The Incompatibly Compatibles: From "What’s Her Face" in X-Men to "Liu Yi Fei" in Mulan

In 2014, Fan Bingbing’s role in Marvel’s X-Men was greeted with fanfare in China. Despite  appearing in less than ten minutes of the film, her debut was considered a milestone in  Chinese cinema at the time. Now in 2018, Disney has announced that Liu Yi Fei, another famous Chinese actress, will star in the upcoming Mulan remake by Disney. Hollywood has been altered in the past decade with the addition of Chinese actors. The motives behind such Sino-Hollywood cooperation are multi-faceted. Financial benefit is one of the biggest propellants for this bridge between the Eastern and Western hemispheres. Another reason for this change is the deep entrenchment of state control on the domestic film industry. How much benefits do the cooperation brings to passing the state restrictions? What happens when the pinnacle of democracy meets the maximization of censorship?  

Before the discussion of the reasons behind Sino-Hollywood cooperation, it is imperative to trace the increasing types of Chinese in Hollywood films. To start, Kung fu was perhaps the only reason Hollywood would feature a Chinese man in the 1970s. Bruce Lee started an era of Kung fu mania, and Jet Li and other actors followed. For many decades, martial arts were the extent of this relationship, which raised the question: would there be other ways for Chinese stars to make it in Hollywood? Fast forwarding to the 2010s, the answer became yes. Fan Bingbing, one of the first non-Kung fu actresses in a U.S. blockbuster, is known as “the Angelina Jolie of China”. Despite this, X-Men only managed to spare her 10 minutes of screen time, a far cry from the 90 minutes she would get in a Chinese film. Similarly, Angelababy, the equivalence of Selena Gomez in China, has two lines in Hitman 47, a role she accepted in 2015. In the beginning, success meant making it to Hollywood, even if it was merely a cameo.

If Fan and Angelababy knocked on the door to Hollywood, Donnie Yen threw it wide-open. In 2016, Yen had a main role in Rogue One, and many Americans remembered him as the “blind guy that kicked ass”[1]. The Sino-Hollywood connection deepened to more than on-screen. Warcraft marked the very first occasion when a Chinese state-owned enterprise[2], China Film Group, invested in Hollywood. The crucial junction showcased that the Chinese government was opening up to Hollywood filmmakers if it meant an influx of money into CCP’s pocket. In 2017, the off-screen connection extended from co-production to co-directing and co-production in The Great Wall starring Matt Damon. Not only did China have a share in equity, but also the power to direct. Finally, the new Mulan will give Liu at least 60% screen time, not much different from what she would have had back home. Looking at the big picture, the Sino-Hollywood partnership has been snowballing. From the ten-minute cameos to basically a one (wo)man show, from acting to producing to directing, Chinese continue to put themselves out vis à vis Hollywood.

The first and foremost reason behind such cooperation is profit. China has become a country with the most cinemas, totaling to 41,179 screens. To put things into perspective, America, the current largest box-office market, has 40,759 screens[3]. China’s movie theatres are multiplying year-over-year by  approximately 8.9%[4], a constant growth rate that suggests China is on its way to claim the world’s largest box-office market. Undoubtedly, Hollywood is seeking  to carve out a large piece from the ever-growing Chinese pie. This also explains the recent increase in appearances of Chinese celebrities in Hollywood films in the past decade. Take X-Men as an example: Fan Bingbing’s fame in China brought moviegoers there to sit through two hours in theater just to see her perform for ten minutes. X-Men reaped $116,490,000 from China alone, a fifth of the total foreign box-office, and half of the United States’ total[5]. This large return has spurred many more Sino-Hollywood collaborations.

