Culture

What Kind of Chinese-themed Hollywood Movies Can have Good Box-office in China?

Key Point: No matter how many Chinese elements are used, don't try to pretend to be a Chinese movie. Because Chinese audiences go to see Hollywood movies in order to see Hollywood stories.

You may have heard that Disney’s latest film, Mulan, is not doing well in China.

Although the poor performance at the box office may be due to the impact of the epidemic, what is even worse is the poor reviews of it. This film, starring famous Chinese actors such as Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, Gong Li and Jet Li, got a rating of only 4.9/10 on Douban(China’s imdb).

This seems to be a response to Hollywood’s cultural appropriation for a long time, and Chinese consumers can no longer stand Hollywood’s misuse of Chinese elements. But what I want to tell you that this description is not true. 

In fact, Disney’s animated version of Mulan, released in 1998, got a high score of 7.9/10 on Douban. Compared with the Mulan 2020, the animated Mulan is farther from the real Chinese culture, but it gets a higher score. Why? 

This article focuses on the macro issues of Hollywood’s use of Chinese elements. The specific evaluation of Mulan 2020 can be found in this article: Why do Chinese people dislike “Mulan” so much?

Due to cultural appropriation? Not really

On Weibo and Douban, you can see a lot of criticisms related to Mulan 2020. But you seldom see the word “cultural appropriation” in these comments, because such concept does not exist in Chinese public opinion. 

Angry moviegoers in China mostly denounced the film as “twist” and some regarded it as “arrogant”. 

When they say these two words, they are not really accusing the film of misusing Chinese culture, but that these mistakes are so ridiculous. 

This means that if Mulan told a complete story about women’s independence, it would get much better reviews than it does now. Disney, who insists on adding the culture of filial piety to this film, may not know that China’s culture of filial piety is anti-feminist to some extent.

On the other hand, if you simply write a story about filial piety, its evaluation will also be better than the current Mulan.

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As a neighbor of China, Japan has launched many cultural goods that misappropriate traditional Chinese culture, including the world-famous series of games Dynasty Warriors and Romance Of Three Kingdom.

But no one in contemporary China, except those who are older or bureaucratic in government work, are angry about these games, movies or cartoons.  

Because in essence, these works have no use of real Chinese culture, it basically just borrows the names of some Chinese historical figures and visual elements, and most of the stories can only be said to be completely re-created based on the original Chinese classics. They don`t pretend that they are creating a real Chinese story.

Consumers will separate this from the real culture, and when a Chinese consumer uses Zhao Yun in Dynasty Warriors, it does not think that Koei misunderstands Zhao Yun in history or deliberately vilifies him. They will only think that Zhao Yun in Dynasty Warriors is just a game character with a name, its appearance is very cool and its skills are very powerful, that’s all.

Ying Zheng is a man born in 259 BC without any reliable portraits. He is definitely not what he looks like in the mobile game FGO. But the Chinese will not be angry about it.

Another example is the Japanese mobile game Fate/Grand Order, an overhead story created by the famous Japanese writer Naisu Mushroom, in which the character is based on China’s most famous emperor, Shi Huang Di (Ying Zheng).

In the game, the character is a person who achieves immortality through modern machinery. In this chapter of the game, the screenwriter transforms a large number of ancient Chinese stories and legends related to Ying Zheng into a series of science fiction events and props in the near future.

And the great emperor in Chinese history is set as a villain in the game.

But guess what? The character was well received by Chinese players and sparked widespread discussion on Weibo, bringing the game to a higher popularity in China.

The biggest difference between Mulan 2020 and Mulan 1998 is that it attempts to show the true Chinese culture. It integrates the concept of filial piety from traditional Chinese thought into the creation, thinking that in this way we can get a “real Chinese story”.

Considering that the cultural symbol of “filial piety” has half the negative meaning in the view of contemporary Chinese youth (it means being restricted by native families), even for Chinese writers and directors, it is a very difficult to represent this concept well. 

So it’s not surprising that Mulan gets a lot of bad reviews.

What kind of Chinese elements are popular?

In the past, Chinese film critics often commented on Hollywood Chinese-themed films or films with Chinese elements as follows:

XXXX is not a Chinese film at all, it is just a Hollywood film with Chinese skin, it shows the Western lifestyle and the values of personal heroism(or spiritual core, ideology). 

The above paragraph appears in the official reviews of almost all China-related films shot in Hollywood. But interestingly, all the films that received such reviews performed better than Mulan 2020 in the Chinese market.

