Zhang’s evocative films center on vast landscapes, lush colors, and sensual stories with little action or dialogue. Swaths of unraveling fabric at a dye-maker’s studio provide a sensual backdrop to the doomed love story in Ju Dou, while the frosty, blustery northern Chinese winter adds to a concubine’s loneliness in Raise the Red Lantern.
Ju Dou became the first film from the PRC to be nominated for an Academy Award. It didn’t win Best Foreign Language Film, but earned other awards at Cannes, the Chicago International Film Festival, and the Norwegian International Film Festival. This positive reaction — and that of Red Sorghum — was so new that the Chinese government grew skeptical of Ju Dou’s positive reception and feared the country was being poorly represented. Ju Dou’s domestic release date was delayed, but its international acclaim led the government to lift the ban and release it a year later.
At the same time, Chinese-language films from outside the mainland were growing in popularity. In Taiwan, director Hou Hsiao-hsien was already an established name, and in Hong Kong, directors like John Woo and Wong Kar-wai were bringing Cantonese action films to unprecedented levels of global fandom. Still, China was different because, unlike Taiwan and Hong Kong, it had been closed off for decades, its film industry redirected toward education and propaganda.
Just as the Fifth Generation filmmakers were firmly planting their feet in the international film scene, in 1994 the Chinese government started to allow 10 Hollywood movies to play in Chinese cinemas each year, the first time any American film could be screened there since 1949. After the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, Chairman Deng Xiaoping was determined to change China’s image and its economy with his “reform and opening-up” policies of “capitalism with Chinese characteristics.” This may have been good news for Hollywood, but the Chinese government continued to impose strict regulations on the Fifth Generation filmmakers, and although they achieved success overseas, their movies were often banned at home.
In his new book, Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy (Penguin Press, 2022), Erich Schwartzel shows how the Chinese government and Hollywood developed a relationship so intertwined that it would change the industries in both countries forever. In 2013, Schwartzel started writing about the film industry for The Wall Street Journal and soon began noticing changes in Hollywood movies designed to appease the Chinese government. Red Carpet is a balanced account that illustrates how capitalism — in both the US and China — has transformed not just industry protocol but the very the art of filmmaking.
According to Schwartzel, Hollywood has been making and exporting movies portraying the United States as virtuous — and strong — from the beginnings of cinema. And in the studio era, wholesome actors and cowboy types like Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne only doubled down on this vision of the United States as righteous and powerful, no matter the struggles at home for civil rights. By 2008, just after China made its “world debut” at the Beijing Olympics, a group of Chinese officials traveled to Hollywood to learn this recipe of patriotic persuasion through film.
As China’s international spending power and Hollywood’s desire to tap into the billion-dollar Chinese market have both grown exponentially over the last two decades, it’s important to remember, Schwartzel notes, that an arrangement like this was not exactly novel. Back in the early 1920s, Mexico banned Hollywood movies because they unfairly portrayed Mexicans. The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) took note and sent a message around Hollywood to stop this derogatory portrayal. Soon enough, Hollywood films were back in Mexico. As Schwartzel writes in his book, “Positive portrayals in exchange for market access: it was a trade-off Hollywood would come to know well.”
After Hollywood was allowed to screen 10 films a year in China in 1994, studios caught on to the idea of making money in China and hoped to be able to screen more and more films there each year. Yet there were rules to follow, and studios proved to be slow students.
In 1996, an executive at Disney received a phone call from the Chinese Embassy about a film Disney had just started shooting in Morocco. The movie was called Kundun, and if it’s unfamiliar, there’s a good reason for that. Kundun tells the story of the 14th Dalai Lama, which touches on one of the three Ts that are taboo for discussion in China: Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen. The first two are nonstarters: Taiwan has its own robust film industry, and while Tiananmen has been the subject of some independent documentaries in the United States, it wouldn’t be a big box office draw to American viewers. Tibet, on the other hand, is all too easily marketed as an exotic Shangri-La with a social justice angle that appeals to many Americans. (Richard Gere has made it his cause célèbre.)
If Disney only produced films, the issue over Kundun would probably not have sent the company into crisis mode. But because movies are just one part of the Disney empire, the implications for China’s dismay over this one film was terrifying. This was before Shanghai Disney Resort was built, not to mention all the products that have since been marketed to hundreds of millions of Chinese children. The risks were too great for Disney; after Kundun underperformed at the box office domestically, it was subsequently swept under the rug.
