Is ‘King Fu Hustle’ Un-American?

Christina Klein is an associate professor of literature at MIT.

It is a common observation that the Academy Awards offer Hollywood an opportunity to celebrate itself. And, indeed, the Los Angeles-based film industry generated most of the nominees in this year’s best picture, best director, best actress and best actor categories. Yet these movies, as well as others in less prominent categories, can tell us quite a bit about the state of filmmaking around the world. One of the things they tell us is that the era of distinct national cinemas is fading. Globalization makes it increasingly difficult to define a film as unambiguously French, Chinese or even American.

As Hollywood focuses on exports and takes an ever-greater share of the world’s box office, its audience becomes ever less American. “Troy” (nominated for costume design) is a good example of how today’s export-oriented Hollywood tailors its movies for a global audience. Its story, a Reader’s Digest-like version of Homer’s “Iliad,” has the dual market advantages of being familiar to audiences throughout Europe (Hollywood’s biggest overseas market) and of lacking any of the specifically American content that sometimes alienates film bureaucrats in China (Hollywood’s dream market). “Troy’s” pleasures, however, are not primarily narrative. Made with a budget of about $185 million, it emphasizes computer-enhanced visual spectacle and confines its dialogue to brief, subtitle-friendly interludes. The film was shot entirely outside the United States, with its lone American star, Brad Pitt, surrounded by lesser lights from Britain and Australia. Despite being tepidly received at home, “Troy” succeeded with its target audience: It opened nearly simultaneously in 45 countries and earned about 75% of its box office receipts abroad.

Most film industries operate in global Hollywood’s growing shadow and try to make movies that communicate a distinct, local identity. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s French-language film, “A Very Long Engagement” (nominated for art direction and cinematography), fairly shouts its Frenchness. Its World War I-era story about love trumping reason unfurls along the Brittany seacoast and amid beautifully re-created Paris neighborhoods , while its characters display such “typical” French qualities as panache, a love of good food and a healthy regard for sexual pleasure. Its production was equally national. Based on a French novel, it was filmed by a French director on French locations using a French cast and crew. Even its post-production occurred, remarkably enough, at French special-effects houses. In spite of all this, a French court recently declared it ineligible to receive French government subsides because it isn’t a French film at all, but rather a Hollywood film in disguise. Why? Because the France-based company that financed and produced the film is jointly owned by Warner Bros. and the employees of Warner Bros. France.


“A Very Long Engagement,” it turns out, exemplifies Hollywood’s latest strategy of globalization, known as local-language production. As foreign audiences show signs of tiring of Hollywood’s formulaic blockbusters and express interest in seeing portrayals of their own cultures on screen, Hollywood has responded by making “foreign” films.

Today, the studios have overseas divisions that finance and produce local-language films aimed at audiences in Germany, Spain, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, India, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere. Hollywood’s notable “foreign” films include Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which garnered four Academy Awards in 2002, and Stephen Chow’s “Kung Fu Hustle,” which is currently breaking box-office records in Asia.

China’s film industry has been struggling for years, and “House of Flying Daggers,” a nominee for best cinematography, represents director Zhang Yimou’s effort to compete head-to-head with Hollywood imports. In this nationalist effort to reclaim the Chinese market, however, Zhang has borrowed from the competition’s globally popular style. His sumptuous production combines the conventions of the period martial arts film, a distinctly Chinese genre, with a love story and visual effects that carry strong whiffs of Hollywood.

Zhang’s calculations paid off. “Flying Daggers” outperformed every picture in China last year except one: Columbia Pictures’ Chinese-language film “Kung Fu Hustle.” Although privately financed, Zhang’s film received a little help from the Chinese government. After announcing a campaign against cultural pollution, officials in Beijing shut out all foreign films -- including Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters -- for seven weeks during the summer, clearing the market for “Flying Daggers.”

It is hard to imagine “Sideways,” a best picture nominee, doing well in China. Most of its Oscar competitors trumpet their American content, but Alexander Payne’s quirky character study stands out as a culturally specific piece of moviemaking. To fully appreciate the film’s humor and pathos requires a deep understanding of American culture -- not the mass-produced stuff that infiltrates every corner of the globe, but the nuances of everyday life.

“Sideways” revels in its careful depictions of California’s Central Coast wine country and of its two middle-aged protagonists. Although critics have praised the film’s astute plumbing of the contemporary male psyche, its limning of the psychology of class is just as notable. What is it like to be a loser in hypercompetitive America? In the character of Miles, the film explores what writer Barbara Ehrenreich has called the “fear of falling,” the pervasive middle-class anxiety about slipping down the social hierarchy.


A junior high school English teacher and failed novelist who lifts cash from his mother to finance an oenophile jaunt, Miles clings to his rung. He initially dismisses the lovely Maya as “just” a waitress and only reconsiders her as a romantic possibility after she reveals she is pursuing a master’s degree and possesses a refined palate. Only then does her working-class job cease to threaten Miles’ fragile sense of himself.

“Sideways” brilliantly illuminates the workings of cultural capital. It shows how wine connoisseurship -- the rituals of tasting, the esoteric knowledge, the fantastic vocabulary -- compensates Miles for his professional and personal failures and grants him a measure of self-respect. To appreciate all this, however, a viewer must pick up many subtle, often nonverbal American social cues.

Like Jeunet and Zhang, Payne is working with and against global Hollywood (he made his film with Fox Searchlight, the independent division of 20th Century Fox). He too is eager to express a sense of cultural particularity. In an interview with the BBC, he explained that “Sideways” shows “an America that we’re not seeing in America on film, because we don’t have films, really, about Americans. Our culture is suffering as well from the abomination of the commercial American film.”

I suspect that this film’s deeply felt sense of American-ness is at the root of its popularity.

“You know,” Payne says, “we need national cinemas.”