Since China opened its borders to foreign cinema, Hollywood films have done extremely well in the Chinese market. For instance, in 2015, Furious 7 broke the record for the highest box-office returns in China. This film, and many other Hollywood products, are transplanted into the Chinese market, rather than developed with a Chinese audience in mind. However, after Furious 7 broke its box-office record, it was surpassed by two Chinese domestic films, Monster Hunt and The Mermaid. The increasing success of homegrown films suggests that Hollywood may need to adjust its approach to compete with China’s domestic features.
In the past, Hollywood has experimented with tweaking its films to be more appealing to Chinese audiences. The Chinese release of Iron Man III famously incorporated Chinese actors, and Kung Fu Panda recently released a mandarin edition of the film. Both of these films were successful in China, but not because of these overt attempts to appeal to Chinese audiences. Many moviegoers felt that the Chinese actors were shoehorned into Iron Man, and the mandarin Kung Fu Panda was simply met with a shoulder shrug. Hollywood films are transplants, and small cameos or dubbing will not change that.
In contrast, domestic Chinese films speak directly to the values and experiences of their audiences. In The Mermaid, a mermaid is set on a mission to seduce and assassinate an evil industrial developer, but, in the process, she falls in love with him. The overarching theme of the movie (the struggle between industrial development and nature) is extremely relevant to the current situation in China, allowing it to connect with Chinese audiences. Additionally, the film incorporates a distinct brand of slapstick comedy known as “mo lei tau,” which is familiar to, and resonates with, Chinese audiences. The aspects that have made The Mermaid a success in China are lacking in Hollywood imports.
In Monster Hunt, a monster-hunter accidentally becomes impregnated with the prince of the monster kingdom. After the monster is born, the monster-hunter has a change of heart, seeking to protect the baby monster rather than kill it. The success of Monster Hunt is, in part, due to the special effects and fantasy elements that have also propelled Hollywood films to Chinese box office success. Some elements, however, are distinct to China. For instance, the film is loosely based on a Chinese classic text titled “Classic of Mountains and Seas,” many of the jokes are aimed specifically at Chinese-speaking audiences, and the film features famous Chinese actors.
Hollywood needs to be aware of the growing strength of the domestic Chinese film market. In future years, a Hollywood transplant may not be enough. Recognizing the elements that have made The Mermaid and Monster Hunt successful may assist Hollywood films in future releases.