The strategy goes beyond casting, however. US filmmakers are entering into multi-million dollar film partnerships with Chinese production companies to circumvent  the government’s quota for foreign films. In 2012, China signed an agreement with the World Trade Organization, which set a cap of 34 foreign films per year[6]. This quota system aims to protect domestic films from being crowded out by Hollywood blockbusters. Disney’s Star Wars VII-The Force Awakens was a victim of the quota system. The U.S release date of Dec 18th could not be applied in China since the 34 films had been filled up by December. Star Wars was “forced” to sleep a while longer, being pushed to an early 2016 release in China. However, if the film is produced or directed by Chinese citizens, it meets the  quota standards. The Great Wall was the first to take  advantage of this technicality. Co-produced by Universal Pictures and Wanda’s Legendary, the action film starring Matt Damon  meshes Chinese martial arts with classical Hollywood romance. Due to the transnational cooperation, the limit for quota was eliminated. Despite myriads of negative reviews, its over-the-roof-profit made up for such a cooperation. The $170,962,106 box-office in China accounted for four times the gross in America, and 60% of the foreign total gross. As China’s film industry continues to grow, more co-productions will likely emerge as a mechanism to bypass the strictly regulated quota system.

Failing to pass the CCP Film Bureau’s censorship evaluation is a common way to keep the quota system in check, thus rendering another benefit of the Sino-Hollywood cooperation. More specifically, such interactions mean a partnership between a Chinese and an American director or producers. Dead Pigs, a recently premiered film by a Princeton graduate Cathy Yan ’08, demonstrates the reward of having a renounced Chinese producer. Jia Zhangke, an alumnus of Beijing Film Academy[1], and later a prominent Chinese film director and producer, is the producer of Dead Pigs. During an interview with Yan, she described the process of how to pass the CCP censorship. According to her, you need to first submit a script, then wait for the department to get back to you. If you pass the censors, you will get a permit to shoot. And in between making the film, you need to send clips to the censors and they would make comments either pertaining to the creative or administrative sides, and you are expected to take notes of it. Luckily, Yan claims that her team does not need to alter much of the plot due to censorship. Yet waiting to get the permit was tortuous for her:  “[The Publicity Department] said that they will get back to you in two weeks, but it is almost always more than two”. Still, she attributes her relative smooth interactions with state control to the big name of Jia Zhangke, “having him on the team gives my film a sense of legitimacy, and makes people think I know what I am doing.” As can be seen from the example, having a Chinese producer enables a film to get pass censorship because of his ample of first hand experiences in dealing with the department, as even domestic films are under the state’s strict scrutiny. Moreover, having someone like Jia allows the censorship process to proceed faster due to his reputation, or connections on the inside--“guan xì”, as local Chinese put it. As Yan comments, “everything is about guan xi. Without it, your film will not survive in China.” Indeed, the Sino-Hollywood cooperation results in Chinese influencers working their guan xi, an indispensable doorknocker to success.

[1] China’s equivalence of USC School of Cinematic Arts

Lastly, such collaboration allows Hollywood films to have a more advantageous screen time. The China Film Bureau controls when foreign films are shown in theaters, and foreign companies have no say in the matter. The purpose of this practice is two-fold. First, China tends to schedule high-profile Hollywood films head-to-head to diminish foreign dominance on home turf. Below is a snapshot of the release agenda of Hollywood films in 2015[7]. As can be seen on the right, Chinese moviegoers would most likely compelled to decide which foreign movie(s) to watch during the months of November. Secondly, China blocks out foreign films during the “blackout period”, referring to the months from June to August when children are on vacation and friends and couples tend to go see movies the most. Such periods give local films the best release windows and the maximum amount of profit without the threat of Hollywood. Warcraft, however, was able to avoid a bad release time due to its co-production by a Chinese state-owned company. In fact, it was released on June 10th, one of the best months for movies since children had just gotten out of school. Not surprisingly, the ticket sale was enormous, accounting for 50% of the box office across the world. One can see how a release time can make or break a foreign movie in China, and receiving a good show time makes cooperation just that much more attractive to Hollywood.

In short, the acceptance and addition of Chinese in Hollywood spawned over the past two decades due to three main reasons, namely profit maximization, quota system evasion, and release date betterment. While the ulterior motives from Hollywood are obvious, the ones from China are not. Is it to set up more Chinese stars for international prestige? Is it to help the China film industry with such controlled competition? Is it to sweeten the relationship between China and the U.S? The new Mulan may offer  answers to the  speculation.

[1] Darius Avens 18’ account.