22 Aug SHANGHAI CALLING Q&A WITH PROFESSOR AYNNE KOKAS
Our July 30 Spotlight Screening of SHANGHAI CALLING at The Lot La Jolla featured a post-film discussion with special guest, professor and author of Hollywood Made in China, Aynne Kokas was made possible by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations Public Intellectuals Program which is funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Dr. Anne Kokas is a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and an expert on U.S.-Chinese film, co-productions and policy.
Below is a transcript of her Q&A, moderated by Pacific Arts Movement’s Artistic Director, Brian Hu. Some of the questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
BRIAN HU: So you’re a public intellectual now. What’s that like?
AYNNE KOKAS: Next month, I will be taking a group of congressional staffers to China to learn about the Chinese media and technology industries. We’ll be going to the new Oriental Movie Metropolis, founded by Dalian Wanda’s head Wang Jianlin, who also also owns the AMC theater chain in the U.S. Dalian Wanda has opened up a big new studio in China, so it should be interesting. Hopefully, we’ll be able to cool down the trade tensions with these congressional staffers.
HU: I feel like when we first met and we first started talking about Chinese cinema almost 15 years ago, a film like SHANGHAI CALLING was inconceivable. Whenever one thought of a Hollywood films working in China they seemed rare or risky. What was it like for Hollywood to make a film in China before 2000?
KOKAS: When I wanted to do Hollywood-China relations as my dissertation project in 2007, my committee told me that it was impossible because no such thing existed. Basically the Hollywood-China relationship was going nowhere, there would be nothing to write about and that I shouldn’t even think about these things—and now, China has one of the fastest growing markets. And now, as we talk about Chinese trade tensions, the number of foreign films entering the Chinese market is part of that trade negotiation. So, a film like SHANGHAI CALLING, I think, is really wonderful in the sense that it is not only an independent film that draws on a young Asian American director and Asian American producer but it is also funded by and distributed in both China and the U.S. I think this kind of cross-cultural dynamic is wonderful. A lot of the tension we are seeing right now in the U.S.-China relationship may make these types of collaborations more difficult, but in 2000s, there wasn’t a market at all for such things.
HU: Let’s talk about co-productions. For those who may not know what a co-productions are, can you describe what they are and what kinds of co-productions one might find?
KOKAS: Yeah, absolutely. In China there are local films that are primarily funded by Chinese filmmakers because China has a film import quota—a certain number of films that can enter the Chinese market—which means is that filmmakers are always trying to find ways to circumvent that quota. This is to get more films into the Chinese market because it is one of the fastest growing markets in the world and in certain months of the year it is the largest market in the world. Co-productions, specifically collaborative productions between the US and China. are a way to circumvent that film import quota as they are treated as local films in the Chinese market. So when SHANGHAI CALLING was distributed in China, it was considered to be a local film.
HU: Could you give some examples of Hollywood co-productions that are more high profile ones that are attempting to be local films in China?
KOKAS: Yeah, so I think one of the things that is really interesting is that there were earlier instances of co-productions like the “Mummy 3” and the “Forbidden Kingdom” around 2008. But as the Chinese market gotten more developed, it’s been more difficult to execute a co-production as Chinese filmmakers and regulators have more power. For example, films like “Transformers 4” and “Iron Man 3” started off as co-productions, so they were initially going to be distributed in China as local productions but then as a result of not being able to meet the needs and demands of Chinese regulators, they actually moved away from being co-productions and became films that were just entering in the import quota. So that kind of points to the trade tensions as well.
HU: What do you mean by the regulations they have to abide by?
KOKAS: There are a couple of different regulations, the biggest one—and the one that was the biggest challenge—for “Iron Man 3” and “Transformers 4,” was the amount of funding. In order to receive a specific amount of Chinese funding, there also needs to be a specific amount of Chinese characters, not the written characters but the Chinese actors that are cast. Then there are content regulations. We often hear about censorship within China, and so with co-productions there is oversight, even in the pre-production process. Filmmakers like Michael Bay in “Transformers 4” had to go and speak with the film regulators and say, “hey this is what we are thinking of doing, what to do you think?” And then they would get feedback at each stage. At a certain point in the production process of “Transformers 4” and “Iron Man 3,” the film regulators were like, “we are actually not going to move forward with this,” and the films were just imported in the import quota process. But what is really interesting here is—in March, Chinese President Xi Jinping was elevated to potential lifetime leadership and during that same meeting, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), which is the film regulator that regulates co-productions, was also elevated to ministerial level oversight. So, basically, film regulation has become an increasingly important, requiring national regulation, thus it may actually be even more tough to make films in the future.
HU: Given that difficulty, for an independent film like this—produced by Janet Yang who helped produce “The Joy Luck Club”—and Daniel Hsia—this being his first feature film—what kind of challenges do you think they had to go through that might be different than what a Hollywood studio would have to go through?
