Hero: China’s response to Hollywood globalization
by Jenny Kwok Wah Lau
The 2002 film Hero, directed by the internationally renowned director Zhang Yimou, stormed through China with massive media coverage, vehement critical debates and audience response — both in print media and Internet. In the end, its box office receipts of 2.5 billion yuan out of 9 billion total revenue for all films in that year made it the top grossing film in the entire history of Chinese cinema up to that point. The coming of Hero signified the final institutionalization of a new era in Chinese filmmaking, one that single-mindedly pushes for market success. Thus, we need to ask what conditions in Chinese cinema affected the emergence of films such as Hero and what does that film's success mean for Chinese films' future?
To answer these questions we must begin from when the changes first started. Since the 1980s China has actively re-organized its film industry from a socialist to a semi-capitalist market system. 1982 marked the beginning of “outside” investment in film production. This so-called “outside” refers to sources extraneous to the China Film Bureau, such as private entities from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and some Western companies, which were allowed to participate in this once completely-enclosed filmmaking circle. In 1989 China abandoned the Film Bureau's monopoly of film distribution and allowed the establishment of private distribution companies.
The next ten years were a period of consolidation. By the end of the 90s all three phases of filmmaking — production, distribution, and exhibition — had very much opened to private investment. This process also partly prefigured China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), which was considered vital for China’s participation in world capitalism. After years of fierce negotiation, especially with the United States, whose approval or veto was decisive in the whole process, in December, 2001 China entered the WTO. China’s strong desire to get into the WTO was not unaccompanied by skeptics within China itself, including from the film community, which was facing economic hard times.
In fact, while the 90s saw the consolidation of a capitalist filmmaking system, they also saw a massive and debilitating slide in the size of the movie-going audience. Box office receipts declined from 1991's 23.6 billion yuan (1 U$ appr. = 7.8 yuan) to 2001's 8.4 billion yuan, a more than threefold drop in ten years. Furthermore, only 35% of the revenue during that time came from China-made films, the remaining 65% derived from Hollywood or other imported films. Meanwhile, film production also dropped throughout the 90s, from 167 films in 1992 to 80 films in 2001.
Some film scholars in China blamed the drop in numbers on the shift to a capitalist system, and they doubted whether China could adapt to the pressure of the open market. No doubt, system change did affect film production. For example, the more open system brought in popular films from other cinemas, such as from Hong Kong and Hollywood, which proved highly competitive in the local market. It also generated a large DVD market, part of which relied on piracy practices that seriously hurt the film industry. Nevertheless, it can also be argued that some of the pain that the Chinese film industry suffered during those years was partly self-inflicted by internal censorship.
Many of the best “artisan/cultural” films made during that period — such as, Judou (1990, Zhang Yimou), Farewell My Concubine (1993, Chan Kaige), Blue Kite (1994, Tian Zhanzhan), and To Live (1994, Zhang, Yimou) — were initially banned in China. Similarly, many of the 6th generation new wave films — such as Beijing Bastards (1994, Zhang Yuan), Postman (Ho Jianjun, 1995), Pickpocket (or Xiao Wu by Jia Zhangke, 1997, director of The World, 2004), and East Palace, West Palace (Zhang Yuan, 1997) — were potentially attractive to the new urban masses but not screened. Most of these directors suffered interference from the government and some were even banned from making films for a period of time.
Instead of supporting these films, made in the tradition of artisan filmmaking, the government encouraged a new type of film called the “new mainstream,” through expeditious granting of shooting and screening permits. These films were mostly Hollywood imitations financed by private investments. By the late nineties, 70% of China’s production consisted of “new mainstream” films — such as Part A, Part B (Jiafang Yifang), Be There or Be Square (Bujian Busan) , and Shower (Xi Zao). These films were called the new mainstream as opposed to the “old mainstream” because the latter were “mainstream” by government design, intended as “educational” or “culturally or politically uplifting.” As the government strongly supported them, the films were guaranteed wide distribution. However, even though screened throughout China, the films had a disproportionately small viewership, mostly due to their traditional form and didactic content. Examples include Jiao Yulu (Our Party’s Good Cadre, 1990, dir. Wang Jixin) and The Opium War (1997, dir. Xie Jin). In contrast, the “new mainstream” became the “real mainstream” in terms of popularity.
Thus, from the early 90s one can identify three major types of cinema in China: the artisan/cultural films, usually banned; the state-sponsored films (old mainstream), usually not popular; and the new mainstream entertainment, commercial and stylistically imitating Hollywood.
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