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Soft power promotion: Chinese film industry should keep striving to cross cultural barriers

FENG DAIMEI | 2019-08-08 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Stanley Rosen is a professor of political science at the University of Southern California. He studied Chinese in Chinese Taiwan and Hong Kong and has traveled to mainland China around 60 times in the last 37 years. His courses range from Chinese politics and Chinese film to political change in Asia, East Asian societies, comparative politics, and politics and film in comparative perspective. The author or editor of eight books and many articles, Rosen is currently co-editing a book on China’s soft power. His works include Art, Politics and Commerce in Chinese Cinema and Chinese Politics: State, Society and the Market.


How to promote global dessimination is at the top of a rising country’s agenda. As an important channel for spreading culture, films help the outside world understand China. Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California, has long been engaged in Chinese social and political research. For the past four decades, he has taught classes covering film and politics in China, Asian political change, East Asian society, and politics, policy, and comparative film studies. A CSST reporter invited professor Rosen to share his views and observations on Chinese films and soft power promotion.


CSST: Film is a medium that resonates with people. It can be considered a good and convenient tool for spreading soft power.
Stanley Rosen: In the case of Hollywood, soft power has a very important role. Hollywood films are considered high-concept films. Justin Wright defined high-concept movies as “The look, the hook, and the book.” Hollywood films attract people with various cultural backgrounds. The biggest reason for the success of Hollywood films is that they can be easily understood, so they have a large audience. Different cultures find different meanings, so a film can have a very broad appeal. Take the film Avatar as an example. In China, it is seen as a film defending property rights, but in many other countries, it is about environmental issues. The Wandering Earth has a broad appeal—“world cooperation” being necessary to succeed. That’s a step forward for Chinese films. 
Hollywood films can cover any kind of genre. They can be very critical about the govenrment. So you can have films in which CIA, FBI or the American government are doing terrible things. It is quite acceptable. It also has big budgets for special effects. It has the best marketing distribution system in the world. They have a long history of filmmaking. They tend to know what works and what doesn’t work. And last, international stars are necessary for Hollywood films. Hollywood has many international stars, but China doesn’t have a lot. That’s why Matt Damon was in The Great Wall. At present, many Chinese famous directors, actors and actresses come to shoot films in Hollywood for its huge global influence. 
CSST: You mentioned that The Wandering Earth has attracted worldwide attention. Some people claimed that it could mark a beginning for many more Chinese films to enter the global film market. What’s your take on this perspective?
Stanley Rosen: Guo Fan, the director of the film, said in an interview that “We have a long way ahead of us competing with Hollywood on this road.” So we have to wait and see. There are some positive reviews in the West of this film, and some negative reviews as well. It is a mixed picture. From an aesthetic view, I think it is a step forward, for it has a lot of good special effects, but I think it is very hard for foreign audiences to understand what it is going on on the screen. Some subtitles go by very quickly and you are going to miss a lot of the action. That makes it tough for foreign audiences. 
The Wandering Earth is all about humanity working together to save the earth. And what I really thought good was Liu Cixin’s original story. In general, his work is very imaginative. I have read his The Wandering Earth and The Three-Body Problem. They were thrilling. Just like how Obama described The Three-Body Problem—wildly imaginative. In American movies, such as 2012, if the earth is going to die, we build a space ship to leave. But this film is about taking the earth with you. This is a very imaginative case of how to solve this problem. Some problems occuring in the film are quite original while some are incorporated from other films. I think it does well in terms of special effects. 
CSST: People think of Kong fu films when Chinese films are mentioned. Why are Kong fu movies so popular?
Stanley Rosen: People are always amazed by the passion of superheroes and the spirit of rebellion. Hollywood films have created numerous rebellious superheroes, such as Iron Man and The Avengers. People prefer this kind of character. We can see such elements in Wolf Warrior and The Wandering Earth. If China can do more and more like this, then Chinese movies can be more popular.
CSST: What are your suggestions for promoting soft power?
Stanley Rosen: If you look at Canada and the United States, foreign lanauge films don’t do well no matter where they are from. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made $120 million in north America. No foreign film has ever done half of that. The number two film is called Life Is Beautiful, which is an Italian film. The number three film is Hero with a box office of $53 million. There are some other films that have achieved a good box office gross. Since 2006, virtually no foreign films, with very rare exceptions, have done well in the US and Canada.
CSST: How should Chinese films be internationalised? What are the challenges?
Stanley Rosen: My point is that China should have moderate expectations now, because Hollywood movies are still the dominant force in the international film market. China’s first step should be to occupy its own domestic market, just like what India and the United States have strived to do. South Korean and Japanese films also performed well in their domestic markets. However, due to factors concerning language, culture and other issues, I think it is still very difficult for Chinese films to succeed overseas. One possible path is to make anime films, which seems to be the best hope for China to “go to the world.”
CSST: Compared with that of other countries, China’s soft power promotion is more difficult. Apart from medium, do cultural and political barriers play a large part? 
Stanley Rosen: China will have to make the effort even if it’s a long term strategy. China should put aside the Western community’s response while it should pay more attention to the reaction of the countires in the third world. Most capitalist countries need China more than China needs them. We should work on the developing world and overseas Chinese first to gradually promote soft power.  
edited by MA YUHONG