A Book Review Essay by Dina Iordanova.
Author Ying Zhu reflects the changing fortunes of Hollywood in China and shows clearly that Chinese film culture can exist both with and without Hollywood.”
In the fall of 2016 l had a two-month long stint as visiting professor at the Beijing Film Academy. It turned out this was a particularly opportune moment to be in China. During my stay, local media announced that a certain week in late November was to be the pivotal moment in time when the number of cinema screens in China would have surpassed the number of screens in North America – a countdown that was closely monitored, anticipated, and publicly discussed.
As someone who likes going to the movies, I had the chance to experience some of these proliferating new screens. The fancy multiplex at Guomao Mall downtown featured films from a Romanian film festival in several small theatres of high luxury. Another plush cinema hosted the opening of Feng Xiaogang’s I am Not Madame Bovary, featuring star Fan Bingbing. The 3,000 places at the large cinema on Beijing University’s campus were all sold out for a screening of Ken Loach’s Cannes-winning I, Daniel Blake. And, at the futuristic space of the Broadway Cinematheque l found out that Ang Lee’s anti-war Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk used technology that was so advanced – extra-high frame rate of 120 frames per second, 3D format and a 4K HD resolution – that most cinemas in the West could not properly display it. The cinema on campus featured events with directors Jia Zhangke and Xie Fei, and showed films from a wide variety of countries. A 20-year old student in my class, who was writing capsula reviews on some of the Eastern European films I was teaching about and was posting them on Weibo, had a following of some 100,000 across China.
During the period prior to Covid-19, I not only witnessed but also followed the developments in China – not least as I supervised several doctoral students, and travelled to several different cities for film festivals and conferences. The film industry was dynamically changing, an expanding sphere that Hollywood had set sights on. Large US studios were seeking for ways to overcome the Chinese film import quotas and get to the huge Chinese market through various co-production set-ups. In the course of working with the doctoral students, l learned a lot about the complex legislative processes, the specifics related to production and approval, the intricacies of Chinese distribution and exhibition – and I knew that China was taking steps not toward closer involvement with Hollywood but rather develop its domestic local industry whilst keeping it as independent as possible. The relationship with Hollywood was convoluted, to say the least, and many US entertainment companies had high stakes in China. The Covid-19 came and complicated things even further. At the moment, in 2022, it is not clear which way things will go.
In this general context, Ying Zhu’s book Hollywood in China is particularly timely – especially as it is not only charting how Hollywood has been present in China but also how China has increased its presence and penetrated various structures in Hollywood. It is a study that provides a balanced assessment of the state of play between these two powerful film industries. But also a study that contains a wealth of historical information. For readers based in the West and with no specialist knowledge but with pronounced interest in China’s film culture and its international interactions, this is indeed the most systematic, balanced and plain language explanation of the logic that underwrites Chinese context and aspirations. After reading this book l feel l understand much better the main principles that guide China’s foreign trade relations and the key balance points they seek to achieve by controlling film imports and lobbying for reciprocity in film exports. I already knew a bit about the way Chinese think on these matters; after reading this book, l know much more.
One of the best features is that, in the course of the book, its main concepts are much needed to understand the specifics of China’s huge film industry and culture. Zhu gradually introduces and accessibly explains them. Things such as ‘leitmotif films’ (a.k.a. ‘main melody’ films), ‘dapiao’ (big budget productions’), ‘heavy industry’ and light industry’ films (roughly equivalent to ‘blockbuster’ and ‘art house’), ‘Internal reference films’. But also there are numerous references to the metaphoric language used in the film industry in China, one that is in stark contrast to the officialdom of Western business speak and yet is driven by a similarly sound business and political logic.
Unlike most other academic books that take extraordinarily long to be published, this study has been finished during the Covid-19 period and thus is the most up to date discussion on the subject available. Unlike most other academic books, it also has the advantage to being published at an affordable price in hardback and on Kindle, which makes it likely to enjoy a wider market success than most other studies that have appeared in recent years.
There has been a good amount of recent writing on the matter of China’s huge entertainment market, and a lot of this writing – especially the non-academic one – has focused on Hollywood’s interest in that lucrative marketplace. I have seen many media articles and posts in specialised blogs that discuss the matter of Hollywood’s expansion into China, accompanied by data of box office achievements and often coming with further spectacular financial projections and graphs showing the vertiginous growth of exhibition spaces, new screens and cinemas opening up at a fantastic speed. Such writing, however, mainly service Hollywood’s interest and rarely take into consideration the other side of the equation, namely the Chinese who continue controlling the number of imported films in distribution. It also fails to acknowledge that the growth in co-productions that bypass China’s import quotas has not increased as much as hoped. There is rarely consideration of the fact that other players – such as European countries like France or India’s Bollywood – also have stakes in the Chinese market. The fact that China is systematically developing its own outputs of high production value and entertainment quality is also routinely overlooked.
