Read more from Slate's Summer Movies special issue.
The result was Crazy Stone, a deliriously complicated tale of thieves, con artists, bottom crawlers, and thug capitalists chasing after a precious jade artifact in Chongqing, plotting, scheming, double-crossing, and shooting one another in the back with crossbows. With no stars and shot on a tiny budget in multiple regional dialects, Crazy Stone wound up grossing $3 million off a $400,000 investment. The sequel, Crazy Racer, is an even slicker and more accomplished film that grossed almost $20 million. Ning Hao is now one of China's biggest hit-makers, and the world is a better place for his decision to trade art for adrenaline. Airless indie films are a dime a dozen, while actually excellent comedies like Crazy Racer are rare.
And that's the strangest twist of all: Rather than pandering to the lowest common denominator, many of these SARFT-approved Chinese blockbusters are complicated, fascinating films. Feng Xiaogang turns out one blockbuster hit each year, and they're all far better than Zhang Yimou's recent string of Ancient Chinese Epics. He adapted Hamlet as a period martial arts movie in The Banquet; his Big Shot's Funeralfeatured Donald Sutherland as an American director dying in Beijing whose funeral becomes an opportunity for corporate sponsors to splash their logos across his coffin; and his infidelity flick, Cell Phone,became a cultural touchstone.
Starring Ge You as a philandering television host whose wife discovers his affair when she goes through his cell phone, Cell Phone rocked China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong by dragging into the daylight the long-held assumption that many husbands were cheating when they traveled for business and that it might be OK for worried wives to go through their cell phone messages. The movie was blamed for causing a jump in the divorce rate and "cell phone"("shou ji") stories became daily features of newspapers as they reported incidents like the wife who divorced her husband because she misread his cell phone messages or the wife who called every number on her husband's incoming call list and accused them of being his mistresses when, in fact, they were his business clients.
But nothing shows the split between American expectations and Chinese reality more than Feng Xiaogang's 2008 film If You Are the One. This romantic comedy became the highest-grossing movie ever released in China, finally unseating James Cameron's Titanic, and it takes place in a China that's sophisticated, urban, and cosmopolitan. It once again features Feng's longtime leading man, Ge You, as an inventor who gets rich quick (with an invention too stupid to be described) and decides to go online to find a wife. Instead he finds a long string of women who, like him, are chasing something they aren't ever likely to find. The film has a cameo by Hitler, a suicide, some savage scenes of heartbreak, an ending that is qualified at best, and lots of jokes about Obama, the weak American dollar, and the current economic crisis.
Technically impeccable and achingly, genuinely romantic, it puts to shame anything Hollywood has recently turned out under the rom-com banner—and that's just the kind of Yankee failure that China is counting on. With enough government support, and with enough directors making enough movies, pretty soon they may rival us at our own game. We already export most of our industry to China, so why not our movie industry too? If the resulting films are even remotely as good as If You Are the One and Crazy Stone, we aren't losing much.