From Hollywood to Chollywood
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - In the next five to 10 years, the Chinese film market could well become the largest in the world.
The calculations are simple: the market grew by almost 44% last year, and about 30% in 2008. Last year, it was worth US$908 million - about a tenth of the $9.79 billion of US revenues in the previous year. At the current rate, the Chinese film market will outgrow the American market in five to 10 years.
Yet the story is not simply one of economics; above all, it's about culture. Our cultural parameters and imagery will be radically altered by this market growth. This is not a bad thing - indeed, it will be negative only if it occurs without a clear conscience or critical mind.
But let's take things one step at a time.
Cinema, despite its decline because of competition from television, the Internet and video games, shapes and inspires the other three media forms. It is somehow the building block of the collective mind. In the last century, Hollywood was a huge penetrating force, making us all in a sense Americans. The blue jeans, the Camel cigarettes, watching the world through the windshield of a car, the music, the conflicts seen as the perpetual battle between cowboys and Indians, and so on - people around world have seen their own passions projected through the lens of Hollywood.
Tomorrow, the same thing could happen with Chinese cinema.
There is actually a double convergence. On one hand, growing domestic Chinese production is destined to make inroads in the world. On the other, more Hollywood productions consider the Chinese market. Two recent films are important: the animated cartoon Kung Fu Panda captured the spirit of Chinese martial arts better than any Chinese production, and the apocalyptic 2012 represented Tibet and Chinese soldiers in a positive light for once. Hollywood is thinking of the Chinese market, and also knows that China's content sells - and will sell even better in the near future in America and around the world.
Furthermore, there's the issue of permeability. Even without the economic power of China behind it, Chinese cinema has already breached our hearts. In the 1970s, Bruce Lee and kung fu movies changed the way we present fighting (often the visual climax of a movie) in any motion visual art. Before Lee, fights were disorderly fisticuffs: chairs broken on the head in a saloon or pistols fired from the belt. After Lee, all films have learned kung fu movements - fights have become dances with acrobatic jumps and circus tricks.
Indian cinema, with all its Bollywood films, did not make the same inroads in the Western imagination. Its dances and songs, the backbone of its stories, have remained mostly confined to India.
Therefore, we have two elements: an increase in the importance of the Chinese domestic film market and a global appeal of certain "China issues". These two things will increase the impact of Chinese culture in our homes. We could then become culturally more Chinese long before China becomes a first-world economy, which could happen in 20 to 30 years. The cultural change could occur with or without critical sense, and possibly only through the almost subliminal impact of future blockbusters made in China or for the Chinese market. Times are tight for acquiring the necessary cultural tools to gain a critical sense of China's complicated culture, past and present.
While we have been waiting for years for the economic overtaking, which will still take a generation to come, the transformation of Hollywood into Chollywood could take only five years. It is the blink of an eye, something objectively insufficient to build a mass critical awareness of Chinese culture. Without this awareness, however, we might have a phenomenon of cultural estrangement, similar to what the Chinese experienced in the late 19th and 20th centuries when Western culture fell on them like a stone destroying all past concepts and thus causing enormous confusion.
In more than one way, the success of communism in China also derived from the uncritical arrival of Western culture. Many Chinese intellectuals saw communism as the most advanced form of Westernization, and thus China, wishing to catch up with the West, took on the most advanced stage of the culture, skipping other "lesser systems". It is clear now, after decades of contact with Western culture, that this perception was faulty, and it has caused huge trouble in China.
So in pursuit of "Western cultural models", China ran like a bulldozer over its culture and its tradition. However, traditions, part of a child's upbringing, are hard to suppress and eliminate. When officially quashed in one area, they reappear elsewhere, possibly in the most backward and conservative form.
During the 1960s and the Cultural Revolution, inspired by foreign thinkers like Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong's Red Guards took revenge on anything foreign: Western music, Western paintings and contacts with "foreign spies" along with destroying "relics" of China's past. The two went hand-in-hand.
On film and in the real world, there is much superficiality and carelessness in dealing with China and in China's dealing with the Western world. This tomorrow could spin into hostility or servile attitudes, which could be very dangerous for both China and the West.
(This article is an elaboration of an interview given to the Catholic Italian Daily Il Sussidiario.)
Francesco Sisci is the Asia Editor of La Stampa.
(Copyright 2010 Francesco Sisci.)