Larry Hong is an intern in the Asia program at the Council on Foreign Relations and a senior at Columbia University. This is the second post in his three-part series on the relationship between Hollywood and the Chinese film industry. Read part one and part two.
Chinese viewers have long been fascinated by Hollywood films. As a result, commercially successful U.S. films, such as Titanic, have often found success in China as well. Even blockbusters that perform poorly in the United States often get a second chance to reclaim their worth when they are shown in the Chinese market.For example, Cloud Atlas, Bait 3D, and Expendables 3, all floundered in the United States, but managed to attract a sizable turnout in China. This is not to say that every Hollywood production will succeed in China, but Chinese audiences can sometimes rescue Hollywood flops. Experts have said that it is easy to achieve a good box office record in the country because cinema is still a relatively new form of entertainment for Chinese audiences. While this may have been true a few years ago, there are already subtle signs that Chinese viewers are becoming more selective about the films they watch and responsive to product quality. In response, Hollywood studios have scrambled to lure Chinese audiences by incorporating more China-related elements and excluding elements that put China in an unsavory light; this strategy has been deployed with mixed results.
One important way that Hollywood studios include more “Chinese ingredients” is to cast Chinese actors in their movies. Historically, Chinese actors, especially female ones, have appeared in U.S. films as merely “flower vases,” essentially decorative elements. This is the case, for example, of Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing’s all-too-brief appearance in X-Men: Days of Future Past, where her one and only line is “time’s up.” More recently, however, Chinese actors have started to play more substantial and visible roles. For example, Taiwanese singer and actor Jay Chou (whose career is primarily in mainland China) played the role of a magic store owner in the comedy heist movie Now You See Me 2. However, Chou’s part in the movie, visible as it might be, is insignificant and tangential to the main plot. More generally, as an Atlantic article astutely noted, Chinese actors still primarily play supporting roles in Hollywood films, a situation that is unlikely to change in the near future. While Hollywood studios are interested in replicating the success of pan-Chinese films, such as the hugely popular Hong Kong action movies of the past century, they are much less invested in developing actors of Chinese (and more broadly Asian) descent. Tapping into Chinese talent is theoretically good for business and does not seem like a difficult task, but the industry is still bogged down by a deep resistance to change. As a result, often a Chinese-set, Chinese-staffed Hollywood film will still have a white actor as its face (see Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall for the latest example of this). Even worse, white actors continue to star in the roles of Asian characters.
In addition to casting Chinese actors, Hollywood is also including other “Chinese ingredients” to attract Chinese audiences. Movies that contain scenes in China are increasingly common. Chinese product placements are also strategically inserted to resonate with Chinese viewers. For example, Chinese audiences watching Transformers: Age of Extinction were amused by a profusion of local Chinese brands that appeared seemingly out of place including Chinese Red Bull, c’est bon water, Shuhua Milk, and China Construction Bank, just to name a few. Some movies such as Iron Man 3 and Looper even contain a longer cut tailor-made for Chinese audiences. But many of these efforts to include Chinese elements are awkward and confusing. The extra footage in Iron Man 3, which many Chinese audiences reported was irrelevant to the storyline, backfired as the audiences felt “manipulated.” Similarly, Chinese audiences on Douban, China’s equivalent of Rotten Tomatoes, “gave a thumbs down” to the inclusion of artificial Chinese elements in the movie Looper.
A more worrisome trend is that many of Hollywood’s apparent efforts to pander to Chinese audiences end up reinforcing Western stereotypes about China. The apocalyptic film 2012, for a time the highest grossing film in Chinese history, was seen by many Chinese audiences as glorifying China’s role in saving the world from Armageddon. However, many critics were quick to point out that this film actually reinforced Western misperceptions of Chinese as manual laborers. The 2016 sci-fi film Arrival was also seen by some Chinese audiences as Hollywood’s latest attempt (after 2012, Gravity, and The Martian) to portray the Chinese as responsible for rescuing humanity from destruction by aliens. However, looking more closely, this film features an un-nuanced representation of China as a belligerent and revisionist power under the dictatorial control of General Shang, who made the unilateral decision to attack an alien spaceship; he only later backs down thanks to American linguist Louise’s “smart” intervention. This film also demonstrates another enduring and odd problem in Hollywood’s representation of China: the Chinese general is played by Hong Kong actor Tzi Ma, whose Mandarin betrays a thick Cantonese accent. How hard is it to find a competent Chinese speaker to play a Chinese role?
Hollywood has a longstanding tendency to simplify, exaggerate, or distort cultural representations, going all the way back to the Classical Hollywood period. In that era, studios projected their own image of Asians – in the form of white actors in “yellow face” – onto the big screen. Today, Hollywood’s commercial impulse to get a bigger slice of the Chinese market often leads to the awkward insertion of cultural symbols and strategic deployment of stereotypical motifs. While China and Chinese brands and actors are increasingly represented in Hollywood movies, often they are still seen through the lens of Hollywood’s oriental imagination. Serious engagement with Chinese culture and serious investment in actors of Chinese descent remain absent from many Hollywood productions. As Chinese and American moviegoers become increasingly sophisticated, more nuanced modes of cross-cultural collaboration should be devised. More importantly, because of the historical significance of films in shaping cultural perceptions, incorrect cinematic representation can hamper accurate cultural exchange between the two countries. This we should avoid at all costs.