10 Years of Titanic Temptation
How foreign movies are making an impact on the mainland film market
By Caren Zuo
The year 2004 marked the 10th anniversary of Chinese cinema opening
its doors to the outside world, when the Ministry of Radio, Film and
Television first permitted a handful of carefully-chosen foreign movies
to be shown to Chinese. A year later, on the centennial of the establishment
of China's film industry, scholars and movie experts are examining potential
policies to help foreign filmmaking and investment have a positive impact
on Chinese cinema.
With China's entrance into the WTO in 2001, there has been a compulsory,
steady increase in the diet of foreign movies entering the country's
movie theaters. In 1994, 10 foreign films were allowed to be imported,
in what was regarded as a meaningful start. In 2003, 20 foreign films
were imported according to China's WTO commitments. In line with these
same commitments, China will cancel the quantity limitations on the
imported foreign films to distribute in cinemas in 2006, and foreign
investors will gain more access to China's film industry. As the influence
of foreign films has increased, Chinese audience tastes have evolved.
Before 1994, foreign films were strictly a black market affair. Then
came The Fugitive (1994), with Harrison Ford swerving across mainland
cinema screens, dazzling audiences with special effects the likes of
which had never been seen in China. Some viewers accustomed to the more
unswerving mainland fare could be seen stumbling out of theaters slackjawed
from this quantum leap in action entertainment. Movies would continue
to get faster and bigger. Braveheart, released in 1995 in China, thus
launched the golden age of the foreign epic in China. It seemed few
other genres of foreign film were selected to be shown.
"You know, when a man gets to a certain age and has experienced
something of life, it's very hard for anything to truly touch him, to
touch his heart...but when I saw the scene where Mel Gibson shouts 'Freedom!'
before he dies, I found myself crying," says Lin Hedong, 37.
Today, Lin and his wife Wang Hailin settle into their comfy seats at
the Dahua Cinema in Beijing's Dongdan business district to watch another
epic: King Arthur. On screen, Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table
are about to do battle with the Roman Empire.
Lin is not normally a moviegoer. At best, he says,
he can make 2-3 movies a year. "Certainly, foreign films are our
first choice. We go just to enjoy the impressive large scale and stereo
sound satisfaction. All these things can't be experienced at home watching
Lin's wife Wang had wanted to see Yesterday Once More starring "the
handsome Andy Lau." "In the end, I talked her out of it,"
says Lin. "I said, 'Surely we don't need a big screen for that.'
We can buy the DVD and watch it at home."
Lin likes epic stories, which thrive on the big screen, while Wang yearns
for romance, which can come across just as well on a twenty-inch television.
Perhaps this difference might help explain the runaway success in China
of a movie that was synonymous with failure in its country of origin,
One movie that combined both action and romance on an epic scale was
James Cameron's Titanic. It's hard to think of an appropriate superlative
to describe the impact of Titanic on mainland China in 1998.
What was admittedly a very successful movie in the rest of the world
resonated like no other before or since in the Chinese corner of the
planet. Audiences, both men and women, young and old, flocked to the
big-budget romantic epic in unprecedented numbers. It was reported in
one newspaper that even ethnic minority people living in remote mountain
villages knew the name.
Celine Dion's theme song, "My Heart Will Go On," entered the
mainstream of Chinese pop culture, never to leave. Long after the theme
has faded from the hearts of foreign moviegoers worldwide, the film
continues to hold a unique space in the modern Chinese psyche. The 320
million-yuan box office receipts have yet to be surpassed in Chinese
Who watches this stuff?
After Titanic, it seemed for a while like anything foreign - regardless
of quality - might be an automatic blockbuster in mainland China. But
lately, Chinese audiences have been wising up.
"Everything was so bland," says Lin, stomping out of the illuminated
exits of the 665-seat, three-star Dahua cinema after King Arthur had
concluded. Wife Wang is told-you-so silent as Liu complains about his
less-than-regal viewing experience. "We are driven from one battle
scene to another, with no excitement or suspense. The lead actress who
played Guinevere was appealing - especially her sexy mouth - but her
performance doesn't help anyone believe in the reality of a woman's
influence on a great man of history."
"Meanwhile, Arthur himself is a rigid, flat person," Lin continues.
"And as for his eight knights, they all seemed like the same guy
to me. I can only remember Lancelot and another amusing tall thug...this
movie was even worse than Troy. There's just been too many of these
epic movies lately. For me, none will ever match Braveheart." Lin
will not go so far as to call the whole thing a waste of money.
"It was just an expensive movie," he laughs. "But it
wasn't so bad that I would never want to see it. I just spent a fairly
good night, different from my ordinary life - work to home, home to
work - you see, the night scenery is so pleasant."
The price of a ticket to a three-star cinema like Dahua in Beijing ranges
from 30-50 yuan, and can top 120 yuan at a five-star cinema. This poses
quite a problem for an ordinary Beijinger, whose monthly income averaged
about 2,000 yuan in 2003.
Lin, a computing engineer, doesn't object. "That's consumption,
the law of supply and demand, and we need that," he says. "On
weekdays, we roll to work but we have no time to spend our hard-earned
money. On weekends, we need to throw off the week's tiredness and unhappiness."
"I think it's far better to sit in a cinema than blow 100 yuan
on soft drinks and snacks at a noisy bar."
With rising ticket prices, what was a medium for the masses 10 years
ago is fast becoming a more middle-class concern, with equipment and
comfort taking center stage at plush coastal city cinemas.
China Plaza Theatre in Guangzhou was the first five-star cinema in Guangdong
Province. Manager Guan Xuehua told a reporter of South Metropolis Daily:
"We refurbished the cinema with equipment and decoration compatible
with international first-class cinemas. Although the price of a ticket
to Return of the King [the third installment of the wildly successful
Lord of the Rings trilogy] rose to 80 yuan, the audience numbers kept
rising and box office receipts broke over 2 million yuan."
It was Saturday night at Dahua, a good night for business, when Lin
and Wang watched King Arthur. But Lin was still surprised at the attendance
for such a turkey: more than 80 percent of seats were occupied. Most
of audience was middle-aged.