In recent years, Hollywood seems to think that Chinese consumers must like “stories with a Chinese way of thinking”. This is true to some extent, as evidenced by the Chinese sci-fi film The Wandering Earth in 2019. Its story is almost made up of Chinese spiritual cores such as collectivism, anti-individual heroism, “power of the masses”, “family” and “self-sacrifice”.

The Wandering Earth is currently the third highest-grossing film in Chinese box office history, but Wolf Warriors 2, which topped the list, is the opposite.

There is only an one-year difference between Wolf Warriors 2 and The Wandering Earth, both directed and starred by Wu Jing. The film is known overseas for its “nationalism” and even gave birth to a derivative word “Wolf Warriors Diplomacy”.

But the paragraph at the beginning of this section appears in many reviews of the film.

Because if you remove the specific country name from it, the story of Wolf Warriors 2 goes like this:

A retired soldier was accidentally involved in a civil war in a third country while looking for his missing wife. In the process, he met some companions and was involved in a bigger conspiracy. In order to survive, he and his newly acquainted companions solved the huge plot (about 60 minutes of war and violence here) and finally found a clue to his wife.

Wow, feels so Hollywood.

But this does not affect the Chinese audience’s love for the film, so we can draw a conclusion: it is not only Chinese stories that attract Chinese audiences, they also love Hollywood-style old-fashioned stories. 

You know, Avengers 4 is still the fourth highest box-office film in the Chinese film history.

What’s more, when Chinese go into the cinema to watch a Hollywood movie, they expect to see a Hollywood story. If they want to see Chinese stories, they can choose to see Chinese movies. Now, the Chinese film industry is booming, and they actually have no shortage of movie watching made by real Chinese.

After understanding this, you can guess which Chinese-themed Hollywood film has received the best reviews in China in the past 20 years.

The answer is “Kung Fu Panda”.

In the view of cultural scholars, this series is simply a “cultural appropriation carnival”. It basically does not contain any correct Chinese elements, and Chinese people should be extremely angry about it.

The ratings of three Kung Fu Panda movies on Douban.

But Chinese audiences like to watch it, and the three animated films of Kung Fu Panda scored 8.1, 8.0 and 7.7 points on Douban, respectively. This is almost the best result a Chinese-themed Hollywood film can get. 

In fact, Kung Fu Panda 3 does not score as well as the first two works in the series because its “Western-style spiritual core has been watered down”.

In a highly typical criticism on Kung Fu Panda 3, Chinese moviegoers wrote:

Western philosophy has three ultimate propositions: who I am, where I come from, and where I go. It is not difficult to see how the Kung Fu Panda series tries to answer these propositions. I used to remember that the producer of the film said that the series would have five films, and after the end of the third film, we can see that it has given the first two answers of these three questions.

But Kung Fu Panda 3 deliberately reduces the plot for the audience to think about those Eastern philosophical questions with Master Oogway…

Funny enough, and then there’s no more – Aaron

In this criticism, this is followed by a 800-word discussion of why Kung Fu Panda 3 should not reduce its discussion of Western philosophy.

Chinese audiences like the Kung Fu Panda series for the same reasons as audiences in other countries around the world: it has lovely characters, funny lines, gorgeous effects and positive stories that promote “courage” and “independence”.

It just so happens that it uses the animal “Panda” with Chinese characteristics as its protagonist and “cartoon ancient Chinese architecture”, which makes it “a little more attractive to Chinese audiences” than other Disney animated films. But only a little more.

Similarly, the story and artistic image of the “Mists of Pandaria” of the World of Warcraft have indeed won praise from Chinese players. But if the theme of this expansion set contains Indian elements, Chinese players will continue to play.

A few years ago, China put forward a new concept called “cultural self-confidence”.

This concept means that China should build cultural strength consistent with its status as the second largest economic entity in the world. To some extent, this is not an ideological term, but to promote the development of China’s cultural and entertainment industry. As a result, many local film and television and game companies in China have developed.

However, compared with the Chinese film industry, which is trying to build cultural confidence, Hollywood is losing its cultural confidence – it does not even believe that the Chinese still like Hollywood-style stories anymore.

Now we can repeat the truth: 

When Chinese consumers go to the cinema to see a Hollywood movie, they expect a Hollywood story. If Hollywood adds Chinese elements (actors, visual images, simple legends) to a movie, this will get a little extra score.

But if Hollywood tries to shoot a story that shows real Chinese culture, just don`t use anything comes from their own mind. The only way to get high praise is to invite a real Chinese director, give him all of the film, and don’t question anything.

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