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Can Hollywood help China's silver screen shine?
Publication Date : 25-04-2012
If films are vehicles for China's soft power, can they be produced on a conveyor belt like the real thing, with the help of some expertise from Hollywood?
This appears to be the hope after Walt Disney and Marvel Studios announced they have partnered with Beijing-based DMG Entertainment to produce Iron Man III, set to appear in a theatre near you in May 2013.
The reported US$1 billion investment in the future of film "will bring Chinese elements to the international film market, and Chinese culture will be better presented to the world", China Film Group Corp's chairman Han Sanping says.
And since everyone loves a winning formula ("win-win!"), this looks like a no-brainer. Hollywood gets healthy cash infusions, and China is put on a fast track to movie know-how and first-class marketing.
A less publicised but possibly more significant move is another Disney deal to work with the Ministry of Culture and Tencent Holdings to promote the animation industry, which has so far failed to flourish, despite significant government backing.
Meanwhile, in February, it was announced that Dreamworks Animation SKG Inc will build a joint venture studio in Shanghai. And 14 IMAX or 3D films will be added to the annual quota of 20 foreign films a year.
Capping off all the good news, Titanic and Avatar director James Cameron also played his China card on Sunday - on the eve of the second annual Beijing International Film Festival - when he said he was considering co-productions, too, though he added the caveat that he would have to weigh up censorship issues before he put ink to paper.
All of which can be summed up as, "Perchance to dream: Ay, there's the rub."
But while the China model of attracting foreign investment in cooperative ventures has worked well over the past 30 years in terms of developing its industrial might, I'm not so sure that it will work so seamlessly when it comes to the film industry, because there is an X-factor - originality.
It's all very well making cars and computers by employing foreign experts, learning, copying and then going it alone. But in the cultural domain it's more complicated. It's not just about value for money, but values. It's not about a film in the service of an idea, but an idea servicing a film.
There are good Chinese movies, of course: I love Jiang Wen and Let the Bullets Fly; always look out for Ge You films because he's so nuanced (shame he can't speak English, can he?); Feng Xiaogang's A World Without Thieves and Aftershock; and even Go Lala Go! by Xu Jinglei.
But generally, I'm not a fan of Chinese productions. They are just too predictable and one-dimensional.
For instance, Zhang Yimou's Flowers of War was competent but an uncomfortable watch, partly because it was so politically correct. Just me, perhaps, but I don't like movies in the service of the State, whatever the country. It's like watching a two-hour advert.
This is why I think Cameron is reticent about signing on the dotted line, because unless he gets artistic control, he isn't interested. And who can blame him?
The trick will be for the government to open up a little further when it comes to the cultural domain. Not just in terms of production but reception and a workable film classification rating system.
Will all these co-produced movies have to kowtow to the official line or be banned? If they do, will they find an audience abroad?
There's no doubt to my mind that China has got the right stuff when it comes to creative, intelligent and cultured talents able to produce cinematic masterpieces, especially given some Hollywood pizzazz and scriptwriting.
A more nuanced cinematic take on China and Asia as a whole would be really welcome, and a valuable counterweight to US hegemony and stereotypes. As would a leading Asian male actor. And I don't see why China shouldn't own a major Hollywood studio, like Sony.
I'd like to believe these co-productions are a positive development. We'll just have to see what they produce. And the proof is in the viewing.