The following year, an executive at Sony Pictures Entertainment received a phone call, not from the Chinese government, but from Howard Stringer, the British American president of Sony Corporation of America. There was a problem with the Brad Pitt film Seven Years in Tibet. Again, this film was about the Dalai Lama. Sony, like Disney, didn’t just produce movies, but also a huge line of electronic goods; the company could not risk alienating the Chinese government. It’s important to note that Hollywood has had a tradition of making money from orientalism and “yellowface.” Movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and the Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu series were wildly popular — for decades. The Chinese Nationalist government criticized Hollywood in the 1930s for Fu Manchu movies, among others, and their unfair depictions of Chinese people, but there was little incentive for Hollywood to change its ways. That all shifted in the early 2000s, when money was to be made in the Chinese market of a billion people. Hollywood switched gears to capitalize on that.
Schwartzel’s narrative is compelling because he tells of these events with humor, showing the panic and naïveté in Hollywood at that time. When a Sony executive watched an early screening of Seven Years in Tibet before it was released, Schwartzel writes that “it didn’t take a sinologist to see why China was going to be offended”:
China had reason to fear the way the movie presented it. Chinese soldiers mow down statues of Buddha with machine guns, bomb villages, and chase out terrified citizens. The Chinese send officials to reason with the Dalai Lama, offering autonomy and religious freedom if the country accepts China as its political master. The Dalai Lama’s teachings of nonviolence and compassion make the Chinese officials look like boorish fools. […] The movie’s final image: text on the screen reminding the audience of the one million Tibetans dead at the hands of the Chinese occupation.
Sony Entertainment went to great lengths to appease China, including putting in a good word for China to join the World Trade Organization — and asked other Hollywood studios to do the same. Some Hollywood executives took the initiative to learn about modern Chinese history and some even started to study Mandarin. China was happy with these efforts, and while Seven Years in Tibet was released, it was never screened in China. Brad Pitt and the director Jean-Jacques Annaud were banned from China, although those bans were rescinded several years later.
Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun were cautionary tales, and Hollywood executives mainly treaded lightly from then on. When China was voted into the WTO in 2001, Hollywood’s access to the Chinese market doubled to 20 films a year. Hollywood studios were no longer the independent companies of the Golden Age. By the new millennium, most of the large studios had been purchased by corporations like Comcast and Sony. As Schwartzel explains, “Studios that once had to please family owners or independent boards now had to worry about contributing to the stock price of a publicly traded company.”
A decade ago, Hollywood also started to add what they called “Chinese elements” to their films. The James Bond film Skyfall (2012) was partly filmed in Shanghai and features a lush casino scene supposedly set in Macau, the only place in China where gambling is legal. Box office sales reached just over a billion dollars, $59 million of that from China. But nothing could compare to the surprise hit of 2011, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which earned $165 million in Chinese box office sales. Epic action movies had done well in China, including the first two Transformers films, but the third installment of the franchise exceeded all expectations. The reason behind its popularity was simple: Chinese audiences had grown up watching the Japanese cartoon Transformers in the 1980s when few other imported television shows were allowed. The difference between the first and third movies could also be attributed to more Chinese viewers enjoying spendable income. To capitalize on the Chinese market, Michael Bay went on to film part of Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) in China and Hong Kong. He cast Chinese actress Li Bingbing and held its world premiere in Hong Kong. Box office sales in China soared to a whopping $300 million. It became standard practice for Hollywood productions to follow suit, such as casting Chinese actors in big blockbuster movies, including Independence Day: Resurgence and Kong: Skull Island.
The era of the Fifth Generation Chinese filmmakers is long gone. By the early 2010s, films coming out of China were mainly blockbusters. Lost in Thailand (2012), a comedy adventure, would break new records, and the action flick Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) included stunt actors from the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom. It’s not difficult to see that the renaissance of Chinese art cinema was sandwiched between the nationalist propaganda that came before it and the global commercialism that followed. And while Hollywood producers must answer to their corporate boards, and Chinese producers must satisfy their censors, it may seem that the days of artistic films, Hollywood and Chinese alike, are over.
Yet, just as the United States enjoys a very limited indie film scene driven by art over profit, China also has a burgeoning indie film scene. Journalist Karen Ma introduces the latter in her new book, China’s Millennial Digital Generation: Conversations with Balinghou (Post-1980s) Indie Filmmakers (Long River Press, 2022). Ma came to write this book after researching and teaching contemporary Chinese independent cinema at The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies.
