China vs. Hollywood : the BBC World Service talks to me

Earlier this month, the BBC World Service decided to interview me about a new mainland Chinese film, Lotus Lantern. Although I'd never heard of the film, they insisted, so I agreed to discuss the background behind its success on the BBC's The World Today. (moral of the story: set up a web site, and global media comes to you)

Here's a transcript, from Saturday, August 14, 1999.

BBC: It's 02:23 GMT. This is the World Today with Dan Damon.

China's film industry is celebrating a victory over Hollywood with the new animated film Lotus Lantern. Until now, films from the US, even though they received limited distribution, have proved to be the most popular. But now, in an atmosphere of growing anti-Americanism following the war in Kosovo and the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the popularity of this home-grown film is being trumpeted as a cultural victory.

Shelly Kraicer is a specialist in Chinese cinema.

SK: The Chinese film industry, in the mainland in particular, and all East Asian film industries in general, are terrified of an onslaught of Hollywood product. China has dealt with this by restricting the number of Hollywood films that can be shown to 10 per year. Nevertheless, they are afraid of how well their films can hold up against the Hollywood product. So, the possibility of a Hollywood-style animated feature that's actually a huge popular success thrills them.

BBC: But this is a big budget production by Chinese standards, isn't it?

SK: That's right.

BBC:  And so, why is it seen as political? I can understand that there's a trade battle, that there's a trade contest here, but why has it suddenly become "victory over Uncle Sam"?

SK: The last big American film was Saving Private Ryan, which was playing in May in Beijing, just when the Americans bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. It was immediately pulled from theatres, and replaced with stirring Korean War documentaries, in which the American army fighting on the side of South Korea faced the Chinese army fighting on the side of the North. So the Chinese government and cultural bureaucracies are very sensitive to political context of film screenings.

Another recent Hollywood film to play in China was Mulan. Disney had great hopes in the Chinese market for this animated feature which was based on Chinese legend. But it was a flop in China, apparently because, according to the Xinhua News Agency,  the character was ..."foreign looking, her complexion, disposition, and manner of behaviour were different from an [authentic] Chinese character."

So, in some ways, this new animated feature, Lotus Lantern, is a response to Mulan. An attempt to have a Chinese audience enthusiastic about an authentically Chinese product, not a transplanted American cultural product.

BBC: How healthy is the Chinese film industry?

SK: Not healthy at all. And it is under assault from a couple of significant directions. There is the threat of the Hollywood film industry, which is pushing very aggressively, and with the aid of the American government, for a change in the unofficial quota on American movies. Jack Valenti, who is the chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, was recently lobbying the Chinese government to increase the number of American films that can be shown each year in China from 10 to 25. And also, and more significantly, he was pushing the Chinese government to relax its restrictions on foreign ownership of domestic film distribution networks and movie theatres.

From a Chinese point of view, this is probably appears to be, not just a simple argument about a more open play of the "free market" in a transnational globalized economy, but rather, an attempt by the US to reassert a kind of cultural hegemony over China's entertainment culture [that it had in the 20s] by reestablishing a form of vertical control over the Chinese film production, distribution, and exhibition.

BBC: That's Shelly Kraicer, on the new energy in Chinese filmmaking.

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