As last week’s UCFTI Conference guest panelists attested to, US and China have been having a difficult time finding stories that would resonate with both American and Chinese audiences. Many differences beyond cultural factor into the reasons why this is so, and so far the one common ground between the two nations has been in the realm of martial arts.
Ever since Bruce Lee graced the silver screen back in the 1960’s with his incredible kung fu prowess, Americans have been fascinated with the martial arts of the East, be it kung fu, karate, tae kwon do or permutations thereof. Unsurprisingly, the one US-China collaborative success was the 2008 film The Forbidden Kingdom that starred both Jackie Chan and Jet Li together in a film for the first time. And though Chinese and Hong Kong auteurs such as Zhang Yi Mou and Wong Kar-Wai have made their share of artistic dramas, it is their kung fu action films that are most well-received in the US; even 2-time Oscar winning director Ang Lee could not escape the genre with his well-known Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a film that arguably made Hollywood take notice of him as a director. Kung fu has even diffused into animation, with the success of the Avatar: The Last Airbender TV series and Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda franchise a testament to the American fascination with the martial arts.
However, to truly understand a culture, one must understand its stories, its myths, and China has plenty of those. Like the Greek myths, the stories of China are timeless in their themes and could likewise become a rich resource for content. As China is an ancient land with much to tell, the U.S. is a new nation who can help her do just that through the art of cinema. Perhaps a new idiom needs to first be established before such a collaboration could truly succeed, a nexus where East and West may meet with trust and openness, but both sides would gain immeasurably with such a partnership, both materially as well as culturally. As China is not just all Bruce Lee and Kung Fu Panda, the U.S. is not just what the current Chinese government allows its people to see through its censored media either.
But while American culture has been widely disseminated through TV and film since Hollywood’s beginning, China is relatively new to the global industry, so the hope from collaborating with the U.S. would be to allow it to disseminate its rich culture just as globally. Whether or not its government is ready, the Chinese are certainly ready for the world to see them beyond the political and economic policies they are ruled by.
And why film? Beyond its potential for high profitability, film is a uniquely immersive experience into another culture that can positively affect changes in audience perception. Hollywood movies tend to lean towards stereotype when it comes to foreign cultures; through collaborative efforts in filmmaking, these stereotypes will necessarily give way to richer 3-dimensional characters of all ethnicities. And given the global interest in cinema, the industry could actually be an instrument for the greater good by bridging the cultural gap between countries through mutual understanding. However, before any of this can be achieved, the collaborators must first let go of their own prejudices and conceits and find a way to work in harmony together, which would be a feat unto itself.