KOKAS: There were challenges that they faced when making this movie in 2010 and 2011 Not just the logistical challenges of making films in China, such as finding staff and crew, but also getting money in and out of China. Additionally, getting things permitted and being able to find places to house all those staff to finding bilingual actors. I mean, in the film there is a child actress who is blonde and spoke Mandarin—that casting question is not easy. So, these challenges still exist to this day, but I think the financial questions of getting money into and out of China are things that both independent filmmakers and studios are facing alike.
HU: What do you mean by getting money out of China?
KOKAS: Well increasing especially starting 2013, there were capital controls on the amount of currency that could be taken out of China in order to support the growth of the Chinese domestic economy. So this affects things not just the film industry but for example Chinese citizens who wanted to purchase real estate outside of China also have encountered increasing difficulties.
HU: A lot of this is discussed in some playful ways in SHANGHAI CALLING. The film is full of people who are in-between, like people who are mediators between China and the U.S.—you have a Chinese American, who is a bad mediator; a relocation specialist who is the perfect translator; and an American talent that works as sort of a non-official kind of way of helping out the people. What kind of mediators are there in the film production process?
KOKAS: Within the film production process, there are some people who play key roles. Frequently with films that are made in China or Chinese films that are being distributed within the U.S., there are U.S. or foreign editors, who works with the pacing of the films. Sometimes when people watch Chinese films, sometimes they think it feels very slow and a lot of that has to do with different choices in editing. When I was working with the Huayi Brothers, a big Chinese production company, a lot of time when they were making Chinese films, they would hire out the editing work to a studio in L.A. There are also a lot of Chinese workers who do things like arranging logistics, building sets, and one thing that’s interesting is locations management. So there is a location manager, who I interviewed a for my book, Hollywood Made in China—a really interesting guy—who would go around Shanghai and Beijing to find locations that “looked like China” for foreign companies. So weren’t necessary the most Chinese places, but rather, what the foreign companies that hired him thought looked most like China.
You can see how there are multiple layers of representation a lot of the things we saw in this film, SHANGHAI CALLING, were more foreigner-friendly, foreigner-heavy places of Shanghai. Which did see that moment where we see Fang Fang’s house, but a lot of the film was shot in the Jing’an district, which has a lot of foreigners. Also, one thing I saw in this film that I hadn’t noticed before was: one of the extras in the America Town bar is a guy who actually helped to negotiate the Paris Climate Accord on the U.S. side and as well as the joint statement between President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama on environmental issues, who was working in China at that time. I didn’t catch his name in the credits, but I just had a meeting with him in San Francisco two days ago and saw him up on the screen. So there are many different layers of mediatiaters happening, not just within the cast and crew, but also in terms of the people who are participating in the filmmaking process.
HU: In these kind of co-production you often catering to the western gaze, but is there also a sense there making it seperate for Chinese audience. Do you have any examples of that?
KOKAS: In this case, I believe this film was the same film for both audiences and that is a huge accomplishment to do that. One example, which I loved and think is really interesting is Kung Fu Panda 3, which was co-produced by DreamWorks Animation and Oriental DreamWorks, in that film the screenwriters actually work together to make an English screenplay and Chinese screenplay that were funny in both languages. The the top layer of animation was different in the Chinese language version and the English language version. The Chinese language version animation looks like the Panda were speaking in Chinese, you can only do that in certain modes of entertainment. Animation is particularly good for that, but that also requires a really big investment.
HU: I talked a lot about Daniel Henney before—what do you think of his casting?
KOKAS: I think the career of Daniel Henney is really interesting when we’re looking at it as a movement, particularly Asian American talent around the world. So we have film now like “Crazy Rich Asians,” which hopefully is a blockbuster in the box office, but frequently there is an issue of lack of presentation of Asian and Asian American figures in U.S media. Now we’re seeing more Asian characters in blockbuster films that may be distributed into China, but with people like Daniel Henney and John Cho, a lot of times, their first opportunity in feature films are in Asia. This is particularly true for Asian American male actors, who have very difficult time being cast in Hollywood. It’s a huge challenge to build a career within Hollywood, so a lot of Asian American actors goes to Asia first in order to build their career and then start to make a transition back. So this was an interesting opportunity for Daniel Henney, who isn’t Chinese American but who is Korean American.
Audience (AD): Wouldn’t the regulations on co-productions put pressure on U.S. companies to cast more Chinese and Asian American actors?
KOKAS: When I working on my dissertation, which eventually became [Hollywood Made in China], the end chapter was this conclusion about there would be this renaissance of cultural intersection, where we would learn original narratives from each side. What we learned now is essentially what’s being produced are now big budget blockbuster comic book movies occasionally with Chinese stars. Frequently rather than casting Asian American actors, in a lot of these films, especially the big films, studio cast Chinese actors—who are already famous in China and sometimes famous throughout Asia. It’s very unfortunate in a sense that it doesn’t allow much space for Asian American actors. That’s why “Crazy Rich Asians” is so promising, because it does creates a space for Asian American actors and hopefully would be something like “Black Panter” and the sequels will be made and pave the way for other films.
HU: An example of that would be the “Green Hornet,” where everyone knew they were going to cast Bruce Lee originally and every Asian American male was like, “this is my opportunity,” but then they ended up casting Jay Chou from Taiwan.
