When the Chow Yun-fat action-comedy epic "Let the Bullets Fly" opened in China last year, it quickly became a phenomenon. Lured by its splashy fight scenes and whip-snap dialogue, filmgoers swarmed theaters. The movie wound up taking in more than $100 million at the box office in China, the most for a homegrown film.
Yet despite its Hollywood-style violence and an actor with international name recognition, "Let the Bullets Fly" hasn't even managed to find a distributor in the United States. When it played the Tribeca Film Festival in April, there were walkouts. "It's not going to be for everyone," director and costar Jiang Wen said in an interview afterward. "I just make movies and hope people appreciate them."
Jiang isn't the only Chinese filmmaker who's making blockbusters at home and feeling unappreciated abroad. Feng Xiaogang's 2010 earthquake action drama "Aftershock," with nearly $100 million in receipts, received a token release in the U.S., where it took in only about $60,000. And John Woo's two-part war epic "Red Cliff" was a Hollywood-sized hit in China several years ago. But it didn't even crack the $1-million box-office mark when Mark Cuban's Magnolia Pictures released a condensed version stateside in 2009. Europe and the rest of Asia have been only slightly more receptive to these blockbusters.
Now comes Zhang Yimou, the decorated Chinese director of movies such as "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," who just wrapped up filming on a production he hopes will break that cycle. With a budget of $100 million, "The Heroes of Nanking" not only is the most expensive mainland production ever, it also has baked-in cross-cultural appeal: It stars Oscar-winning actor Christian Bale, and 40% of its dialogue is in English.
"I really wish this film can be popular and welcomed in the international market," Zhang said in an interview on the Nanjing movie set. "I personally advocate movies have to be fun to watch, which means ordinary audiences will be able to understand and accept it.... Such international a theme, story and structure will be very fresh."
The stakes are high for China as it seeks to penetrate the global film market. The government and private companies are pouring significant resources into the film industry; officials are eager to boost their country's cultural exports in a way that matches the already booming business in factory goods.
Yet Chinese movies have remained a largely local affair, experts say, for reasons that include a lack of international stars and differing storytelling styles. Moreover, China's censorship rules discourage racy scenes and push screenwriters toward politically safer period pieces (which Western audiences may find difficult to follow) and romantic comedies. Instead of a global-cinema powerhouse, some worry China is at risk of turning into another Bollywood: healthy on its home continent but limp abroad.
"We often hear that the Chinese market will quickly approach the U.S. market," Zhang said. "But it will still take a long time for a Chinese film to create international influence." (In 2010, U.S. box office receipts totaled $10.6 billion, almost all for American films, while receipts in China were $1.5 billion, with 44% of that going to American films.)
American parochialism is certainly an obstacle — foreign-language titles, after all, rarely find more than a niche audience in the U.S. But cinema experts say the problems speak as much to China's filmmaking conventions as they do to Western resistance.
"Hollywood often doesn't make American movies, it makes globally appealing movies," said David U. Lee, a Chinese movie expert who heads a co-production company and once ran an Asian film fund for Harvey Weinstein. "[But] Chinese filmmakers run on the assumption people already understand the story. It's laziness, and it makes it difficult to tell a story to a global audience."
Many of the current Chinese hits use historical reference points that elude Western audiences. "Let the Bullets Fly" is rife with allegorical meaning about standing up to corrupt leaders, while "Red Cliff" assumes a knowledge of Han dynasty politics.
"It does present a little bit of a problem when a 3rd century potentate is presented casually in the way an American filmmaker would present George Washington," Magnolia Pictures President Eamonn Bowles said.
Mainland Chinese cinema landed on the global stage in the 1980s and early 1990s as the country began to open up to the West. The movies of the so-called Fifth Generation sought to tell filmmaker-driven stories that were unimaginable during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Several of those pictures, such as Zhang's "Ju Dou" and Chen Kaige's "Farewell My Concubine," found a Western audience but were mainly restricted to the art house.
The early 2000s brought the Western box-office success of so-called wuxia martial-arts films such as "Hero" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." (Hong Kong and Taiwanese cinema have followed separate arcs, thanks to the different political histories of those territories.)
But now the stakes and expectations have risen considerably. Production on the mainland has grown to more than 500 films per year, according to some estimates. The country is moving into 3-D films and budgets are swelling; with the lavish price tag on "Heroes of Nanking," the movie almost certainly needs to make a splash overseas to turn a profit.
Zhang's drama, which does not yet have U.S. distribution, recently finished an epic 164-day shoot. It is expected to premiere in China in mid-December. The movie tells of the rescue of courtesans by an American priest (Bale) as the Japanese army is invading the city in the 1930s. Although it assumes knowledge of a historical period, its themes are universal, said Zhang Weiping, the film's producer and financier. "It's a story about heroism, and everybody can relate to that," he said.
The producers are candid about their commercial ambitions. "We would like to take the chance to make it the most influential and top-grossing Chinese film in the world," Zhang Weiping said. The production may also benefit from the involvement of power players who know a little something about Western releases, including former Universal co-chairman David Linde and "Crouching Tiger" executive producer Bill Kong.
Still, some caution that the issues plaguing the country's movie industry are too complex to address by simply adding a Western notion or name.
Hollywood producer Janet Yang ("Disney High School Musical: China," "The Joy Luck Club"), who is planning several China-U.S. co-productions, says that the issues go to fundamental differences in narrative. "In China, you have lots of long rambling stories in oral tradition. There is not a classic three-arc structure like the Greeks," she said. "Look at 'Let the Bullets Fly.' The actors look hot. There's lots of energy. But can someone tell me what the story was about?"
And even when Chinese filmmakers go out of their way to tell a Western story, they need to be mindful not to tilt too far away from the conventions of their own country.
"A successful co-production needs to be the right mix of attractiveness to both sides to actually get financed," said Christopher Chen, vice president of business development at Hollywood producer Endgame Entertainment, which has embarked on several such efforts, including the upcoming Joseph Gordon-Levitt thriller "Looper" and a dramatization of the life of Marco Polo.
For all the strategizing, though, "Nanking" director Zhang Yimou says that his country's cinema scene is facing a simple but bedeviling issue.
"The most important thing is there are not many good films … good stories that people all over the world can understand and be touched by," he said. "Our new film is trying to achieve this with our team, international cooperation and structure.... [But] people won't like the film if the story isn't told in a way to move people, no matter how big the investment and structure."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun