Critic’s Notebook: China under the influence of American cinema

HONG KONG — A few days ago, an art professor from northern China named Li Xu was in a small Beijing gallery in the shadow of Tiananmen Square explaining the unlikely inspiration for one of his paintings: the $2.7-billion blockbuster “Avatar.”

After the 34-year-old finally caught the film last year (it first opened in China in early 2010), Li wanted to see if he could marry the serenity he felt infused “Avatar"with the aesthetic of traditional Chinese painting, his primary medium. It’s an ethereal piece — black and white, brush strokes of ink on rice paper creating willowy trees, cascading waterfalls and clouds of spray — that does indeed evoke the lush, liquid paradise of James Cameron’s Pandora.

The painting was just one of the many ways I felt the impact of American cinema rippling through China during a recent trip to Asia for the Hong Kong International Film Festival, which winds to a close this week.

It seems like hardly a week goes by without some story in the Hollywood trade publications about this U.S. studio or that setting up shop in China, or doing deals here, the better to mine its fast-growing, multibillion-dollar market. But such headlines rarely capture the thoughtful and savvy ways Chinese are adapting the Hollywood system to expand and refine their own industry, and the desire for more artistic and cultural freedom that is the subtext flowing through their conversations, and increasingly, their art.

I was struck by how American entertainment was such a tangible part of ordinary life. In Hong Kong, I ran into a waiter who saves to buy his favorite mainstream Hollywood hits on DVD. Outside a theater in the city, giggly teenagers were camped out as part of"The Hunger Games"mania. And my Great Wall tour guide said he idolizes Brad Pitt in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and is on his 80th episode of"Desperate Housewives"— just, he assured me, to work on his English skills.

When I went to the National Museum in Beijing, the biggest draw was not a display of ancient artifacts, or a visiting European retrospective on art from the Age of Enlightenment; it was an exhibition on comic books and animation. The show was curated to celebrate the Chinese artistic and commercial progress in the art form since the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party in 2007. It was an interactive experience, video monitors lining the walls with a continuous loop of animated shorts and the comic books were all within reach, the better to be thumbed through.

In Hong Kong, I encountered a Chinese entrepreneur who had conducted a very studied reflection of the movie business and was setting up an operation modeled after Hollywood’s old-style studio system, complete with above- and below-the-line contract players. “Why start from scratch each time you make a film? The original studio system made sense,” said the entrepreneur, who was reluctant to have his name published until his effort is more fully developed.

He’s hoping to be a force in developingChina’sfilmmaking infrastructure, which is not big enough yet to easily support all the U.S. studio interest there. He’s found a local workforce eager to learn trades for the small operation he’s started about two hours by train north of Beijing. At Filmart, Hong Kong’s version of the American Film Market, he stopped by to chat with representatives of a South Korean CGI house he’s just put under contract. He’s already made a couple of low-budget films and is in talks with U.S. filmmakers about handling their projects. While he hopes for big profits, capital from his Internet company is funding his studio dreams for now.

Although Chinese culture feels open and global minded in casual conversation, there are reminders everywhere of just how tight a rein the government maintains. Only last week, the artistic community was protesting the government’s step-up of website censorship, something I got a taste of with my access to Google, Facebook, even the Weather Channel blocked on my computer in Beijing.

One of the films at the Hong Kong film festival had censorship very much on the mind. Pang Ho-cheung’s “Vulgaria” is a satire about rumors that the government may start restricting the use of Cantonese — spoken in Hong Kong and southern parts of the mainland — in favor of Mandarin, at least as the official language used by major Chinese media. His film also worries that the younger generation isn’t worried — his argument being that suppression leads to extinction.

I sensed that the younger generation might not be that complacent if Roger, my Great Wall tour guide, is any indication. From a rural part of the country and a Cantonese speaker, Roger is also fluent in English, thus very employable in Beijing.

Though he’s barred from accessing Facebook, he is still acutely aware of it, wants it, and can’t be the only 24-year-old with such an obsession. He spends part of every day seeing what he can access on YouTube, he is a student of American entertainment and eager to analyze what he sees, as well as his likes and dislikes, a one-man focus group. Oh, and he predicts the Facebook ban will eventually end, within five years he guesses, but he hopes it will come sooner.