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World

Sieren's China: Cine-mania comes to China

For the first time ever, Chinese cinemas have taken more at the box office than American cinemas, - a development that has significant percussions for the international film industry, says DW columnist Frank Sieren.

The Chinese New Year holiday was not only spent sitting around with family, but also, for many, sitting in front of the big screen at one of the 23,500 cinemas dotted across the country. The popularity of the movies meant for the first time ever, Chinese cinemas had a bigger turnover than their US counterparts. Chinese cinemas took in the equivalent of 650 million dollars, 10 million more than the US box office.

It was no big shock to see China finally overtaking the US. The big surprise is more that the five top movies at the box office were all Chinese productions. This is a Chinese success story. The previous record in July last year was mainly due to US productions. The latest 'Transformer' movie from Michael Bay accounted for $300 million alone.

China's movie box office success shaping up at international level will have an impact in Hollywood. The Chinese, it seems, like to see movies set in a familiar backdrop. If Hollywood wants to connect with Chinese audiences, the studios will have to adapt. And this is already happening. Roles already go to Chinese actors more frequently and some of the action has been moved to China too, much to the satisfaction of the government in China. The formula is simple: The more China and Chinese culture is represented in US films, the easier it becomes to sell Chinese productions to international movie audiences. For Beijing this is a major goal: To use cinema to promote Chinese soft power internationally - a way of exercising power outside of the political sphere.

Work has been going on in this direction for some time. The best example is what will be the biggest film studio in the world currently under construction for $8.2 million near the coastal city of Qingdao. And just as foreign productions like to cast Chinese actors, Chinese productions are looking to engage foreign actors in order to do better in the west. "Dragon Blade," the number two film at the Chinese box office in February, features Hollywood stars Adrien Brody and John Cusack. The Chinese film "Wolf Totem" is made by French director Jacques Annaud. With 'Wolf Totem' especially the hope is that it will be noticed internationally, it is after all based on a successful Chinese book that received a lot of attention outside China.

Beijing commissioning Annaud and the French director accepting the challenge was quite a surprise. Annaud is internationally famous for "The Bear" (1988) and his movie adaptation of the novel "The Name of the Rose" (1985). Younger filmgoers are familiar with the 1997 movie "Seven Years in Tibet" starring Brad Pitt, which Annaud took some Chinese criticism for.

Beijing objected to the degree of Chinese brutality towards the people of Tibet as depicted in the film. But Annaud himself says that a lifetime ban from entering China was only a rumor. Nonetheless it is amazing that Annaud should be entrusted with another project which certainly has sensitive elements. Once again it explores the treatment of a minority, this time the Mongols.

But for a world class director like Annaud, the project was irresistible: The shooting of this film took up more time than any previous work. Over the course of six years, young wolves were raised just for the film. The French director worked with a crew of 500, including 50 animal trainers, to capture unique wildlife pictures under extreme weather conditions. Beijing's intention is to create a stir on the international scene with a spectacular production. In order to extend its soft power internationally, it seems the Chinese government is ready to make concessions.

DW columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.

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