Professor Ying Zhu shares with us the history of Hollywood films in Chinese markets, attempts of Chinese films to break into the American market, and the implications for Sino-American relations.  

On Friday morning, I snoozed the 7 a.m. alarm and sluggishly opened the Zoom link to this talk: “Global Expansion and Local Protection: American and Chinese Film Industries through Two World Wars.” Given the title, I expected that the talk would be a historical overview of American and Chinese films, with a focus on the two World Wars’ influence on the film industries. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Professor Zhu had tailored the talk to cover more recent developments, specifically the Post-COVID boom of films in China and its implications.

Ying Zhu is a professor and Chair of the Department of Media Culture at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island and serves an appointment at the Film Academy of the Hong Kong Baptist University, where she specializes in Chinese film and film industries  The talk was moderated by Ying Qian, an assistant professor of East Asian Languages at Columbia and the discussion was led by Richard Pena, who is the former program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and a professor at the School of the Arts at Columbia.

Before delving into the more recent developments, Professor Zhu briefly laid out the historical context about Hollywood’s dominance in the Chinese market during the Republican era, the ban of Hollywood films in 1950 following Communist victory, and Hollywood’s re-entrance into the Chinese market in 1994 to resuscitate a declining Chinese film market. China now has a quota system that only allows a specific number of foreign films to be shared in Chinese theaters every year. She also noted that now Chinese films are trying to break into the American market, albeit with much difficulty.

Professor Zhu showed trailers and clips from The Meg and The Departed, both directed by Warner Brothers, and how the portrayals in each film revealed the tensions of Sino-American relations. Specifically, the scene from The Departed which premiered in the U.S. in 2006, besides featuring a shower of racial slurs, depicted the Chinese government agents as Cantonese-speaking hoodlums buying microprocessors from Americans. Humorously, professor Zhu noted that if The Departed was remade today—which it absolutely should not be—it would be about Huawei and the tug-of-war of 5G control, rather than microprocessors.

She talked about how The Eight Hundred, produced by Huayi, enjoyed commercial success in China even though it never received a premiere in the theaters due to the pandemic. However, it did not do well outside of China. This may be due to the fact that The Eight Hundred is about the Sino-Japan war, featuring Chinese patriotism at its core. The balance between keeping patriotic elements and trying to garner international success is difficult and recalls back to when Hollywood ventured into the international arena and deliberated the same difficult question of balance.

Throughout the talk, Professor Zhu kept mentioning the concept of “soft powers”—that is, the ability to persuade and coerce—and how a closer investigation of films can highlight the degrees of “soft powers” that each country possesses. She quotes Jackie Chang, who had said that Warcraft’s commercial success in 2016 means that one day Chinese will surpass English’s linguistic dominance.

Having grown up in Shanghai, I was aware of the tension between Western influences in the Chinese film industry and censorship in China. Yet, I was largely ignorant of the scope of that entanglement between film and international politics until professor Zhu said, in passing, how Chinese films are trying to break into Brazil and how Chinese broadcasting companies control a lot of media in South Africa. I also never realized that there exist many different and complicated types of co-productions, and how different investments and different types of co-productions mean varying degrees of influence from each company and country in the film.

The discussion ended with how most of the support for Chinese films in overseas markets are from overseas Chinese residents, I found this to be interesting since I recognized it to be very true. I left the end of this talk wondering what it takes for Chinese films to truly break into the American market.

Image via Columbia School of the Arts