Looper and the Chinesification of Film Co-productions

October 9, 2012

I’ve been writing about Sino-foreign film co-productions a bit recently, and with the release of Looper and the pending drama over Iron Man 3, there is a lot to talk about. Over the holiday, I read a fun Looper post over at Tea Leaf Nation that deserved some additional context. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but as I’m a sucker for time travel stories, it’ll happen eventually.

In the post, Rachel was looking at what the film’s creative team had changed to make it more appealing to Chinese viewers. In light of a number of disgruntled folks online who complained about the film, she saw it as a failed attempt at pandering to the local audience.

According to the L.A. Times, certain scenes set in Shanghai were put into the “Sino-centric” version released in China. The article quoted a producer who said, ”The Chinese didn’t care about pacing, and they wanted the [China-set] scenes in, so we said OK.” On this point, the studio seems to have gotten it dead wrong. One of the top complaints on Douban and Sina Weibo was about the pacing of the movie. Netizens did not want to see more China-set scenes, they wanted to see the eight minutes of the movie that were cut from the version released in China, reportedly including scenes of drug use and nudity, that helped to develop the characters.

What’s the lesson for Hollywood producers trying to conquer the Chinese market? Focus on making a good movie, and don’t worry yourself about sprinkling in those “Chinese elements.”

While it certainly seems as though some fans were not so excited about how the film ended up, I think it’s too easy to simply say to the producers “Don’t do that” with respect to “Chinese elements.”

Why? Well, first, consider that LA Times quote, which talks about “the Chinese” wanting certain things put/kept in the movie. Was this a focus group? Or perhaps folks in charge of co-production (i.e., localization) elements? Big difference.

As to those eight minutes that were taken out that involved drug use and nudity. Of course folks here wanted to see that footage. But it wasn’t taken out because of a creative decision; at some point, someone pointed out that those scenes wouldn’t pass censorship review.

My point here is that the decisions that go into co-productions are complex. It’s not simply a matter of what the audience wants most, but a much more complicated calculation that involves the audience, the censors, and the partners. For co-productions, those “Chinese elements” are actually mandated by law and have to be there, or the film risks not getting a domestic approval.

Were the changes to Looper a form of pandering? Sure, in a way, although I’d prefer to call it localization. However, it wasn’t merely an attempt to cozy up to Chinese film goers, but a careful process whose main goal was to ensure the film was approved by the PRC government.