In the past year, Chinese films have galloped ahead like a dark horse, beating Hollywood imports

Fast forward with film

Updated: 2013-08-23 23:54

By Raymond Zhou ( China Daily)

In the past year, Chinese films have galloped ahead like a dark horse, beating Hollywood imports.

It is hardly surprising that most of these domestic hits are comedies. Comedy is mostly local.When Hollywood sent scouts to recover the secret formula, many of them reported that theseChinese movies were not particularly funny. Of course not. When you translate every line intoEnglish, you have lost much of the fun, leaving only a few sight gags. You have to sit with a full-house local audience to gauge the effect of these movies.There is a groundswell in China’s film industry, andHollywood has taken notice more than most Chinese have.In the first half of this year, box-office takings in theChinese mainland reached 10.99 billion yuan ($1.8 billion; 1.35 billion euros), out of which domestic films accountedfor 62 percent. For the first time in five years, takings forimported movies dropped in the world’s second-largestmarket for film exhibition, and the fall was as much as 21.4percent year-on-year.

Four Chinese movies grossed more than 500 million yuanat the box office in the first six months of the year. Bycontrast, only one import achieved this feat, and that wasIron Man 3, a Hollywood franchise movie with significantChinese investment and a token nod to Chinese input inthe form of two cameo appearances by Chinese stars.

Hollywood has always accused its Chinese peers ofmanipulating the market. But this time there was no”protection month” in which only Chinese works wereallowed to screen; and imports were not deliberatelyscheduled to compete with each other. Almostmiraculously, a sizeable audience for home-made moviesinstead of imported ones seemed to pop up from nowhere.That took both domestic pundits and Hollywood honchosby surprise.

Hollywood had always commanded close to half of China’s film market. That was when Chinalimited the number of imports to just 20 a year. When China raised the import quota from 20 to34 early last year, it spelled doom for the domestic industry. And it was indeed doomsday forthe first batch of Chinese movies that unfortunately debuted in the 2012 spring season. All ofthem flopped miserably.

A protection month was hastily installed. Painted Skin: The Resurrection, whose distributor hadreportedly pleaded for a three-day window, suddenly found itself with no competition and endedup grossing 726 million yuan. If that was a fluke, Lost in Thailand won the race without suchmeasures by the end of the year when it became the highest grossing Chinese movie with 1.25billion yuan and the most attended movie ever since film exhibition as a means of entertainmentnosedived in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The dramatic rise of Chinese cinema in the past year did not come from the humiliating beatingit took early last year. (Most of the movies that turned out to be runaway hits were already inproduction or post-production by then.) Ironically, Chinese filmmakers should give credit toHollywood because it is the typical Hollywood way of storytelling that has been absorbed bythese Chinese films. And that secret is called genre films. These films are commercial in nature;they conform to strict formulae in narrative, which Chinese filmmakers had always ignored ordisdained.

The current wave of genre films in China can be traced back to Love Is Not Blind, a romanticcomedy that opened in November 2011 and turned into a sensation by sheer word of mouth.Since then, the costume epic, which was seen as China’s only hope at beating Hollywood, hasbeen in steep decline, dragging down with it its star-studded casts, lavish production valuesand pompous storylines. In its place have come a steady slate of mid-budget movies withcoherent stories and dialogue that resonate with the public. Above all, these movies weredesigned from the beginning not to give vent to the creators’ artistic expression but to entertaina mass audience.

It is hardly surprising that most of these domestic hits are comedies. Comedy is mostly local.When Hollywood sent scouts to recover the secret formula, many of them reported that theseChinese movies were not particularly funny. Of course not. When you translate every line intoEnglish, you have lost much of the fun, leaving only a few sight gags. You have to sit with a full-house local audience to gauge the effect of these movies.

Hollywood movies are made for the global market. It is simply beyond its scope of interest andability to make the kind of Chinese comedies that click with the Chinese audience. It can air-drop talent from overseas, but an ear for a good joke cannot be trained in a week or a month. Ittakes a lifetime of immersion in a culture. Take Lost in Thailand or Finding Mr Right. Thepremise is very Hollywood, with one inspired by Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and the otherby Sleepless in Seattle. Yet, details of the stories are totally grounded in Chinese reality.

I often encounter the argument that “Culture is skin deep, and it is our common humanity thatbinds us all”. This is perfectly right, but in a cut-throat market it is the “skin” part, the superficialpart, that wins the audience. This applies not only to East-West differences, but also to regionalcultures within China. The success of such titles as Switch and the Tiny Times franchise, whichexperts have dismissed as shoddy works from amateur filmmakers, nevertheless speaks of thedominance of the provincial taste. As big cities in China are saturated with cinemas, the newscreens — at a rate of 10 a day — are popping up in smaller cities, where youngsters tend todream of exaggerated glamour and ignore basic narrative techniques or redeeming valuesespoused by a more mature demographic. For the foreseeable future, Chinese movies aregoing to slide to mindless entertainment, but the skill of genre story-telling will come into focusas at least one of the major determinants.

The reason Hollywood has underperformed this year is homogenization. About half a dozen ofthis summer’s major releases have flopped in the US, and if it is any relief, one of them hasfound a big audience in China. Pacific Rim has become one of the rare imports that grossedmore in China than in its home market. The Croods, an animated feature, opened modestly inChina and, through positive word of mouth, climbed higher on the box-office curve with eachweek. Hollywood is still a juggernaut to be feared; it is just that Chinese filmmakers now havemore confidence tackling it with better-positioned and more tailor-made tales.

Another detail worth noting about this crop of Chinese hits is that they are mostly made by first-or second-time directors. Sure, some, such as Zhao Wei, who made her directorial debut withSo Young, were acting stars with a large following, and one of them was a best-selling author.This not only denotes the rise of a new generation of film directors, but may suggest that, forgenre filmmaking, the director may no longer be the biggest calling card. If the story is greatand casting is decent, you may turn unknown quantities into dark horses.

Genre formula is not patented. Hollywood is a master at it, but filmmakers everywhere canutilize it. The thing is, Hollywood tends to overuse it while its Chinese peers had longoverlooked its importance. The young generation in China does not attach stigma to it becausethey grew up with movies made for entertainment. It seems we are back to square one, withconfidence to go forward but facing a future that may bring sudden changes. But definitely, weare on a higher level this time.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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