Wednesday, Mar 29, 2017, 7:06 PM CST – China

Culture

Kung Fu Panda 3

DOUBLING DOWN

The decision to release two separate versions of Kung Fu Panda 3 – one for China, one for other world markets – proves how far Hollywood is willing to go to tap into the meteoric Chinese box office

Still from Kung Fu Panda 3 Photo by CFP

Jennifer Yuh Nelson Photo by dong Jiexu

Bucking the global trend towards lower box office receipts, China’s movie market has continued to grow in recent years, putting it on course to overtake that of the US in the next few years. Allured by China’s booming box office, Hollywood’s top studios are increasingly shifting their focus to the Middle Kingdom. Co-productions, a neat solution to government quotas on imported films, have emerged as the principal means by which Hollywood can tap into China’s marketplace.

DreamWorks, one of the world’s leading animation studios, is now at the forefront of this trend with Kung Fu Panda 3, the first American-Chinese animated feature-length co-production in history. In the third installment in the Kung Fu Panda franchise – with both predecessors smash hits in China – the “bloodline” of the series’ protagonist, the lovable, chubby, dumpling-eating panda Po, will be more than “one-third Chinese,” according to some observers.

Moreover, in contrast to previous co-productions and Hollywood blockbusters partly funded by Chinese companies, such as Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation and Transformers: Age of Extinction, Kung Fu Panda 3 has been “organically indigenized,” with Chinese involvement in every phase of production.

Game-changer?

Kung Fu Panda 3 is produced by DreamWorks Animation, the State-run China Film Group and Oriental DreamWorks (ODW), which was launched in Shanghai in 2012 and in which Chinese partners hold a 55 percent stake. Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, stated that the franchise’s third installment would “make history” as the first animated feature which will have a tailor-made version for a non-English speaking market. In addition to the English-language cut of the film that was released worldwide and featured the vocal talents of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman and Angelina Jolie, a Mandarin-language version has also been produced, featuring an all-Chinese cast, specifically for the movie’s China audience.

A distinct difference between the two versions lies in the dubbing process, according to the film’s senior creative consultant Raman Hui, a DreamWorks veteran and a noted Hong Kong animator and director best known for co-directing Shrek the Third and helming the domestic blockbuster Monster Hunt.

For the first time, the characters’ lips will be in sync with their Mandarin dialog. Even facial expressions and mannerisms will differ from the film’s English version. “In the very beginning, our Chinese dubbing artists were not quite used to [the process],” Hui told NewsChina. “In the past, they were always required to follow the lip movements of English-speaking characters. But this time, they were allowed to deliver their own performances.”

Actor Jiang Wu voices Kai, the film’s primary villain. He also provided physical inspiration for the character’s expressions and movements in the Chinese cut, just as the English-language version of the character is inspired by actor J.K. Simmons. “It is Jiang Wu himself who plays the role of Kai, instead of simply lending his voice to the character,” said Hui.

The reason why executives felt a Mandarin version of the film was needed, Hui pointed out, is that DreamWorks has learned lessons from previous experiences – notably that Chinese audiences often miss punchlines when watching dubbed animated films. To help get the joke across, the Chinese production company wrote Kung Fu Panda 3 to incorporate Chinese idioms, dialects and slang.

Big domestic names such as Jackie Chan, Jay Chou, Yang Mi, Huang Lei, Zhang Guoli, Jiang Wu, and the Chopstick Brothers have all been cast to up the box office ante. Chan, who provides the voice for Monkey in all three English-language installments of the franchise, has been cast as Po’s father in the Chinese version. Pop icon Chou has instead been cast as Monkey, with domestic animators even incorporating his mannerisms and catchphrases into the character.

To better demonstrate the authenticity of Chinese culture in the film, DreamWorks formed a Chinese production team consisting of over 200 staff from ODW, including screenwriters and animators. A renowned Chinese director, Teng Huatao, was brought onboard to direct the Mandarin version. Teng, known for his frothy romantic comedies, helmed the project in concert with Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who directed all three films. His presence helped secure big names for the Chinese vocal cast.

Yuh Nelson remembered the first time her team members met with their Chinese colleagues at ODW – the Chinese animators, she told NewsChina, donned ancient costumes representing different imperial dynasties as a greeting. Yuh Nelson picked their brains on the minutiae of tea culture, incense, martial arts and wedding celebrations, which further enriched the setting of the franchise’s third installment. The design of Po’s home village in Sichuan Province was based on the real scenery and architecture of the province’s Qingcheng Mountain. The local pandas, like their real-world, human counterparts, are fans of hacky sack – a detail worked out by the Chinese and US production teams.

The involvement of the Chinese crew in particular was unprecedented. “Because they are scattered in every single department, they’ve touched every part of the movie,” Yuh Nelson told NewsChina, adding that every frame contains contributions made by both American and Chinese artists.

“There are two things that really struck me in working with the Chinese crew,” said Yuh Nelson. “First is their enthusiasm. There was so much joy on the part of the Chinese crew in helping create this movie. There is a real sense of national pride that Kung Fu Panda should be done by the Chinese.”

The other characteristic that impressed Yuh Nelson was the depth of her colleagues’ knowledge – “our Chinese artists know much more about Chinese culture than a lot of specialists in the US. That level of access to all of these small details and big details... has been amazing.”