This new generation of Chinese filmmakers, born in the 1980s, are called balinghou, which translates in English to “post-eighties.” These directors enjoy wider access to equipment and production tools than their predecessors. They are not beholden to the heavy, cost-prohibitive cameras, equipment, or film stock of previous generations, favoring instead all that the digital has to offer. According to Ma,
The balinghou filmmakers were among the first from their villages to embrace cell phones, the Internet and other modern technology. This enabled them to quietly but deliberately question with thought-provoking art-house narratives the singular, official image of a glorious urban China.
The filmmakers Ma portrays stand in stark contrast to those that work on the state-endorsed blockbusters in Schwartzel’s book. This younger generation attracts audiences in China and elsewhere that are tired of homogeneous franchise fare. And unlike the traditional narrative style Schwartzel uses in his book, Ma features short biographies of seven regional filmmakers: Li Ruijun, Huang Ji, Xin Yukun, Yang Jin, Wang Fei, Hao Jie, and Zhai Yixiang. Each biography is followed by an interview. This format is conversational and engaging, getting to the heart of these filmmakers’ challenges and rewards.
Balinghou filmmakers tell rural stories, but unlike Zhang Yimou and the Fifth Generation, they don’t look at their hometowns from an urban standpoint. Instead, they depict these stories from their own grassroots perspectives. And while the Fifth Generation often told stories from the perspective of wronged women, revolutionary for its time, the balinghou tackle a new batch of social ills, such as the massive gender imbalance that has rendered a whole generation of rural men unable to find women to marry. Balinghou director Hao Jie addresses this masculine plight in his “Hometown Trilogy”: Single Man (2010), The Love Songs of Tiedan (2012), and My Original Dream (2015).
During the height of the Fifth Generation, most people in China earned roughly the same salary, and private industry was just taking off. But in recent decades, with fewer earning opportunities in the villages, parents are leaving their children behind with grandparents so they can work in the cities; some earn sums their parents could only have dreamed of, and the wealth gap widens. Meanwhile, left-behind children are often lonely and out of sync with their grandparent guardians.
In her 2012 debut film, Egg and Stone, director Huang Ji tells the story of a 14-year-old left-behind village girl who is sexually abused by predator relatives. As Ma writes, this film stands out in comparison with most Western films about childhood sexual abuse, as it shows how a teenage girl internally grapples with her trauma:
There are no shouting matches or accusations, no tears or melodrama, just a shy young girl desperately trying to survive her intense anxiety and loneliness during a cold winter. Yet there’s a stark beauty about the film that makes it quietly powerful.
In her second film, The Foolish Bird (2017), Huang tells of an older teenage girl’s longing for love and how a lack of parental guidance exposes her to sexual predation. The Foolish Bird won Special Mention of the Grand Prix of the Generation 14plus International Jury at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival.
Ma explains the lengthy, complicated process these directors undergo to apply for permits, not just to shoot their films but also to release them. Before 2017, they could enter their films in international festivals before they received the final permit, win awards, and then try for domestic distribution afterwards. Now all approvals must be run through the government’s nationwide propaganda department. If indie filmmakers bypass the approval process, they can’t show their films in China. Even private investors and local film fests have grown increasingly wary of this red tape and often insist producers receive full approval first even before they try the international festival route.
This new group of filmmakers is, in this sense, more restricted than Fifth Generation filmmakers working for state-owned studios, who enjoying that brief period of artistic freedom in the opening-up era. It’s hard to tell how much the independent film industry will change after the 2017 law. The pandemic has continued to hurt Chinese independent filmmaking, both domestically and around the world, and Ma wonders if a full recovery could take years.
What is more certain, however, is that while political tensions between the United States and China escalate, their film industries have never been friendlier or more aligned with the same interests. They seem to have found a way to satisfy their overlapping goals of making money and nation-building. Moviegoers in both countries consent to this arrangement, as box office numbers and streaming revenues attest. But thanks to the balinghou generation of Chinese directors, there are still opportunities to enjoy Chinese art films, the likes of which the world fell in love with back during the height of the Fifth Generation.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of a memoir and co-editor of a collection of dark short stories set in Hong Kong. She lives in Chicago and is working on a biography of Bernardine Szold-Fritz.