The book comes to offer complexity and a sobering counter-balance in providing a clear explanation of the logic that the Chinese film industry is following – namely to avoid losing control of its market to the ‘free-flows’ of foreign product.”
Direct and indirect Chinese investment inflows into Hollywood, from the likes of Huayi, Dalian Wanda, Alibaba, Bona, Perfect World Pictures and others are detailed in one of the chapters. Zhu meticulously details the Oscar wins of Chinese-funded films (The Revenant, 2015; La La Land, 2016) as well as the intricate dealings with Netflix and the intricacies around tricky situations with films like Chloe Zhao’s acclaimed Nomadland (2020). And, whilst the record on box office performance of Chinese films in America shows how they did not make a big dent in the American market, the book chronicles quite well the gradual transfer of artistic and industry know-how that enabled filmmakers from the PRC to start making blockbuster type films that directly rival Hollywood’s and challenge its trite formulaic products (e.g. the blockbusters by Feng Xiaogang, the ‘Lost In…’ franchise, The Wandering Earth, 2019, as well as action ‘heavy industry’ films like Wolf Warrior 2, 2017; Operation Red Sea, 2018; The Eight Hundred, 2020; and The Battle of Lake Changjin, 2021). In that, the next logical step – where Hollywood is retreating rather than consolidating its stronghold in China – is explained quite persuasively.
Thus, Ying Zhu’s book comes to offer complexity and a sobering counter-balance in providing a clear explanation of the logic that the Chinese film industry is following – namely to avoid losing control of its market to the ‘free-flows’ of foreign product. It shows how China continues regulating and restricting imports whilst growing its own domestic entertainment product. It persuasively chronicles how the presence of Hollywood in China, even if it seems to have peaked pre-Covid, may no longer be sustained at the same high levels reached during the last decade. The book outlines key policy and industry steps taken in the context of regulating the dynamics of foreign versus domestic film production and exhibition and provides the most detailed and realistic assessment of the current situation, as well as projections for the immediate future.
However, Hollywood in China goes far beyond the analysis of the dynamics of recent decades. For film historians the book will be of great value, as it offers significantly more than tracing Hollywood’s successful market expansion in China or the lesser-known story of unprecedented levels of Chinese investment flowing into Hollywood in the 21st century.
It gives an overview of the entire history of China’s film culture as it is correlated with foreign film traditions – as a fabulous albeit unexpected bonus. And whilst it draws a picture of the welcome presence of Hollywood cinema pre-WWII, it also includes absorbing chapters that cover the complex cultural processes during periods when American cinema was kept at bay and different imports featured on Chinese screens.
The first part of the book offers a wide-ranging longitudinal and detail-rich exploration of the relationship between the factors that marked Chinese film distribution policies (and production, but not to such an extent), and the importation of American films, as it evolved from the very early days of cinema into the 1920s and then through the 1930s, 1940s, and so on. As the project is to present a comprehensive overview of Hollywood’s presence in China throughout history and not just in the last three decades, about half of the study covers earlier periods during which, in fact, Hollywood was rather absent. This allows the author to spend more time on discussing the specifics of China’s film culture during the communist period in regard to other film traditions – such as the pre-WWII development of the film industry, the short-lived but intense period of reunion with the Soviets in the last years of Stalinism, or the culture of importing, translating and controlled showing of the so-called ‘internal reference films’ during and around the Cultural Revolution period.
One of the chapters covers the brief period of the late 1940s up to the Sino-Soviet split that follows the denunciation of Stalinism in 1956 – a time of massive growth in Soviet film imports and various other collaborations. Hollywood is absent, instead a large and well organised campaign of Soviet film propaganda unravels across China. Even if this was a short-lived period, it merits the attention that it is given in the study as it highlights important details of a botched cooperation that nonetheless significantly influenced the course of cinema development in China in subsequent years. Reading this chapter and learning how far spread was the eradication of American films from theatres and their substitution with Soviet fare in the run up to the Cultural Revolution, is just eye opening. It shows the complexity of international interactions that characterize any given national film industry beyond those with Hollywood and reveal the American cinema as just one of the many elements of the narrative. Thus, Ying Zhu’s study is of interest to all global and transnational film historians who want to go beyond the simplistic Hollywood-country Y equation and learn about the complex dynamics of a more comprehensive history of international film cultures.
