The Korea Conundrum: Why South Korea Has Greater Global Cultural Impact Than China. Part 2


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by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

October 17, 2012

Last week, Part 1 of this article explored the history of South Korea’s rise as a global cultural force, and the attendant soft power benefits that country has enjoyed. These benefits include disproportionate global influence for Korea relative to its size, and enhanced respect among its neighboring countries, including China. Here we’ll take a look at the paradox of why China, despite having 30 times the population of South Korea and very similar cultural “DNA,” has failed in its efforts to achieve the global cultural influence it craves.

China has poured billions upon billions of dollars into state-of-the-art production facilities in hopes of achieving the international respect that Korea seems to win so effortlessly. But this investment has returned discouragingly limited results, for several reasons:

  1. While China has invested heavily in hard assets for cultural production—soundstages, production equipment, post facilities, and the like—it has never placed much stock in the value of soft assets, that is, the unquantifiable human skills and experience that are the lifeblood of creativity. Few Chinese investors understand or respect the vital importance of the creative spark, and as a consequence they don’t reward it. Film and TV projects are treated as industrial enterprises that require the firm hand of a dictatorial director. There is precious little support for training and development in the fields of screenwriting, songwriting, and other ‘intangible’ arts, and so China’s talent pool in these areas is extremely shallow.
  2. China’s state arts and culture investment occurs in an environment and under a political regime that is deeply antagonistic toward true artistic expression. On the one hand China’s communist culture czars exhort artists and writers to “uphold the spiritual torch of the Chinese nationality and produce a greater number of excellent works” (President Hu Jintao) while they simultaneously smother the efforts of their country’s greatest artists. It’s emblematic that China’s most famous artist, Ai Weiwei, is the global poster boy for Chinese oppression and intolerance of independent thought. While Korean writers and producers are continually attracting audiences with distinctive, often daringly original stories and styles, over in China popular television programs are routinely thrown off the airwaves for being “excessively entertaining.”
  3. The story-telling styles promoted by China’s central government don’t lend themselves well to the creation of globally commercial, crowd-pleasing hits. The Chinese Communist Party’s historical emphasis on the collective over the individual has for decades rewarded stories about group achievement. Most favored are those plots about individuals who subordinate their desires and conform their behavior for the common benefit of the people. Ensemble stories that have no single identifiable hero are common. Unfortunately for China, the stories that are most popular around the world tend to be those that are precisely the opposite, ones that draw from the American mythos about maverick individuals who buck the system and flout the rules in order to succeed.
  4. Censorship, as we’ve noted here before, is a major obstacle to China’s pop culture success, but censorship in and of itself is only part of the problem.  After all, China’s current censorship rules are not all that different from the old Hays Code restrictions that governed Hollywood movie production from the 1930s through the 1960s, a period during which Hollywood achieved many of its greatest artistic and commercial achievements. China’s bigger issue is the arbitrariness of its rules and the mercurial, sometimes bizarre nature of their enforcement. Censorship was just as politically motivated in old Hollywood as it is in modern day China, but there is a crucial difference: under the Hays Code rules, filmmakers were pretty much free to operate within the constraints that had been laid down, and creativity was allowed to flourish so long as one played by the rules. But in China, the specter of government interference haunts every step of the creative process, burdening the artist like a set of heavy chains that continually saps their strength. Chinese censorship is a government tool for controlling the people, their thoughts and their impulses, and when applied to pop culture it unfortunately tends to squeeze every last original idea, every recognizable human truth, from the fabric of the content.
  5. China’s educational system also discourages idiosyncratic expression, and generally aims to stamp out ‘undesirable’ creative tendencies at the earliest ages. The Confucian philosophies that have guided Chinese society for many centuries put a premium on obedience to authority and strict adherence to elaborate rules of behavior. Anyone who dares to be different is swiftly put in their place. In the Confucian construct, artists and performers are at the lowest level of the social hierarchy, a rung or two below beggars and prostitutes. China surely has at least its share of the world’s creative talent, but most of it goes unrecognized because the system requires its suppression.

Despite all these challenges—and doubtless additional ones that I’ve failed to consider—China’s prospects for exporting its culture and gaining soft power influence needn’t be so bleak. It wasn’t long ago that South Korea faced all these same challenges and more. In Part 3 of this article we’ll take a look at the specific and very deliberate actions Korea took to support its culture industries that led to the “Korean Wave”, and the lessons that China can draw from Korea’s experience.

Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at rob@pacificbridgepics.com and at www.pacificbridgepics.com

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Chinese ‘Flowers’ Wilt in U.S. Theatrical Release


by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

January 25, 2012

If the message hadn’t fully gotten through yet, last weekend’s box office results confirmed it: China has no idea how to make movies that Americans—or the world—will pay to see.

The latest Chinese film to crash on the rocks of U.S. shores is The Flowers of War, the mainland Chinese blockbuster that opened on 30 North American screens this past Friday. The film seemed tailor-made to captivate global audiences, and with its $90 million price tag, it needed to. But despite its international star (Christian Bale), its world-renowned director (Zhang Yimou), a major U.S. producer (David Linde) who had massive prior success with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and a veteran distributor (Chris Ball), Flowers drooped on arrival with a paltry $48,448 and a per screen average of just $1,615.

Flowers continues a 5 year long string of international misfires from China. Chinese releases in the U.S. have rarely grossed more than $500,000. Even those that earn $50 million or $100 million in their home country typically fail to travel.

It’s not that Chinese films never work in the U.S. and internationally, but successes are extremely rare. The last real hit to emerge from the PRC was Jet Li’s Fearless, which sold $43 million worth of tickets in the U.S. back in 2006.  Hero (also starring Jet Li) grossed $53 million in 2004, and House of Flying Daggers took in $11 million that same year. The highest grossing Chinese language film of all time, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was in fact not a Chinese film at all: its producers were from America and Hong Kong, its director a Taiwanese-American.

The failures are not for lack of trying. Most every Chinese producer, director, and financier desperately wants a meaningful slice of the international market. More than anyone, China’s Communist Party wants to export Chinese culture to global audiences in order to counteract the “creeping cultural influence of the West.” But they’re going about things all wrong.

For one thing, there are virtually zero writers in China who know the first thing about writing film stories that would appeal to international filmgoers. Cultural barriers are certainly an issue, but an even bigger issue is that Chinese studios and investors on the whole have no understanding of the development process. With little respect for writers and even less desire to invest in them, China is doomed to keep making films that are mostly mediocre at best, and terrible at worst.

Another major problem is that China’s film censors scrub out so much of the realism, titillation and thrills from their countrymen’s films that they leave them bland and tedious. Their need to micro-manage and sanitize the themes, characters and genre elements of films is anathema to good storytelling.

A third factor is the unquestioned primacy of Chinese directors, who shoot and edit their films with totalitarian disregard for the input of others. While Hollywood’s collaborative approach to filmmaking is far from perfect, its process of allowing cinematographers, editors, production designers, composers, and other craftsmen to meaningfully contribute and even challenge the director usually leads to better results than the Chinese approach of empowering the director to run roughshod over everyone else.

Chinese filmmakers know that their films don’t travel, and the smart ones know they need help. Hollywood has much to offer to them, if only they would listen.

Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at rob@pacificbridgepics.com and www.pacificbridgepics.com.