinematography hasn’t had much recognition internationally in the recent years. We all remember Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” that won a foreign-language Oscar in 2000, but that one was billed as a Taiwanese film. Other than that, only Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” has earned some recognition by being nominated in 2002.
“China wants to export its films to the world — especially the U.S. — as an achievement of its soft power, but no one wants to watch its films,” says producer and director Peter Tsi, who has helmed projects in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. “On the other hand, Hollywood is excited about getting into the China market, but the only way to achieve that is through co-production, and they must find subject matter that can resonate with the Chinese audience.”
Peter Tsi, the producer and director who has helmed many projects in Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China, claims that China wants to export its movies to the world, but that no one wants to watch them. The problem is solved, however, by working together with Hollywood, which looks to expand to the China market – so co-production is the answer. However, the subject matter of the movie needs to resonate with the Chinese audience.
Still, there are controversies – the latest being the casting of Matt Damon as the lead in “The Great Wall”. Zhang Yimou, helm of the first project that emerged from Legendary Entertainment’s Legendary East, had to defend his decision to cast Damon as he was accused of “whitewashing”. This was Yimou’s first English-language production and it cost $135 million.
According to Tsi, if the Chinese market is to rival the North American and Chinese movies to be distributed internationally, Hollywood stars have to be cast. “The only way to make it work is to arbitrarily cast a Hollywood actor or two so that U.S. distributors and exhibitors might consider screening them,” he says.
Example in point: Stephen Chow’s fantasy blockbuster “The Mermaid”, the all-time highest-grossing film in the country that reached the $500 million box office benchmark only had a limited release in the U.S. with 35 screens under the distribution of Sony.
Even so, “The Great Wall” is hardly the first example of a Western star appearing in a Chinese movie. In fact, what’s being called the “Americanization” of Eastern products began back with the original Japanese “Godzilla” of 1954, when a segment starring Raymond Burr was edited in and later introduced to American audiences, in 1956, as “Godzilla: King of Monsters!”
In more recent years, Hong Kong led the trend in early 2000s. In a Hong Kong action blockbuster of 2000, “Gen-Y Cops”, Paul Rudd was cast as an FBI agent. The movie was produced by Hong Kong’s Media Asia and Regent Entertainment, and released in 2002 in the U.S. under the name “Metal Mayhem.” Also in 2000, the action triller “China Strike Force” produced by Astoria Films (an American company) and Golden Harvest (Asia) starred Coolio in the role of a drug dealer.
According to Gregory Rivers, the Hong Kong-based Australian actor who’s been working on Hong Kong TV and films for almost 30 years, writers in Asia were not used to writing Western characters into their stories, which lead to many of them looking arbitrary.
Still, for breaking into bigger markets, it became unavoidable for characters of various nationalities to become included in Chinese films. We had Donald Sutherland starring in “Big Shot’s Funeral”, the 2001 Feng Xiaogang comedy which was a collaboration between the Asian department of Columbia Pictures based in Hong Kong and a number of Chinese companies including Huavi Bros.
More and more Hollywood faces have been appearing in Chinese productions in the past few years. Namely, Christian Bale (Zhang’s “The Flowers of War” in 2011), Adrien Brody (Feng’s “Back to 1942” in 2012 and “Dragon Blade” in 2015 alongside Jackie Chan and John Cusack), Mike Tyson (“Ip Man 3” in 2015 in the role of the property developer that had fight scenes with Donnie Yen), etc.
Before “The Great Wall” is released, however, we’ll see what kind of attention the WWII epic starring Bruce Willis, “The Bombing”, will get. Reportedly, the movie had a $90 million budget and was jointly backed by the China Film Group and private investors. Starring alongside Willis is Brody and an ensemble Asian cast with names such as the Korean star Song Seung-heon, mainland actor Liu Ye and Hong Kong actor and singer Nicholas Tse. As for “The Great Wall”, it will be released in China in December, and in the U.S. in February by Universal.
“You want a movie that hits all markets at the same time and so you want to add a Korean or an American in the cast,” Rivers says. “But sometimes it doesn’t work like that.”