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June 27, 2017

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Hollywood should be careful in its foray into China

Over the last weekend, the summer blockbuster "Transformers: Age of Extinction" became the first film to take over US$300 million in mainland China. Michael Bay's action-packed robot warfare movie surpassed James Cameron's space fantasy "Avatar" as the highest grossing production in China.

For Bay and his investors, that result might not be such a surprise. Even before the Autobots, the alien robot heroes in the movie, rolled out their latest adventure, film critics had noted the hard-to-miss Chinese elements in the movie. Chinese people take away duck neck snacks, a Chinese bank ATM card, a national park in Chongqing and a dragon-shaped luxury hotel in Beijing all get decent screen time in the movie, which also features two Chinese stars.

For many, the 165-minute-long "Transformers" will be remembered for the six seconds of blunt product placement in which a character sips from a box of China-brand milk in the middle of a city-destroying battle. Some critics and many filmgoers have widely disparaged the logic-defying cameo of Chinese elements in the movie — such as the use of a Chinese bank ATM card by the Texan human protagonist — that seem to exist only to attract Chinese viewers. But even Chinese moviegoers are more bemused then amused by these product placements.

"Transformers," however, is only moving further in the direction Hollywood has been pointing in recent years. With a large potential audience full of newly affluent consumers still susceptible to action movies, China has become a key market for Western filmmakers. Part of the reason behind the dominance of CG-oriented superhero or sci-fi movies is that action and special effects are easier to translate to a global audience. English may be the international language, but everyone understands an explosion.

Critics have highlighted Hollywood's experimentation in making a China-friendly movie that at the same time does not alienate the home audience in the U.S. Some pointed out the attempt by filmmakers in 2013's "Iron Man 3" to release two versions of the film, one for the international market and one exclusively for China. The intention was to tailor-make a film with more scenes featuring Chinese actors even if they are not strongly related to the plot. The tactic backfired, as the Chinese audience felt offended rather than grateful to see these scenes. Perhaps taking note from such failure, screenwriters (such as those for "Transformers") began to put China into their plots.

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