AD: So everything is about money. Hollywood is saying, “because China is so huge, we’re going to make a Hollywood movie with a little bit of Chinese flare,” which ends up with a Chinese actor or some Chinese content, so Chinese audiences will like it more. So are moviegoers like me are going to start noticing these changes in lots of Hollywood movies? Is that what you’re saying?
KOKAS: Yes, absolutely. So moviegoers like you may start noticing more Chinese actors or elements or something may randomly shot partly in Beijing or Shanghai. And you can even see that with some of the “Transformers” films. But the part that’s really interesting is that this also means is that Hollywood in many ways indebted to China and the Chinese government and sometimes take steps to change their content or not make certain stories in order to make sure the film can enter to China. The other interesting part is that we see that Chinese audiences aren’t always impressed by this. Chinese audiences are becoming much more sophisticated. For example, the case of “Iron Man 3,” there was a Chinese doctor who did some surgery and acupuncture, they have some special scenes that were specially for Chinese audiences and they were not impressed. If anything it generated worse publicity for the film, because it was just kind of added on. So imagine watching an American film with just one or two characters talking about how much they like hamburgers, it doesn’t necessary get you excited about watching the movie. There’s a lot of work that Hollywood has to do to successfully integrate these narratives.
HU: So what we’re getting at is not just about the numbers of roles for Chinese audiences, but it’s increasingly about representation in the way Asian Americans have been talking about for generations, which is, “don’t just put me on screen—make sure it’s represented properly.” So is concept now clear to Chinese audiences?
KOKAS: I think the heart of that concept is definitely clear. But I don’t know the hard work that Asian American cultural theorists have done, has directly translated into Chinese audiences. A lot of the hard work that activists, and academics have done to frame these [issues of representation], would probably benefit collaboration.
AD: Because of the recent regulations, do you think that in the future, China will prefer Chinese production companies over Hollywood? Or will the Chinese audiences continue to want American-made movies?
KOKAS: Chinese filmmakers are becoming more successful in making films for the Chinese domestic audience. In the past few years, there have been one or two really big blockbuster films. So for example, there was one film that did over $100 million dollars in the Chinese market alone. So at that point, you don’t need to be successful internationally. But China has a new initiative called the “Belt and Road Initiative,” which is a strategy to enhance China global profile and increase investments around the world. And going back to an earlier point, part of the reason for the elevation of the State of Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) is because China wants to make films that people in other country want to watch. So far Hollywood studios had been the most successful at that. So I think as long as, Chinese studios aren’t yet making films that are global successes, there is still space for collaboration. However, once Chinese films start making huge in inroads into global box offices there will be a much more pulling back. Even so as the Chinese domestic market becoming more reliable there will be less of a need to collaborate.
HU: She made a good point. We started this conversation by saying Hollywood is is initiating this conversation by co-production, because they’re trying to get into this market. Now it seems like the Chinese side can also tells Hollywood, hey I wanna get in this business, and in fact make co-production that doesn’t have Chinese characters in them. Are there any examples of that?
KOKAS: There are several Chinese studios investing in Hollywood films. This follows a very well traveled model that we saw with Japanese studios like Sony, German Film Fund, French Film Fund and British Film Fund becoming involved in this. There was several film, one that I’m thinking of right now is the film, “The Space Between Us,” it was a romcom/space movie about a kid that was raised in Mars, I think. There was nothing Chinese about it. There are definitely examples—and this wasn’t a critically successful film either. There are film slate deals. We also see things like Wanda Productions purchasing Legendary Pictures, previously a Hollywood studio, which is now making films owned by a Chinese firm.
AD: What’s the sentiment on piracy in the Chinese film industry?
KOKAS: A lot of time, when people think of the Chinese film industry, people just think about piracy. But as the Chinese film has grown. But protection of films had dramatically improved. A year ago a new film promotion law was introduced, which has quite stiff penalties for filming or pirating films that are distributed in theaters. Interestingly, this occurred in parallel to the growth of Chinese domestic film industry. So it’s really moreso of a domestic protection strategy rather than international protection strategy. But it does have the effect of helping out a foreign film being distributed in China and the same with online distribution. So now that there are more legal mechanisms for online distribution of films in China, it’s more difficult—not possible—to get pirated films online.
HU: Given everything we’ve been hearing in the news about trade wars with China, how does that effect co-productions on the film side?
KOKAS: Not good for co-productions. In 2012, when this film came out, there was kind of this pro-trade ethic—that stated very clearly in this movie—discussing the importance trade back and forth. And one of the challenges that the trade negotiators involved in a lot in the trade agreements they’re referring to in the film have referred to is that the trade agreements with China are not clear. That they are not laid out in a more detailed process and that we’re having these very rapid decisions that are not necessarily going through a full government process. That’s creating huge problem for companies in film industry as well as wide variety of other industries.
Brian Hu is a film critic, teacher, and scholar. He serves as the Artistic Director of Pacific Arts Movement and the San Diego Asian Film Festival and is also Assistant Professor of Television, Film and New Media at San Diego State University.