Chinese Movies Still Struggle Overseas Despite Kung Fu's Global Appeal, Survey Shows

'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'

Success of Chinese TV shows may provide a road-map for movies to gain share overseas.

Chinese movies are still falling short in foreign markets, with low recognition of directors and actors overseas, even though martial arts films remain popular, according to a survey by a government think tank.

Making a movie that works in both China and the United States has become a kind of Holy Grail for producers in both countries, but it remains an elusive goal.

The Academy for International Communications of Chinese Culture conducted the study in nine countries to find out how Chinese movies were received overseas.

While Chinese box office totaled nearly $4.8 billion last year, providing a big boon for Hollywood films, and with the number of link-ups between overseas and Chinese film companies burgeoning, the overseas market for movies from the world's second largest film business was less spectacular.

"What we've found is that people tend to watch Chinese films through free channels instead of going to theaters," said Huang Huilin, director of the AICCC.

"Most of the participants watch Chinese films online. The Internet offers fertile and challenging ground for Chinese filmmakers to exploit. And also kung-fu and comedy are still the most popular types of Chinese films among overseas viewers."

The Xinhua report singled out Taiwanese director Ang Lee's kung-fu movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon as an example of how movies imbued with Chinese culture could be a success overseas – the movies grossed $128 million in the United States and became the highest-grossing foreign language film in Hollywood history.

"The raw spectacle of martial arts combined with Chinese characters, settings and costumes satisfied the audiences 'orientalistic interest', without challenging their underlying perceptions about China," the Xinhua report said.

However, little has come close to emulating its success ever since, although there are high hopes for the Legendary/China Film Group co-production Great Wall, currently shooting outside Beijing with Zhang Yimou directing and starring a host of Chinese and international stars, including Matt Damon,Willem Dafoe,Pedro Pascal,Andy Lau, Jing Tian and Zhang Hanyu.

The AICCC said this has been a prevailing trend since they started the project in 2011.

"We started this project because we want to find out how Chinese culture is being received internationally, and films are the most visually effective way to show our cultures. There are studies on the impact of foreign films in China but not the other way around. Hopefully our study could shed some light on this," Huang said.

One recurring theme in the report is that filmmakers needed to be willing to challenge traditional channels of production and distribution if they want to find success on the international market.

The AICCC's deputy director Luo Jun said there were more and more Chinese elements appearing in overseas dramas, in shows such as Netflix's recent drama Marco Polo.

"For me it's a westernized narrative of Chinese culture. It's like Chinese food in America, it's not just Chinese food, it's their interpretation and imagination about Chinese culture," said Luo.

Twitter: @cliffordcoonan