In 1973, Hollywood made Bruce Lee an offer he couldn’t refuse: to become a global megastar. After three low-budget Hong Kong features, the grandstanding Enter the Dragon, produced by Warner Bros, made his fame stratospheric. Since then, many other Chinese stars – Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat, Zhang Ziyi and Jet Li among them – have called their voice coaches and tried to break Hollywood.
Now, though, stardom’s Silk Road may be flowing back to the East: Hollywood’s finest are increasingly appearing in Chinese productions. Michael Douglas is the latest, supplying some silvery menace in the manga-based thriller Animal World, currently riding atop the Chinese charts.
The exploding Chinese box office, which has grown more than tenfold in the past decade to $8.6 billion last year, is what has caused the change of direction. A host of other names are queuing for a bite of what’s currently the world’s second-largest film market (it may exceed the United States as soon as 2020).
Bruce Willis and Adrien Brody are taking roles in this year’s state-produced blockbuster Unbreakable Spirit, about the Japanese bombing of Chongqing during the Second World War. Marvel ensemble player Frank Grillo was, like Douglas, on villain duties in last year’s Wolf Warrior 2, the highest-grossing Chinese film ever. Detective Chinatown 2, No 3 on the all-time China chart, also featured Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Pitt.
Acting in local blockbusters is one way individual stars can slip by the government’s efforts to suppress the dominant US share of Chinese box office, which still stands at over 50%.
Granted, the new crop of Hollywood moonlighters are either fringe players looking to build their global standing, or waning stars propping up their careers. But for the first time, these actors are getting involved solely on the terms and for the ends of the Chinese industry – a significant power shift in cinema.
In fact, this is the second wave of US stars who’ve looked to Beijing. During the first round – which included Christian Bale in 2011’s Flowers of War, Nicolas Cage in 2014’s Outcast, Brody and John Cusack in 2015’s Dragon Blade, and most prominently Matt Damon in 2016’s The Great Wall – a Western name was on board to ensure an international audience beyond China. But these films, often “co-productions” between US and Chinese outfits, were almost all financial flops that pleased neither camp.
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Now Hollywood stars are appearing in increasingly well-resourced Chinese films for Chinese audiences with a Chinese agenda. It’s why, instead of seeing Westerners as protagonists, we’re more likely to see them – like Douglas and Grillo – in the villain slot, just as Hollywood has routinely outsourced skullduggery to the foreigner.
Perhaps in parallel with cooling trade relations with US President Donald Trump, perhaps a direct result of that, the Chinese film industry is becoming increasingly self-reliant and self-confident after the focus on co-productions in the first half of the decade. Budgets that routinely exceed the $60 million mark allow it to buy in US technical expertise, like the stunt and action teams used to beef up Wolf Warrior 2, or the kitemark of quality and glamour a Hollywood star provides.
The imports are the means to an end: domestic success. China surely knows it was building on home crowds, defining its own style, that put Hollywood in demand worldwide.