The Great Wall, China's most expensive movie, has Hollywood in its sights
With a record budget, an award-winning director and Hollywood stars on board, an ambitious, co-produced fantasy epic is China's latest and greatest attempt to conquer the global film market
The project is as ambitious as the subject matter. The Great Wall, a US$135 million fantasy epic directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Matt Damon and Andy Lau Tak-wah, is billed as the most expensive Chinese movie to be distributed globally. But unlike the 20,000km-long fortification that was originally built to defend the country from foreign invasion, this latest co-production (between Hollywood's Legendary Pictures, Universal Pictures and Atlas Entertainment; and Chinese enterprises China Films and Le Vision Pictures) is all about reaching out - and, hopefully, conquering - the international film market.
The Great Wall, which will be Zhang's first mostly English-language movie, is China's latest effort to make its presence and influence felt in the global entertainment industry. In February, for the first time, the country generated a higher monthly box office than the US, US$650 million to US$640.
The movie is also China's latest attempt to exert its "soft power", edging into a territory that thus far has been dominated by Western pop culture.
Zhang Zhao, chief executive of Le Vision Pictures, believes it's a gamble worth taking. Le Vision Pictures is a film distribution and production company that recently opened an office in Hollywood to recruit local talent for co-productions. Last year it co-financed The Expendables 3, the third instalment in the action movie franchise led by Sylvester Stallone.
Zhang believes The Great Wall will see the start of a trend - Chinese blockbusters becoming popular worldwide.
"The movie industry has reached the stage of globalisation," he says. "While we are making movies like Expendables, putting money into co-producing movies with Hollywood studios, those movies are still developed by them; meanwhile, we need to develop movies that allow them to work with us."
Zhang explains that The Great Wall is the perfect Chinese production for a mainstream global audience. They made the movie mostly in English because cinema-goers don't like reading subtitles. He enthuses that if you combine blockbuster-style visuals, with a big cast of Hollywood and Chinese stars, and a story that is about a global landmark, you have a hit.
"People just see the Great Wall, but they don't know the story behind it," Zhang says. "As long as you have a good story, a story they can understand, about family, heroes, good against evil ... they will be interested, I believe."
Zhang's beliefs carry some weight. He is currently the head of the third largest film production company in China, which is also one of the country's top online video platforms. Zhang studied film production at New York University in the 1990s and made a couple of short films as a student.
Personally, Zhang prefers smaller, more personal dramas. He says Zhang Yimou's first movie, Red Sorghum (1987), had a profound impact on him (because of its patriotic tone) as did the director's most recent outing, Coming Home (2014), starring Gong Li. However, he understands that a blockbuster is a safer bet when it comes to building a global audience.
"We're constantly trying to produce good movies, but the reality is that this is ultimately a business, it's a big business," he says. "You can't just try to make movies that touch you personally; you have to make movies that touch everyone."
Chinese directors needed to push back against growing pressure from Hollywood, popular Chinese director Feng Xiaogang was quoted by The Hollywood Reporter as saying at the China Film Directors Guild Awards last Sunday.
Feng said it was “a great pressure for every Chinese director”.
He referred to Furious 7, the latest instalment in the Fast and Furious action franchise, which opened in China last weekend and took US$68.6 million on Sunday alone. "I hope every director can balance art and commerce and that Chinese directors can push back (against pressure from Hollywood)," The Hollywood Reporter quoted him as saying.
If a Chinese production hopes to appeal to movie-goers worldwide, going down the blockbuster route makes sense, says Stanley Rosen, a political science professor at the University of Southern California who specialises in Chinese politics and society. He wrote a forthcoming paper on how Chinese films have performed overseas, and points out that since Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out in 2000, foreign-language movies have found it hard to become global hits.
" Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made US$128 million in North America. That's a feat that has never been duplicated. And not likely to be duplicated," Rosen says.
While Zhang Yimou's 2002 film Hero made US$177 million worldwide, making it the highest grossing Chinese film of all time, its popularity never quite matched Ang Lee's martial arts epic.
Rosen says films set in specific periods in Chinese history (like Coming Home, during the Cultural Revolution) will be hard to sell if the audience doesn't understand China's history well. He also says films that are critical to the country are also likely to end their life in the censor's office.
"They don't want to show anything bad or negative about China; they want positive images. They don't want anything that's too edgy, and political decisions overcome any artistic decisions," Rosen says, adding that is a big disadvantage for filmmakers in China.
"I always tell, when I lecture in China, one of the reasons why American soft power is so successful is because it's separated from the government completely, so you can have Hollywood films showing the evils of the American government," Rosen says.
"If you look at the Oscar winner for best documentary, Citizen Four, about Edward Snowden ... Edward Snowden is wanted by the American government for treason, basically, yet the film praising him wins the best documentary at the Academy Awards. China could never do anything like that."
Rosen adds that most of the Chinese filmmakers he's interacted with are aware that, to lawmakers in China, "film is secondary to politics".
Rosen says that's also why it's so important to the Chinese government to produce a global box office hit.
"China, I think, is desperate to promote its soft power," Rosen says. "They are somewhat resentful that Hollywood and American culture is so prevalent in China, whether it's TV series like The Big Bang Theory or House of Cards, or Hollywood films like Transformers. They want some reciprocity for Chinese culture overseas."
Whether The Great Wall, scheduled for global release in 3D in November 2016, will start turning the tide is yet to be seen, but Zhang Zhao is confident. For him, not only a new project, but a new trend is about to take off.