The Soviet outputs that poured into China after 1949 were not the highly artistic works that have remained in the annals of film history. Most of the films that were distributed were outright propaganda features, often evolving around cartoonish protagonists and schematic relationships – like Mikhail Chiaureli’s emblematic The Fall of Berlin (1949). There were also interesting collaborations – like Sergei Gerasimov’s The New China, a documentary sanctioned for release in 1952, or the mentions of director and studio administrator Yuan Muzhi (p. 78), who collaborated closely with Soviet documentarian Roman Karmen and was one of the key transmitters of Soviet influence in setting up China’s post-WWII film industry. Or the acknowledgment that it was Czechoslovak architects and planners who were commissioned to design the Beijing Film Village in 1950 (p. 82).
The chapter dedicated to elaborating the practice of acquiring and disseminating the so-called ‘internal reference films’, which was present across the entire block of state socialist countries during the 1960s and 1970s, is another great contribution.”
One of the Soviet imports discussed at length is Mikhail Kalatizov’s influential Cannes-winner The Cranes Are Flying (1957), even if it only came to China at the end of the period – a highly artistic and innovative film shot by legendary cameraman Sergei Urusevsky. As a reason for its inclusion in the discussion, Ying Zhu quotes the fact that director Kalatozov was posted to Los Angeles as Soviet cinema representative during the war; on this basis she speculates that his work is an indirect Hollywood presence in China as he must have been influenced by the American films he saw then (p.89). This claim is one of the few instances where l disagree with the author. Whereas there is no doubt that some Soviets – like director Grigorii Alexandrov – mimicked what they had seen during their Hollywood visits, Kalatozov is a major filmmaker whose style was shaped much more independently, as evidenced by his earlier work in Soviet Georgia and by his later work; he is known to have created some of the most amazing cinematographic masterpieces in his collaborations with Urusevsky. Even more, he is recognised to have influenced American cinema in his own right: Francis Ford Coppola, for example, closely studied the cinematography of Kalatozov’s Letter Never Sent (1960) when preparing to shoot Apocalypse Now; the restorations of his films are sponsored by Scorsese.
The chapter dedicated to elaborating the practice of acquiring and disseminating the so-called ‘internal reference films’ during the 1960s and 1970s is another great contribution. The practice was present across the entire block of state socialist countries, but l have not come across such clear and concise explanation elsewhere. The focus here is on cinema, though l should mention it spanned also to include translatied works of literature as well. It consisted in importing material from abroad – not only Hollywood but also a variety of other countries – and making it available only to a select inner circle of trusted party comrades. The idea was that the elites needed to be informed about the discourse and cultural outputs from around the world but that there was no need to make the working classes privy to such information (and, in fact, disseminating such material was regarded as harmful and dangerous, so it was strictly prohibited). In this way, control was maintained over the content made available for mass consumption – which was mainly oriented toward glorifying the struggles of establishing communism and its prosperous growth. The imported films were subtitled and made accessible for viewing to a select few, and, in itself this was a sizeable albeit clandestine operation. Ying Zhu pays specific attention to the voracious viewing practiced by Jiang Qing, Mao’s influential forth wife, who was not only a cinephile but evidently formed many of her opinions on the basis of extensive viewing of international cinema. The ‘internal reference films’ were not only American; the lists presented in the book reveal imports from across Europe as well as many other countries, including Poland, Italy and France.
For me, this historical aspects in Ying Zhu’s study add to what l have already read work by Laikwan Pang and Nicole Huang who have discussed the presence of Soviet and ‘friendly countries’ cinema (like Romania, Albania, Yugoslavia etc.) in China. It is presented here mainly to illustrate the ‘absence’ of Hollywood from China’s cinemas – for me, however, it is an important testimony of a different kind of ‘presence’.
In my mind Ying Zhu’s study falls apart into two. It could have been two separate books – one that tackles recent developments between Hollywood and China and one that explores China in its relationship to world cinema during the 20th century. So much material is gathered and organized here. However I am glad it is a singular book. As it is, it reflects the changing fortunes of Hollywood in China and shows clearly that Chinese film culture can exist both with and without Hollywood.
Ying Zhu, Hollywood in China: Behind the Scenes of the World’s Largest Movie Market, The New Press, 2022. 384pp. Hardback $24.10, Kindle $24.96. ISBN-13: 978-1620972182
Dina Iordanova is Emeritus Professor of Global Cinema at the University of St Andrews and Honorary Professor in Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong. She supervised several doctoral theses on Chinese cinema, has taught as visiting professor at the Beijing Film Academy, and has been on the juries of numerous film festivals across Asia. Her most recent piece on Asian film appeared in Nick Deocampo’s edited collection Keeping Memories: Cinema and Archiving in the Asia-Pacific (Ateneo UP, 2022).