When The Last Emperor was released in 1987, it was reckoned to be one of the most ‘cosmopolitan’ movies of the era. Produced by an English studio, the Oscar-winning picture was directed by Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci and filmed almost entirely in China with help from the Chinese government (Beijing opened up the Forbidden City for the first time to a foreign crew).
Three decades on, Chinese co-productions with overseas studios have become much more commonplace.
The reasons are more commercial than artistic. China’s growing box office means getting a film onto Chinese screens has become ever more crucial and Hollywood executives know a film carrying the co-produced designation exempts their studio from China’s import quota on foreign films. It also entitles the international partners to a larger share of the box office revenue (43% versus 25% for foreign imports).
That explains why in 2016 the Chinese regulators approved 71 co-productions, up from 43 in 2014.
Despite the enthusiasm, co-productions have met with varying degrees of success. More often than not, foreign studios have failed to find the delicate balance between Chinese cultural elements and international box office appeal. Even the biggest co-production ever – The Great Wall, which starred Hollywood actor Matt Damon and ran up a hefty production budget of $150 million – was a flop in cinemas at in China and abroad.
“For the last three decades, co-productions between China and other foreign countries have always been in an awkward position: either the Chinese participation is low, or the film quality is not satisfactory,” complains Yiyu Guancha, an entertainment industry blog.
So expectations for Jackie Chan’s new action-drama The Foreigner, which was released during the National Day holiday period at the beginning of October, were reasonably low. The film, a co-production between China and the UK, stars Jackie Chan as a grief-stricken father desperate to avenge his daughter’s death in a terrorist attack. Pierce Brosnan plays the villain and Chinese actress Liu Tao also stars.
The film, which cost just $35 million to make, went on to become a major financial success. In addition to earning Rmb560 million ($90 million) in China, it took $13.1 million over its opening three days in the US and Canada, ranking third behind Happy Death Day and Blade Runner 2049.
It performed considerably better than Wolf Warrior 2, China’s top-grossing film of all time, which made just $2.6 million in the US after a month on the big screen.
“The reason Wolf Warrior 2 was so successful in China is because it touches the audience by fuelling their patriotic sentiment. But that nationalistic spirit is also why the film failed at the box office in foreign markets: American audiences don’t understand the love and pride we have for our country,” one film critic explained.
While ticket sales for The Foreigner aren’t going to break any US records, industry insiders reckon the box office take could reach $30 million by the end of its run, boosting the worldwide total to about $120 million.
Aside from commercial considerations, Chan’s performance has won plaudits. “This is sort of what I expected a latter-year Jackie Chan to become. The fights are still good. He still uses the furniture, only not as a joke. Jackie… cries and glowers to show he can be serious too,” says Variety.
On Douban, China’s favourite film and TV series review site, The Foreigner won a rating of 7.3 stars out of 10, with some reviewers going as far as to say that it is the “best film Jackie Chan has made in the last 10 years”. (High praise, considering how much criticism Chan gets in China; see WiC347.)
Many said this was the first time they’ve seen some real acting from the kung-fu star. “He plays a man who has already witnessed the death of his wife and two daughters. The only thing he wanted was the safety of the only child that is left. But one terrorist attack destroys everything,” one viewer wrote. “His rage, helplessness and desperation are all conveyed on screen.”
“In the past, when you think about Jackie Chan you think about action comedy. But in The Foreigner, he plays an old man who has lost all his loved ones. It is not an easy role to play,” another applauded.
One reason this co-production may have worked is the clear division of labour between the Chinese and English crews. “The role of each party is very clear. For instance, the foreign producers are responsible for the screenplay and directing the non-action scenes. Chan’s team, meanwhile, is responsible for all the stunts and action sequences. Wanda and other Chinese investors didn’t intervene until the very end to take care of distribution. This set of procedures is to maximise the expertise of all the parties that are involved,” says Tan Zuhui, one of the film’s producers.
Being an action thriller – and not a comedy – is another reason The Foreigner may have struck more of a chord with foreign audiences. “There is a huge cultural gap between North American and Chinese viewers so it is simply impossible to satisfy both markets. That’s especially the case with comedies. The sense of humour between the two is just too different,” Gong Chun, an executive from Shanghai-based Croton Media, told Yiyu Guancha.
Forbes magazine noted that the film’s release is timely, picking up on the theme of revenge in a world suffering from a terrorism epidemic. And the magazine’s film critic adds that The Foreigner also has a strong director: Martin Campbell, the Kiwi who directed edgier Bond films like Casino Royale and who also gave Brosnan his 007 debut in GoldenEye.
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