Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

China's Hollywood dream gets lost in translation

By Katie Hunt, for CNN
March 20, 2013 -- Updated 0417 GMT (1217 HKT)
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
See CNN's complete coverage on China.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 0344 GMT (1144 HKT)
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 0631 GMT (1431 HKT)
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1124 GMT (1924 HKT)
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 0414 GMT (1214 HKT)
Hong Kong's narrow streets were once a dazzling gallery of neon, where banks and even bordellos plied their trade under sizzling tubular signs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1159 GMT (1959 HKT)
Three more officials have been given the chop as part of China's anti-corruption drive, including former aides to the retired security chief.
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
As thousands of Hong Kongers prepare for an annual protest, voices in China's press warn pro-democracy activism is a bad idea.
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 0437 GMT (1237 HKT)
Hong Kongers are demanding the right to directly elect their next leader, setting up a face-off with Beijing.
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 0656 GMT (1456 HKT)
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Along a winding Chinese mountain road dotted with inns and restaurants is Jinan Orphanage, a place of refuge and site for troubled parents to dump unwanted children.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0836 GMT (1636 HKT)
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout invites Isaac Mao, Han Dongfang, and James Miles to discuss the rise of civil society in China and social media's crucial role.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0334 GMT (1134 HKT)
Chen Guangbiao wants rich people to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention, including buying lunch for poor New Yorkers.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Anna Coren visits Yulin's annual dog meat festival. Dogs are part of the daily diet here, with an estimated 10,000 dogs killed for the festival alone.
June 19, 2014 -- Updated 0638 GMT (1438 HKT)
People know little about sex, but are having plenty of it. We take a look at the ramifications of a lack of sex education in China.
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 0812 GMT (1612 HKT)
Hong Kongers have reacted angrily to a Chinese government white paper affirming Beijing's control over the territory.
The emphasis on national glory -- rather than purely personal achievement -- is key.
June 16, 2014 -- Updated 1614 GMT (0014 HKT)
A replica of the Effel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development located in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang province.
What's the Eiffel Tower doing in China? Replica towns of the world's most famous monuments spring up all over China.
June 11, 2014 -- Updated 0013 GMT (0813 HKT)
Rapid development hasn't just boosted the economy -- it has opened up vast swathes of the country, says a man who has spent much of his life exploring it.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 0654 GMT (1454 HKT)
The World Cup is apparently making a lot of people "ill" in China.
ADVERTISEMENT