Read more from Slate's Summer Movies special issue.
The traditional path for Chinese directors was to make art films in China, get acclaimed at overseas festivals, be banned once or twice at home, and then be permitted to become art-house darlings in America. If they were good boys, they might even get a Hollywood deal. This is the route that Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Lou Ye, and most recently Jia Zhangke, subject of a panting profile in The New Yorker, have taken. But China's newest and most popular directors aren't having it. They are making big-budget blockbusters and romantic comedies for Chinese audiences and couldn't care less about success in the United States. They're also making better films than the precious cinephile stars.
American distributors like to import movies that toe a certain political line, depicting modern-day China as an environmentally degraded hellhole where human life has little to no value, where most people live in poverty and women have no rights. (See Lost in Beijing, Blind Shaft, Still Life, Summer Palace, Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju, etc.) The best marketing tool for selling a Chinese film in America is to plaster "Banned in China!" across the poster. American audiences love the idea of the little guy with the shopping bags blocking the tank at Tiananmen Square; we're schooled to think any officially approved movie out of China is going to be propaganda and the only way to "really see" China is through the eyes of filmmakers out of favor with SARFT, China's official film censorship body.
The reality is that many of these "banned" movies weren't banned at all. Some of them had insurance or location permit problems; others faced legal issues that prevented them from being submitted for release. In 2005, when director Li Shaohong won best narrative feature at the Tribeca Film Festival for her movie Stolen Life, she said that she hoped its victory would sway Chinese censors and convince them to release her movie in China. "Banned Film Wins Tribeca," the press releases crowed. Actually, she just hadn't gotten around to applying for a release permit yet. A few days later, she sheepishly retractedher statement and blamed it all on bad translation.
In China, most of the directors best known in Americaare considered "For Export Only," and few Chinese are interested in the shopworn Orientalism and miserablist worldview they're selling. Instead, just like Americans, they flock to big-budget movies packed with stars, and in recent years there have been more of those to choose from as Chinese directors learn to navigate SARFT's fickle regulators and foreign investment beefs up the budgets. The government has even gotten in on the game, nurturing the local film industry by limiting foreign imports to 22 films per year, encouraging the expansion of the number of screens (China has only 3,500 screens compared with America's 38,000), yanking successful American movies from theaters in the middle of their runs, promoting blackout dates when only local productions can be distributed, and generally making life hell for foreign producers and distributors.
The results? Pretty great. Chinese films have topped foreign films at the local box office for five years running, the Chinese movie industry has seen steady revenue growth of 25 percent per year, and China has nurtured a new generation of directors who make Chinese hits for Chinese audiences. Ning Hao is a good example of a director who saw the light. Pandering to Western tastes, he was a financial failure, barely able to scrape together a living from the scraps U.S. distributors threw him. His twee, contemplative, downright embalmed art films Incense and Mongolian Ping Pong received wide American play, lots of film festival exposure, critical raves, and zero money at the box office. So he decided to make a comedy.
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.