Reel China: A crash course in different storytelling traditions


BEIJING — Every movie project involves a certain amount of negotiation, but finding middle ground proved no easy matter when writer-director Daniel Hsia tried to film “Shanghai Calling” in China.

To secure permission to make his story about a Chinese American lawyer relocated to the country’s largest city, Hsia exchanged numerous screenplay drafts with China’s censors. The government’s film production arm, China Film, which co-produced the movie, wanted to make sure that Shanghai was depicted as an efficient modern metropolis, that locals were shown as “kind and hospitable,” that the visiting lawyer comes to appreciate the country by the film’s conclusion and that a plot about piracy would be rewritten into more of a business misunderstanding, Hsia said.

But the most complicated give-and-take focused on the movie’s investigative journalist, and the character’s heroic path. American movie heroes typically choose greatness, but their path to glory is often sidetracked by failings or doubts as the idol struggles with physical and emotional setbacks. Chinese movie paragons, on the other hand, normally have greatness thrust upon them, are physically and emotionally stable and rarely change over the course of a tale.


PHOTOS: U.S.-China box office comparisons

“American heroes go out of their way to search for trouble,” said Hsia, whose movie has played several festivals and will be shown at the Mill Valley Film Festival on Oct. 13 and 14. A Chinese protagonist, conversely, “does what he does because it’s his duty, it’s his job — not because he wants to do it.” Incorporating that fundamental difference, Hsia said, led to “another huge rewrite,” and the project was subsequently approved.

For all of the concessions and changes he had to make, Hsia said, “I absolutely would do it again.” The movie opened Aug. 10 in China to glowing notices and solid box-office returns, and Hsia said he expects the independently financed film to play in U.S. theaters next year. “I do feel I got to make the movie I wanted to make,” he said.

Hollywood and China are separated by more than 6,000 miles, but the more significant gulf can’t be charted on any map. There are vast, historical differences in storytelling tradition that owe as much to Confucianism as modern political sensitivities, and bridging that narrative chasm has become a burning challenge given that within the next few years China will become the world’s biggest movie market.

Thanks to loosening quota limits and an explosion of new theaters, Chinese moviegoers have been patronizing American movies in record numbers. The returns for U.S. films have been so outsized this year that Chinese authorities in the last several weeks have tried to limit their popularity. The steps include blackout periods in which no imported films can be exhibited in China and releasing two Hollywood blockbusters on the same day to limit their upside, as Chinese exhibitors recently did with “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Amazing Spider-Man.”

REPORT: Reel China - coverage of the Chinese movie industry


Those punitive limits, which prompted the Motion Picture Assn. of America to complain to Chinese authorities and the Obama administration, are compelling American producers to search for more Chinese co-productions such as “Shanghai Calling,” which are not subject to retaliatory exhibition restrictions.

In many cases, the East-West partnerships are relatively painless, as was the case with “Looper,” a science fiction action story opening here and in China on Sept. 28, which originally was set in France but rewritten to unfold partly in China. But in several other instances, American filmmakers have had to undergo crash courses in Chinese storytelling traditions, which can be as complex as a hero’s journey and as seemingly trivial as how dragons are portrayed.

“There is no clear definition of what you can do and what you cannot do — from both the culture aspect and the censorship aspect,” said Chinese American director and screenwriter Anna Chi, the director of the HBO film “Dim Sum Funeral” and co-director of “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.” “Of course there are regulations, there are laws. Everybody knows you can’t do [a movie about] Tibet, you can’t talk about the Falun Gong,” she said of the spiritual practice the China Communist Party has tried to eradicate. “But in terms of creativity there is no handbook. It’s all project by project.”

To qualify for co-production financing, productions must include a Chinese story element and employ some Chinese production staff. China benefits from the expertise of foreign filmmakers, while Hollywood, in addition to avoiding the retaliatory distribution tactics, gets access to Chinese funding and a bigger cut of box office receipts than a purely American production.

PHOTOS: U.S.-China box office comparisons

Backers of foreign films typically take home around 25% of cinema grosses, assuming they are among the handful of non-Chinese movies allowed into the country under an import quota. But the American makers of Chinese co-productions can collect nearly double that amount of ticket sales. Qualifying for a co-production, however, can be akin to untying a Gordian knot.

“Back home in the States you are talking to just one person: the consumer. Here, you are talking to two: one is the government, the other is the consumer,” says the Beijing-based American Dan Mintz, chief executive of DMG Entertainment, the Chinese partner for “Iron Man 3,” a proposed co-production that has not started filming in China but has commenced in the United States.

Chi’s proposed co-production “Women Warriors of the Yang Family” ran into problems over the depiction of its protagonist in her script. The story follows the life of the well-loved Northern Song Dynasty general Yang Zongbao, considered a hero in Chinese history books. To make his character more nuanced and a bit more Western, Chi provided him with a foible. To save his loved ones, he must first do something they abhor: When captured by the enemy he becomes a traitor. In reality, he is secretly fighting for his family.

The Chinese producers and censors demanded that the twist must be scrapped.

REPORT: Reel China - coverage of the Chinese movie industry

“[They said] he is a historical figure, so we cannot put any shameful things to his name. Because he’s so beloved they say a Chinese audience wouldn’t accept it,” said Chi, who has since rewritten the script.

It wasn’t Chi’s first brush with Chinese censors. In “Cicada’s Summer,” a fully Chinese-funded movie Chi directed and wrote, two scenes had to be removed after shooting was finished, one in which a schoolgirl has an abortion, the other where schoolchildren post photos on a social media site during class. Both were deemed detrimental to the image of the country’s education system.

Sometimes, the governmental concerns might seem almost trivial.

Just before shooting commenced on 2011’s “The Dragon Pearl,” Australian writer-director Mario Andreacchio was forced to tear up his script, largely because of how he was depicting dragons.

The family film, the first official treaty Australia-China co-production, revolves around two teenagers’ discovery of a live dragon in China. Andreacchio had envisioned a Western-style dragon: a fearsome, fire-breathing creature with connotations of evil. In China, however, dragons traditionally symbolize prosperity and power.

“We had to rewrite the screenplay — we were six weeks out from shooting, and I had to go back to treatment stage, which is pretty scary for any producer,” Andreacchio said. “The only way we could continue was to unstitch the story and stitch it up again with changes so we could get filming approval.” The benevolent Chinese dragon won, and the film turned into a modest Chinese hit.

Producer Pietro Ventani, who was a consultant on 2008’s Chinese-American co-production “The Forbidden Kingdom” with Jet Li and Jackie Chan and is developing with director Rob Minkoff the proposed co-production adventure tale “Chinese Odyssey,” said the screenwriting education is not a one-way street.

If Chinese filmmakers want their films to travel beyond the country’s borders, Ventani said, they also must reexamine narrative rules, and understand why movies such as “Avatar,” which grossed more than $182 million in China, do so well in Chinese multiplexes. In many Chinese films, Ventani said, “the accomplishment is given as much emphasis as the individual, which can be a problem because we are drawn to people stories.” But Chinese society is changing rapidly, Ventani said, and its homegrown movies will soon follow, embracing more Western structures. “The Chinese audience is ready to embrace those kind of stories.”

Correspondent Sebag-Montefiore reported from China, staff writer Horn from Los Angeles.


PHOTOS: Hollywood back lot moments

Latest movie reviews

PHOTOS: NC-17 movies: Why they got the rating