Emphasis on substance needed to raise global appeal of domestic film industry

BY By Xue Jinwen | 07-21-2016
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The poster of Mountains May Depart whose director Jia Zhangke single-handedly promoted the movie in many places. His constant effort is touching, but global movie promotion cannot rely on individuals.   


This year, no Chinese movies were featured at the Cannes Film Festival. Public opinion was split, with some lamenting the absence of domestically produced films while others downplayed the significance of Western awards. But the failure of Chinese films to gain recognition at the festival should serve as a wakeup call to the domestic film industry, inspiring it to produce more globally influential films so that China can become a top movie exporter rather than merely a giant contributor to box office revenues.

To be globally recognized, the Chinese movie industry needs to focus more on substance because television and film are products of public culture, which places a high premium on plot. Excellent movies may not contain excellent stories, but a good story will probably yield a good movie. Three narrative forms may help Chinese movies attract a larger global audience.

One of the narrative forms is an individual story that parallels the fate of the country in modern times. Many films that won top honors, such as Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver and The Pianist, craft an impactful story by dealing with the relationship between individuals and their home countries. China was also one of the participants in the First and Second World War and has gone through the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, but few movies have yielded insight into the interdependence between individual and nation. Chinese movies set during wartime have only managed to draw a limited audience within the country, but more must be done to woo foreign audiences.

Another option is to tell stories with distinctive national characteristics. Movies such as Ballad of Narayama, The Piano and Taste of Cherry build stories on the basis of a national spirit or collectivist emotion carried by individuals. The personal history hints at spiritual codes of a nation and shared emotions of humans, constituting the biggest edge for global dissemination. Few Chinese movies contain these kinds of emotional stories. Instead, romantic movies follow the logic of capital or blindly follow consumer culture to achieve temporary perceptual stimulation and sensational satisfaction. Movies created in China fail to present a spiritual dimension through a grand, touching story that gives insight into a sense of belonging and an analysis of the national spirit.

Classic stories in traditional Chinese culture can be creatively adapted. Films like Jurassic World, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Avatar draw on European and American culture and adapt it to modern audio visual media, thus disseminating excellent traditional culture in a modern and innovative way. To be more competitive globally, the Chinese film industry needs to utilize the valuable resources that can be found in traditional culture, in particular the mysterious mythologies, fables and legends, as well as those anthropological tales filled with imagination about the future. Also, values and models offering solutions to problems concerning globalization and human development can be introduced in movies.

The most fundamental reason that Chinese movies are not favored by mainstream European and American film festivals is they lack narrative in the evaluating system. Any form of art will have no initiative of its own if it has no authoritative evaluating standards or narrative system.
In order to win a larger audience across the globe, the Chinese movie industry needs to first set up its own standards for evaluation and then establish a convincing and well-received narrative that can also enhance the soft power of Chinese movie culture. Indeed, attractiveness of cultural soft power helps to disseminate culture to the world.

Connotations of freedom, personality and happiness are more easily recognized. For example  Chinese movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Farewell My Concubine have had a relatively large influence abroad. With the aid of international audio-visual medium, they instill the personal pursuit of freedom and happiness into stories with the aid of international audio-visual media. These values are the eternal aspirations common to mankind that easily penetrate into human mind so that it is only a matter of time before the values carried in a Chinese movie are recognized by the world.

Values such as democracy, rule of law, justice and tolerance are more likely to receive a positive response. Chinese movies such as GuaSha Treatment, ZhongKui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal, and Hero have performed well in the global market. What can be learned from these movies is that people respect heroic figures who pursue justice by fighting evil or those who bring peace and defeat their opponents without a fight. These values will continue to be cherished for many years to come.

Another effective method of spreading culture is emotional comfort and human compassion. For example, The Nightingale, a joint production of Chinese and French filmmakers, won extensive international acclaim after screening abroad because of its warm portrayal of seniors from different cultural backgrounds, sincerely combining traditional and modern Chinese values. Another successful Chinese movie When a Peking Family Meets Aupair focuses on family values and cultural differences. It was also able to achieve success through emotional appeal.

Standards for evaluating Chinese movies should be set on the basis of cultural confidence and awareness. To achieve these standards, it is necessary to persistently adapt traditional and contemporary Chinese stories to fit into international expression. Only in this way can the Chinese movie industry in the end obtain narrative of its own.

There are a number of ways for Chinese films to gain recognition on the global stage, but the most important is to improve professional skills and production values. At the Cannes Film Festival this year, some stars who had no films to present still showed up for shameless publicity, earning the title “red carpet moochers” from Internet users.

To avoid this awkward situation, we should first strive to improve essential productive factors in movie creation because the abilities of Chinese filmmakers vary. In such an atmosphere, innovation and reform are needed in terms of professional skills and team building so that high-quality Chinese films can be successful in the global market. If not, a failure to understand international audio-visual language or global cultural trends, or incompetence in professional skills probably will result in crudely made works that appeal to neither audiences at home nor those abroad.

Production relationships and resource allocation are also crucial for movies to compete in the world. Chinese director Jia Zhangke single-handedly promoted his movie Mountains May Depart in many places. His constant effort is touching, but global movie promotion cannot rely on individuals. In the future, international media companies that are competitive with Hollywood are needed, providing an alternative for Chinese movies in groups entering into global market. In this way, greater proficiency and larger scale overcome the shortcomings of individual strength.

For example, European and American media companies have paid close attention to the moves made by rising Chinese enterprises, such as Wanda Pictures, Huayi Brothers Media Corporation and Alibaba Pictures Group.

In addition, international cooperation is a route that the Chinese movie industry must take to be globally recognized. At present, a string of top foreign picture companies are seeking cooperation with Chinese counterparts that can be interpreted as a major strategy to enter the Chinese film market. In the same way, the Chinese movie industry should play an active role in pursuing international cooperation for interdependent relationships. Also, emphasis should be put on guiding the tastes of the Chinese public because only discriminating audiences can motivate filmmakers to create excellent works, thus becoming masters in the world industry.

Xue Jinwen is from the School of Film Art at Taiyuan Normal University in Shanxi Province.