As a huge fan of Chinese martial arts movies who has watched a number of works from Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Tsui Hark and the Shaw Brothers, Yuh Nelson told NewsChina that she and her team derived a great deal of inspiration from Chinese martial arts movies when choreographing the franchise’s fight sciences.

“That’s something that we really took care to do,” said Yuh Nelson. “The tone of the movie, the excitement, the fun... and the humor during a battle are something that Jackie Chan does a lot in his movies. Props like chairs or ladders, we used those a lot in our films.”

Ambition

Creating a distinct Chinese version of Kung Fu Panda 3 significantly increased the budget and the length of time required to complete the film. But Katzenberg insisted that the extra effort was worthwhile. Indeed, it is clear that DreamWorks has set high hopes of a big return on its investment in China. The series’ debut grossed 150 million yuan (US$22.8m) at the mainland box office, the first animated feature to break the 100 million yuan (US$15.2m) mark in China. Its sequel, Kung Fu Panda 2, grossed 617 million yuan (US$93.8m), making it the highest-grossing animated film, foreign or domestic, in Chinese cinematic history, until it was finally unseated in July 2015 by the domestic production Monkey King: Hero is Back, which took in 956 million yuan (US$145.3m) at the box office. Kung Fu Panda 3, DreamWorks seems to be hoping, will break that record.

Katzenberg in particular is paying close attention to the rise of Chinese animation. “I see everything. I’ve seen many of the successful [Chinese] animated movies... in the past five years,” he said, naming Monkey King: Hero is Back as a favorite. Katzenberg sees the film as a sophisticated, “bold” comedy packed with imagination and fantasy that signifies “a big step forward for local animation,” he said.

According to statistics from Box Office Mojo, a US box office returns aggregator, total US takings in 2015 stood at 11 billion dollars, up 5.8 percent from 2014. Total box office revenue in the Chinese mainland grew to 44.1 billion yuan (US$6.6bn) in 2015, a year-on-year increase of 48.7 percent. China is consequently tipped to soon eclipse the US as the world’s biggest movie market, and, with import quotas still in place, Hollywood is eyeing the best means by which to tap into it.

DreamWorks appears to be part of an advance guard of US studios embracing the co-production route, with Kung Fu Panda 3 the debut offering of this model. Katzenberg told our reporter that he has been making at least one monthly flight to China for the past several years to expand DreamWorks’ local projects. His schedule in China, in his own words, is always “packed,” including visits to the ODW studio, recruitment, coordination with animators, writers, filmmakers and other people or entities in the domestic film industry, ranging from distributors, movie theater management companies, his company’s partners from the China Film Group and, crucially, high-level officials from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), the government body that determines which films can appear, and in what form, in mainland theaters.

As for ODW’s future prospects, Katzenberg outlined his “ambitious” plan. Two kinds of original movies will be made by the studio: one kind for the local market, which will start production in 2017, and the other kind aimed at the global market, starting in the second half of 2018, with one release every 18 months or so.

Trend

For Kung Fu Panda 3, gaining co-production status meant that the film could be treated as a domestic production, giving DreamWorks a larger share of its revenue. China’s domestic movie industry follows a strict import policy, a quota system allowing only 34 foreign movies access to the mainland market each year. Producers of imported movies can only receive a maximum 25 percent of the box office take in the Chinese market. For co-productions, however, the share rises to as much as 43 percent.

In 2014, Transformers: Age of Extinction, produced by Paramount, grossed more in China than in the US. Critically panned in its home market, the movie’s impressive 1.98 billion yuan (US$300m) haul at the Chinese box office also overturned conventional wisdom that a US-made movie, regardless of its critical reception, would always perform best at home. By the end of 2014, Hollywood’s six major production companies had all established joint ventures in China.

The relative quality of co-productions, however, remains a bugbear of critics and moviegoers alike. So-called “Chinese elements,” usually additional supporting characters, locations, plot points and, particularly egregiously in Transformers, product placement, have been slammed as having been unnaturally shoehorned into place, with additional content often cut partially or entirely from a movie’s international release. Plot and production design, meanwhile, generally have little or no domestic input.

In August 2012, during a conference hosted by the China Film Channel, Zhang Pimin, deputy director of SAPPRFT, stated that his bureau would carry out a strict examination of each co-production in accordance with related rules. “Co-productions must meet certain standards,” said Zhang. “An utterly American story, with a touch of Chinese [culture] or a Chinese actor – how can you call such a film a co-production?”

Since 2012, a stricter policy has been carried out regarding how co-productions are approved. A qualified co-production, the rules state, should involve investment from both sides, with the side that invests less still contributing more than 20 percent of the total budget. In addition, both sides need to be “fully involved” in the filmmaking process, with the movie’s story “organically related” to China. Another stipulation mandates the presence of Chinese characters or performers.

Few co-productions have been fulsome in their inclusion of these strict requirements – until Kung Fu Panda 3. Of Chinese involvement in DreamWorks’ latest offering, Katzenberg said that “such thorough cooperation is unprecedented.”

In addition to Kung Fu Panda 3, another upcoming American-Chinese co-production, The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon and Andy Lau and directed by Zhang Yimou, will hit theaters in 2016. Whether this, the largest-scale Chinese-American co-production to date, along with Po the panda’s latest outing, will truly be game-changers will likely depend on how they’re received and, more importantly, how much bang the filmmakers get for their buck.

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