The Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF) got underway this weekend. Amongst the speakers that they attracted to the opening events, media mogul Rupert Murdoch made an appearance, lavishing praise upon the rapidly growing Chinese film market – from $150 million in box office takings in 2005 to $1.5 billion in 2010 – but also highlighting the still highly restrictive nature of the market to outsiders. Few outside China know that the government only allows 20 foreign films onto Chinese screens every year.
To clarify, this does not mean 20 American films (though of course the 20 tend to mostly be American), but the Chinese government only allows in 20 films from outside the nation every year to be screened legally in Chinese cinemas. These are also edited for extreme violence or sexuality, leading to some rather odd cutaways. I went to see GI Joe – not a proud admission – and at a crucial point when a character was having his face altered, it cut rather abruptly to the next scene. It took me a moment to figure out what had happened and most of the rather simple film to figure out what had taken place in the missing minute or so. The idea is to protect the Chinese public from the amoral depravity of some foreign films (something that is also practiced in Singapore for example), but also it is a way to keep out films with questionable political content. This equally applies to television, though in a more curious way since while Korean soap operas are hugely popular, western ones cannot be found on Chinese television.
An underlying logic of all this is to give the Chinese film industry a chance to develop and grow in a protected environment. The result of Chinese blocking of websites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter has been to create a raft of local alternatives (Youku/Tudou, Renren and Weibo) some of which are now floating on international exchanges like the NASDAQ. By keeping foreign films out, they hope a domestic industry will develop that can compete with Hollywood or Bollywood. But it is unclear that this is working. In a Wikileaked US diplomatic cable from March 2007, expected incoming leader Xi Jinping was reported stating, “Chinese moviemakers neglect values they should promote.” In contrast he thought that Hollywood made movies well and the films “have a clear outlook on values and clearly demarcate between good and evil.”
I feel like the demarcation between good and evil in Chinese films is usually pretty clear. But what is missing is a level of quality and diversity. Chinese films tend to fall into categories of being Romantic Comedies (with storylines like Friends), epic historical films (like the Founding of a Republic, a massive film starring just about every famous Chinese actor, that came out to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC), or elaborate special effects laden Kung-fu films (into this category I also put Sci-fi, fantasy and other such movies). Very few introspective or profound Chinese movies are released. The result is that they do not get a huge amount of airplay outside China – occasional breakthroughs do appear, but they often tend to have some heavy outside influence as well. For example, the hugely successful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a Chinese-Hong Kong-Taiwanese-American production.
Despite the availability of pirate DVDs (have a look around Youku and Tudou) this deprives the US and EU of a key part of their soft power – or at least puts it in a legal grey area. This is unfortunate as the free-flow of stories from the West to China and back is clearly one of the most effective ways to foster deeper understanding between the two. Clearly the next Chinese leader likes American movies; surely Xi Jinping can see the advantages of bringing more of these stories to the population he is about to lead.
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