Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

China's Hollywood dream gets lost in translation

By Katie Hunt, for CNN
updated 12:17 AM EDT, Wed March 20, 2013
Lost in Thailand is a slapstick comedy that has become China's most successful domestic hit movie to date.
Lost in Thailand is a slapstick comedy that has become China's most successful domestic hit movie to date.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chinese-language movies a hard sell to international audiences
  • Biggest domestic hit, Lost in Translation, flopped in U.S.
  • Obstacles include poor marketing, lack of stars and cultural differences
  • China in quest to be force on silver screen

Hong Kong (CNN) -- When China's most successful homegrown movie went on international release last month, hopes were high that the slapstick comedy, which has drawn comparisons with "The Hangover," would blaze a trail for Chinese-language cinema.

But "Lost in Thailand," which picked up the highest grossing film at Hong Kong's Asian Film Awards on Monday night, flopped outside mainland China -- only collecting $57,000 in the United States and $72,000 in Hong Kong, according to figures from consultancies Film Business Asia and Beijing-based Entgroup.

The film earned $202 million in China, making the unexpected hit the most profitable movie ever after Hollywood extravaganza "Avatar."

"We heard that it is not doing well overseas, or could be considered a failure, due to the cultural differences," Entgroup's Aiden Sun told CNN.

China's Hollywood dream
On China: Film censorship easing
On China: Navigating film censors
On China: Chinese cinema boom

China's movie market is the world's second largest, in terms of box office takings, but its films are a hard sell for international audiences.

READ: Blockbuster growth in China's film industry

Poor marketing, a lack of recognizable stars and plot lines and humor that get muddled in translation weigh against Chinese films and it's a trend that's not improving despite the country's thriving movie industry.

While Chinese-language films have never been mainstream viewing for English-speaking audiences, a decade ago titles such as "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon," "Hero" and "In the Mood for Love" captured the imagination of movie buffs worldwide.

Today, according to industry players at Hong Kong's Filmart trade fair this week that accompanies the Asian Film Awards, it is getting harder to sell Chinese films, even in markets with a shared language and culture such as Singapore.

"The enthusiasm created by "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is no longer there. We are starting more or less from scratch -- whether and how we can rebuild the international market for Chinese language films," said Jeffrey Chan, who is charge of international sales for Chinese studio Bona Film Group.

Part of the reason is stronger local-language film production in places like Singapore, Thailand and South Korea, said Lim Teck, a Singaporean film producer and distributor. Teck said that he made more money from the five locally made movies he released in the city state last year than from the 16 Chinese-language titles he distributed.

READ: James Bond's license to kill curtailed in China

Doris Pfardrescher, president of Well Go USA, the main distributor of Asian films in North America, says that Chinese martial arts movies and action flicks, with their simple stories and visual effects, play well with U.S. audiences but these films are no longer being made in such great numbers as Chinese moviegoers seek out lighter fare.

"Films that are doing really, really well in China are your romantic comedies and your fantasies that are really difficult to translate over to the U.S.," she said. "There is a lot of political humor and cultural differences that Americans don't understand."

Arbitrary censorship rules make Chinese films harder to market. Some genres, like horror, that are popular internationally are frowned upon in China and officials have the final say on release dates making the advance marketing materials and trailers necessary for an international theatrical release harder to handle.

READ: Dodging censors and gonzo grips: How to make a movie in China

China also lacks a new generation of globally bankable stars to replace the likes of Chow Yun-Fat, Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh, who made their name in Hong Kong action movies of the 1980s and 1990s before moving onto Hollywood.

By contrast, today's young actors are making so much money in China that they have little incentive to head west.

"You're an A plus plus star in China but outside you are nobody. Psychologically, you have to overcome these hurdles," said Jeffrey Chan.

Of course, given the size and profitability of China's market, in some respects, it matters little that its movies don't perform well overseas or that its stars aren't household names. India has a thriving movie industry but Bollywood hits only find a niche market outside the country.

However, Beijing is becoming more assertive in its attempts to project its own view of the world and looks at the global reach and appeal of U.S. films and television shows with envy. Many people believe China would like to see its movie industry become a force to be reckoned with on the silver screen.

"I think they want (their film business) to expand internationally," added Chan.

"But despite that intention, we're in a business where the product matters a lot more than in a lot of other industries. We're not mass producing something that is easy to replicate."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:13 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
A smuggler in Dandong, a Chinese border town near North Korea, tells CNN about the underground trade with North Korean soldiers
updated 2:54 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Yenn Wong got quite a surprise one morning earlier this month when she found out an exact copy of her Hong Kong restaurant had opened in China.
updated 11:15 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
When I first came across a "virtual lover" service on e-commerce site Taobao, China's version of Amazon, I thought it was hype.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Each year Yi Jiefeng does what she can to stop China turning into a desert.
updated 10:54 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
As its relationship with the West worsen, Russia is pivoting east in an attempt to secure business with China.
updated 10:29 PM EDT, Tue October 7, 2014
Aspiring Chinese comics performing in Shanghai's underground comedy scene hope to bring stand-up to the masses.
updated 12:54 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Liu Wen is one of the world's highest-paid models and the first Chinese face to crack the top five in Forbes' annual list of top earners.
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Fri October 3, 2014
Cunning wolf? Working class hero? Or bland Beijing loyalist? C.Y. Leung was a relative unknown when he came to power in 2012.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
 A man uses his smartphone on July 16, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan. Only 53.5% of Japanese owned smartphones in March, according to a white paper released by the Ministry of Communications on July 15, 2014. The survey of a thousand participants each from Japan, the U.S., Britain, France, South Korea and Singapore, demonstrated that Japan had the fewest rate of the six; Singapore had the highest at 93.1%, followed by South Korea at 88.7%, UK at 80%, and France at 71.6%, and U.S. at 69.6% in the U.S. On the other hand, Japan had the highest percentage of regular mobile phone owners with 28.7%. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
App hopes to help those seeking a way out of China's overstrained public health system.
updated 8:20 PM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Yards from pro-democracy protests, stands the Hong Kong garrison of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), China's armed forces.
updated 7:23 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
The massive street rallies that have swept Hong Kong present a major dilemma for China's leadership.
updated 3:07 AM EDT, Sat September 27, 2014
Chinese wine drinkers need to develop a taste for the cheap stuff, not just premium red wines like Lafite.
updated 9:09 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, set off a media kerfuffle this month when he spoke about his next reincarnation.
updated 10:18 AM EDT, Sun September 28, 2014
He's one of the fieriest political activists in Hong Kong — he's been called an "extremist" by China's state-run media — and he's not old enough to drive.
updated 10:57 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
China has no wine-making tradition but the country now uncorks more bottles of red than any other.
updated 5:29 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Christians in eastern China keep watch in Wenzhou, where authorities have demolished churches and removed crosses.
updated 1:38 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Home-grown hip-hop appeals to a younger generation but its popularity has not translated into record deals and profits for budding rap artists.
ADVERTISEMENT