Looper and the Chinesification of Film Co-productions

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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.

2 responses on “Looper and the Chinesification of Film Co-productions

  1. Kai

    I saw the movie on Sunday even after reading these reports that suggest the China version was somehow pandering to Chinese audiences. Frankly, the scenes in Shanghai/China were really REALLY thin. Most of the movie is set in the United States and all we see of China are some Bund shots with a bunch of futuristic buildings edited in, and Gorden Levitt playing Chinese chess with some random Chinese man on the streets. We also see Bruce Willis cruising around in a supercar in a drive-by spraying bullets with a Mac-10.

    In the more disdainful reports about how China was presented as the future while the US run-down and broke, they mention how Chinese RMB had become the currency of choice. Had I not read that, I would not have noticed the wads of bills being RMB. They’re visible only for a moment and you would never see Mao’s head if you weren’t expecting it. Most of the time we’re looking at silver bars.

    I do wonder if the supposedly 8 minutes of debaucherous scenes removed would’ve helped better establish Gordon Levitt descending into self-destruction before his Chinese wife “saves him” and thus establish why he cares for her so much. But even without it, I thought the movie was actually really entertaining and made easy sense. Even watching the Chinese version, I really didn’t get much of a feeling that China was being flattered at the expense of the United States. Some of the Western reports about this aspect of the movie seem to be a little overwrought and insecure.

  2. Surprise123

    “Some of the Western reports about this aspect of the movie seem to be a little overwrought and insecure.”

    Yes, future America was clearly depicted to be a dystopian hell hole, and China was only alluded to as the future center of world civilization (i.e. Bruce Willis’s character encouraging his younger self, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, to forget learning French, and to focus on Chinese). And, yes, many Americans were portrayed of various characters and sensibilities (venal, materialistic, and independent — the prostitute/showgirl); brutal and looser-like (the legions of looper assasins); and competent and charming (the diner waitress in Kansas City); and, only one Chinese character was portrayed…positively, of course (a loving and devoted Shanghai wife).

    But, you do have to wonder: is this the future of most America’s blockbuster films, all requiring some positive mention of China, and some positive portrayal of the Communist Chinese? And, possibly, ongoing, but unflattering depictions of the United States, and complex (good, bad, indifferent) depictions of Americans? Will we see fewer and fewer blockbusters even portray America positively?

    If so, it sucks.

    “…little overwrought.” We’ll, maybe we need to be a little overwrought. Clearly, Communist China views its movie industry as a means to socially control its own people, and as a way to exert and expand its soft power abroad. If American movie studios are poised to help Communist China do that in order to gain access to its vast consumer base, this is something to definitely worry about.