by Patrick Lozada
After low-budget film ‘Lost in Thailand‘ surprised everyone by grossing 1.26 billion yuan and becoming the highest earning film in China ever, it surprised everyone again by failing everywhere else. In the US, the film was a total flop, earning only $57,000 during its theatrical release.
In many ways, the film’s failure isn’t that surprising. Humor is tough to export. The LA Times’ Mark Olsen was spot on in his review:
“You can sense that someone somewhere might find it funny, and it’s not that anything is lost in translation, particularly. It’s just that by our quote-unquote standards of contemporary comedy, it plays as uneven at best and often just flattens out for long jokeless stretches.”
What’s more interesting is how badly China wants to export it. China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television has been pushing hard to make Chinese films “better express Chinese images and stories in line with the international film mainstream.”
Bureaucrats in Beijing have increasingly begun to see the silver screen as a cultural battlefield, appropriating Joseph Nye’s term ‘soft power’ (软权力) and using it to justify an increased government focus on managing the arts in the interests of promoting national power.
Which is stupid.
Just having a State Administration of Radio, Film and Television looking over the film industry’s shoulder stifles creativity and generates spectacular failures like the recent Lei Feng movie literally nobody watched or waves of ridiculous anti-Japanese TV dramas. Even the administration’s signature accomplishment of enticing films to shoot in China just results in movies like Skyfall where Shanghai and Macau show up briefly as a place where 007 finds a woman to shag, or Iron Man 3 where you get… well everything you would expect with a villain named the Mandarin.
To make matters worst, those Chinese directors who are producing interesting or ground breaking films are shunned by the authorities. ‘City of Life and Death‘ (南京！南京！), Lu Chuan‘s masterful portrayal of the rape of Nanjing, which swept the boards at various Asian film awards shows, was criticised by officials for its ‘favourable’ portrayal of Japanese characters (eg they weren’t embarrassing caricatures) and cruelly ignored as China’s official entry to the 82nd Academy Awards in favour of the less controversial (and far more ordinary) ‘Forever Enthralled’. Despite all the CPC’s talk of ‘One China’, Taiwan’s most successful director, Ang Lee, frequently has his films censored or banned outright on the Chinese mainland.