YouTube (screen grab)

The Chinese blockbuster awakens!

'Dragon Blade' may look ridiculously bad, but it's actually a promising sign for global cinema

February 1, 2015 2:00AM ET

John Cusack is wearing a metal breastplate and what looks like an ancient Roman version of a sweatband across his forehead. He’s chained to a cross, bleeding, sweating and dramatically pleading mercy for a man he says is innocent. Adrien Brody glowers over him and growls, “Of course he has committed a crime. His crime is that he took the place in your hearts that belonged to me!”

This is the climax of the international trailer for “Dragon Blade,” a $65 million movie that gets its world premiere in China this month. Helmed by Hong Kong director Daniel Lee and produced by top-line star Jackie Chan, it’s the first recipient of funds from a new investment body, the Beijing Cultural Assets Film and Television Fund, and is clearly aimed at a global audience.

Judging from the trailer, “Dragon Blade” looks like a terrible film — in an exuberant, spectacular, irresistible kind of way. Alongside Chan, Cusack and Brody, it features the K-pop superstar Choi Siwon from the stadium-filling group Super Junior; Lorie Pester, who is often described as France’s answer to Britney Spears; Vanness Wu, an American actor who’s big in Taiwan; and the Chopstick Brothers, a duo whose insanely bizarre music video “Little Apple” has been viewed nearly a billion times in China.

This isn’t “Flowers of War,” the Christian Bale epic that was China’s submission for the 2012 best foreign language film Oscar and the country’s most expensive movie ever. It’s not even “Outcast,” the Chinese Nicolas Cage vehicle that’s out in the U.S. this week — and another censor-placating historical schlockfest — that at least looks as though it was made with some basic competence. The most fitting response to the “Dragon Blade” trailer came in the form of a comment on Reddit, “This is a parody, right?”

The movie may not collect critical accolades, but it nonetheless heralds the film industry’s shift away from Hollywood insularity and toward a more intercultural global cinema.

How China is changing film

Despite what the haters say, “Dragon Blade” has its sights set on raking in some serious cash, with a Chinese premiere on the Lunar New Year and distribution secured across East Asia and the Persian Gulf. There’s growing Twitter hype from fans of Chan, Choi and the rest, and if things go well, we could see it hitting screens in the U.S., which would be great news for anyone who wants to see Academy Award winner Brody play a pantomime villain.

While more than a few Americans mistook the movie for a joke, it’s serious business for studio bosses in China and further afield. “Dragon Blade” marks a tipping point for two interlocking trends shaping our cinematic future: China’s growing ambition and influence in the worldwide movie business and the globalization of that business, with increasing numbers of international co-productions of films tailored to resonate with audiences in multiple territories.

On the face of it, both trends appear to engender bad movies. Critics nostalgic for the golden age of Hollywood, when there was more overlap between critical and popular success, are saying that the big studios are less willing to bankroll thoughtful storytelling every year. Grown-up films like “Boyhood,” “Birdman,” “Whiplash” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” may pick up Oscar nominations, but they rarely conquer the box office charts, which are the domain of noisy, spectacle-filled fantasies featuring superheroes, wizards, pirates, robots and toys.

It’s good for mainstream Americans, notoriously insular cultural consumers, to remember that there are artists in other countries with their own takes on the world.

This latter type of movie — the inoffensive, visually entrancing global hit — is a safe bet in the U.S. and for overseas audiences, which are making up an increasing portion of Hollywood revenue. This is largely due to the rapid expansion of Chinese cinema chains: China overtook Japan in 2012 as the second-largest movie market in the world, after the U.S., and industry observers expect it to take first place by 2020.

To succeed in China, where only 34 foreign films receive licensing rights per year, American films must avoid not only any material that is politically sensitive or socially risqué but also heavy dialogue or specific cultural reference points that could get lost in translation. This pattern can be discerned in global box office stats. The latest installments of the “Transformers” and “The Hobbit” franchises, for example, owe a larger proportion of their profits to foreign markets than the darker and more politically allegorical “Hunger Games” and “Dark Knight” movies.

Meanwhile, China, which hasn’t had a big international hit since “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (technically a co-production among Korea, China, Hong Kong and the U.S.) is aiming to craft its own global blockbusters. A new $3 billion movie lot is under construction in the eastern port town of Qingdao, and its groundbreaking ceremony was attended by such Hollywood luminaries as Harvey Weinstein and Leonardo DiCaprio. Tapping into the U.S. market would simultaneously produce big bucks for China and boost its prestige and cultural influence.

Welcoming the change

Chinese censorship and its impact on the global movie marketplace are undoubtedly problematic. But there is an upside to cinema’s shift away from Hollywood. Chinese investors are helping plug a gap in funding for films such as “Looper,” Rian Johnson’s thoughtful thriller, which was partly set in Shanghai in order to gain status as a U.S.-China co-production.

It’s good for mainstream Americans, notoriously insular cultural consumers, to remember that there are artists in other countries with their own takes on the world. “Dragon Blade” may not be the film to get U.S. moviegoers queuing up, but sooner or later, there will be a Chinese crossover hit. (It’ll happen sooner if Chinese censors relaxed their oppressive rules on taboo topics.) Perhaps we’ll see best picture Oscars in 30 years going not just to Chinese films but also to movies from India and Nigeria, whose movie industries are also booming.

The worst-case scenario is that more and more films are aimed at such a broad demographic that they lose all distinctive flavor. Consider the seventh “Fast and Furious” movie, which is due out this year; the franchise has been big in Russia, Mexico and Brazil. The best is that a new internationalism will result in more striking, off-the-wall mashups such as “Snowpiercer,” a bilingual South Korean film featuring a mixture of Korean and Hollywood stars and based on a French graphic novel, which made the bulk of its profits in China.

It’s not totally out of the question. After all, “Dragon Blade” may come across as bizarre, but it’s not bland, and you certainly couldn’t mistake it for anything homegrown.

Jessica Holland is a freelance multimedia journalist interested in culture and innovation in the Middle East. A selection of her work can be found at jessholland.co.uk.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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