HONG KONG: The collaboration between Hollywood and China's film-making industry is as much about "focusing on similarities" as it is about "spreading Chinese culture", said David Lee, manager director of Xinhua Media Entertainment, one of China's rising entertainment production companies.
The Taiwan-born producer educated in America made the remark during the First Next Generation Asia Awards, set up by the iconic industry magazine Hollywood Reporter to honor those under 35 who have made remarkable contributions to the development of the entertainment industry in Asia.
Apart from Lee, awards went to Chen Tianqiao, CEO of Shanda Interactive Entertainment, a media powerhouse on the mainland, and Hao Ning, director of the 2006 hit Crazy Stone.
After toiling in the business for years, Lee made his name as co-executive producer of the 2008 Jackie Chan and Jet Li film Forbidden Kingdom. Uniting the two cardinal figures in the Chinese martial arts film genre for the first time, the movie draws extensively from Chinese legends and folklore - including the popular Journey to the West saga - to create a rollicking, fast and time-bending tale.
Lee said the movie, which earned $15 million in the US box office and another $ 20 million in China, ushered in a new era of collaboration between Hollywood and the Chinese industry.
"Before, Sino-American cooperation in the movie industry mainly translated into a few token appearances by Chinese actors and actresses in Hollywood blockbusters," he said. "With movies including Forbidden Kingdom, the collaboration entered a more substantive stage involving co-financing and, more importantly, creative confluence by artisans on both sides."
And the phenomenal commercial success of the movie, according to Lee, helped "set a standard" for cross-cultural cinematic production.
"Movie (that) get caught in the cross-currents of two cultures have always proven to be a risky enterprise for investors," said Lee, pointing to the box-office hardship experienced by such films as The White Countess (2005) and The Painted Veil (2006). Both are co-productions between Hollywood and Chinese film production companies and both are well received critically.
"The box-office of Forbidden Kingdom has demonstrated for all that a co-production could also be highly enjoyable and commercially successful," said Lee.
However, in the world of movie-making, it is not unusual for big box-office hits to be derided as commercial, as opposed to art house cinema. And Forbidden Kingdom, with its freewheeling interpretation of age-old Chinese legends and thrown-together "hot-pot" approach to story-telling, has been sternly criticized for pandering to the audience and disrespecting traditional culture.
But Lee is unrepentant.
"If you look at American cinema, even their period dramas - for example King Arthur - do not adhere to the historical truth," he said. "The more we can take Chinese culture and share it with the rest of the world in any form, the better."
One case in point, according to Lee, is Kung Fu Panda, a 2008 movie animation built around a hilarious, high-kicking, slang-hurling panda character.
"The animal doesn't act like that, but the movie made kids around the world dream about the two most potent symbols of China - panda and martial arts."
"As a movie worker, you don't have the opportunity to communicate with a foreign audience until they can be persuaded to sit down before the big screen and watch," he said. "As long as they are exposed to the Chinese culture and the message is positive, the task has been accomplished."
Commenting on the limited and very often highly stereotyped roles on offer for Chinese actors at Hollywood, Lee said the situation would gradually change with more co-productions in the pipeline.
"Every movie industry has stereotypes - this is not the sole problem of Hollywood," he said. "But with in-put from all sides, co-productions will be more cultural nuanced."
At the end of the day, it's about celebrating humanity and common values.
"Through the whole process of co-producing a movie, we intend to make the similarities between different people ever more evident than their differences," Lee said.
(HK Edition 03/25/2009 page1)