A Few Thoughts on Storytelling in Chinese Cinema



Just a quick post to briefly share/develop some thoughts on the current state of entertainment cinema in the People’s Republic of China. This is a result of my own ongoing research interests in the mainstream film industry of Mainland China as well as what I’ve read in some articles recently.

One of the things I find really fascinating about mainstream Chinese films is how they don’t really fall into the same kind of narrative paradigms – the 3-act structure or hero’s journey, for example – so prevalent in Hollywood. David Bordwell talks about this a bit in Planet Hong Kong about Hong Kong films and how they seem to be based more on the length of reels than acts. In a lot of ways his explanation doesn’t feel that different from the 3-act structure described by the late Syd Field. I think there’s something more to what I’m trying to get at, and maybe something more unique to Mainland China that’s not covered by Bordwell’s description of HK cinema either.

The Chinese film industry wants to become like Hollywood in many ways, most crucially in making entertainment its priority. The role of film in political and moral education in China’s not-so-distant past, however, has created a lot of tension and confusion that continues to define what we see on screen. At the risk of over-generalizing, the majority of native filmmakers and executives are just not familiar with the cinematic/narrative/formal requirements/conventions of an entertainment industry. They want to be like Hollywood, but don’t really have the experience. It’s something that several articles have gotten at in different ways.

Two recent ones come to mind. The first is this Los Angeles Times article from November, 2013 written by major Chinese cinema scholar Zhu Ying. Choice quote:

China’s massive movie market is influencing U.S. studios. But mainland filmmakers also need American expertise and talent.

The second is this review of The Monkey King in Variety from January, 2014. Choice quote:

More than three years in the making, and easily the most ambitious cinematic rendition yet of Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century Chinese epic “Journey to the West,” “The Monkey King in 3D” nonetheless can’t match the technical refinement or storytelling smarts of its Hollywood counterparts.

In other words, they’re getting there….buuuuuuuut, not quite. Both writers specifically point out the fact that something seems to be missing. It’s like the films are looking more and more like the Hollywood counterparts they’re hoping to match, but only on a superficial level. The lighting and editing are incredibly polished and sleek, the special effects are slowly catching up. But the deeper structural level remains sorely lacking.

I’m calling it: one of the biggest obstacles in China’s quest to make film an entertainment industry will continue to be at the level of the screenplay.

I’m still working on how to best articulate this, but there are some major elements common to mainstream Hollywood film narratives that appear to be a struggle for many Chinese films. It’s important to note that Hollywood films are so prevalent and so popular in Chinese theaters that “Hollywood” conventions are in many ways the cinematic standards preferred by Chinese moviegoers as well.

Some of the narrative issues I’m vaguely and very un-academically getting at include:

  • Inconsistent character traits, motivations, actions.
  • Repetitive, cyclical, episode-like narrative progressions as opposed to the escalation of events, climax, resolution, etc, seen in the 3-act structure.
  • Over-the-top, exaggerated, more physical/rough approach to humor.
  • Convoluted plots that don’t quite come together all the way.
  • Content that feels more like rip-offs of Hollywood films as opposed to references or homages.
  • Unclear lines of cause and effect.
  • Patchy character arcs and character development.

The above describe movies that are huge successes at the box-office. In writing that very short list, I was thinking of Crazy Stone, Lost in Thailand, Journey to the West, Let the Bullets Fly, and others. What that tells me is that Chinese moviegoers are clamoring for homegrown films to counter all the Hollywood imports that flood their screens. The films above fulfill that role in a lot of ways but something’s still missing…

And if you’ve read my other posts, you may already know where I’m going with this. I think Dayyan Eng is one of the few filmmakers in China whose films are free of the problems above. He’s a filmmaker who brings that “American expertise and talent,” and the “storytelling smarts” of Hollywood to Chinese-language films.

Check out his Inseparable on Netflix Instant. It’s unlike any other Chinese film you’ve ever seen. And though it comes off like more of a Hollywood film, it’s wholly different from those too.

To be continued…


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