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Opinion

China's filmmakers will never please Beijing enough

Studios face irreconcilable demands for patriotism and international success

China now leads the world in total movie screen count. The country's biggest-ever science fiction blockbuster, "The Wandering Earth," has grossed more at the box office so far this year than any movie on the planet save "Captain Marvel." And though it looks like it will take a bit longer than expected, China still looks likely to surpass the U.S. soon as the largest national market by annual movie ticket sales.

Against this buoyant background, Wang Xiaohui, who is both the director of the National Film Bureau and a top Communist Party propaganda official, declared recently that China would seek to become a "strong film power" by 2035.

His vision of what this would mean however involves a number of conflicting aims. One is a target of domestically producing at least 100 movies a year that each earn more than 100 million yuan ($14.84 million) at the box office.

Chinese films are also supposed to "go global" to increase the nation's cultural soft power and influence abroad. At the same time, they are to feature patriotic plots and celebrate "the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," according to reports from the industry symposium held in Beijing in March that Wang addressed.

The challenge for China's film industry will be in finding a workable balance between these mandates.

Beijing's desire to use film to promote national soft power dates back many years. The concept of being a "strong film power" itself goes back at least to 2013.

Following China's accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, its film sector benefited from working with foreign partners via coproductions and studio collaborations. Partnerships with high tech Hollywood players like DreamWorks Animation and STX Entertainment helped the Chinese industry to build capacity.

Many of these collaborations have fallen away as China's film industry has become more self-sustaining. Indeed, Wang's comments imply a vision of China becoming a strong film power without the need for external support and investment.

As the technical skills of domestic studios have improved, the authorities have stepped up pressure for them to produce films aligned with national interests. The push for economic liberalization in the late 1990s and early 2000s has evolved into a movement toward greater political consolidation, culminating in Beijing's decision last year to elevate oversight of the film industry to the level of the State Council, the country's cabinet.

After long efforts, the studios finally managed in the last few years to start churning out major features that have been pleasing both to audiences and to officials in China. These blockbusters draw on the zeitgeist of China's outward expansion: economically, militarily and even cosmically.

"Lost in Thailand," a 2012 film celebrating the innovative spirit of Chinese scientists traveling in the Southeast Asian nation, took in $208 million at the box office. "Wolf Warrior 2," in which the commanding presence of the Chinese navy saved the day in a fictional Africa state, took in over $800 million domestically after its 2017 release.

"The Wandering Earth," which looked like it might beat that mark, took in almost $700 million at the box office before it completed its theatrical run earlier this month. Its release built on the patriotic fervor that surrounded a Chinese probe making the first-ever landing on the dark side of the moon in January.

Yet in terms of Wang's 2035 vision for the Chinese film industry, it is notable that the recent patriotic Chinese blockbusters have really seen only domestic success. None of the three films took in more than $2 million in theatrical distribution outside of mainland China, with even Hong Kong audiences showing little interest.

Nationalistic treatments may appeal to Chinese audiences, but can be alienating for international moviegoers, especially amid growing anxiety about the country's increasingly assertive foreign policy. The ambivalence is also understandable given the model of Chinese leadership that the films portray.

In "Lost in Thailand," Southeast Asians were either rubes or sex workers. In "Wolf Warrior 2," Caucasians were terrorists and Africans were laborers unable to take care of themselves. "The Wandering Earth" held up China as a global leader.

International indifference to Chinese blockbusters looks unlikely to change as long as domestic studios are required to promote nationalistic themes. Yet these movies are now embraced so strongly by local audiences that Wang's box office goal might be realized just from domestic receipts, particularly if the authorities tighten the controls that restrict how many Hollywood movies get a domestic showing, how widely and when.

But this does not seem to be what the leadership has in mind. It is clear that in aiming for "strong film power" status, the authorities want to generate global interest in Chinese patriotic films.

This seems too much to ask of Chinese studios, already struggling with the impact of the authorities' recent crackdown on tax avoidance in the industry and a continuing string of censorship edicts. Pity the Chinese filmmaker faced with reconciling Beijing's simultaneous demands for patriotism, international appeal and box office success.

Aynne Kokas is the author of "Hollywood Made in China" and an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia.

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