Asian cinema gains ground as Hollywood’s hold on the box office decreases

A screen shot of Cambodian Film The Missing Picture, which will be screened at Asia House on 5 March

A screen shot of Cambodian Film The Missing Picture, which was screened at Asia House on 5 March

Asian cinema gains ground as Hollywood’s hold on the box office decreases

24 February 2014

By Andrew Simpson

Every year heralds a new frontier for Asian cinema. With its economies growing exponentially, every 12 months we hear talk that this year will finally represent a tipping point, a year in which the Asian film market will become more important than its Western counterpart.

2013 was the year in which the numbers appeared to suggest as much.

Hollywood’s hold on the global box office has been decreasing year-on-year, with 2012 seeing Hollywood’s share of the global market slipping to 63 per cent, a record low.

2012 also saw China become the second-largest market for cinema outside of the US. What’s more, even though this rise up a very significant league table came at the expense of Japan, the strength of what is known as the Asia-Pacific region was finally confirmed, with that region (powered by China, Japan, India and South Korea) poised to overtake the region represented by Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

The Asian cinemagoer therefore is also becoming harder to ignore.

It’s a trend that is being reflected in the way that Western cinema is made, particularly in Hollywood.

For example, the last 12 months has seen Iron Man 3, 2013’s biggest global hit, was written with the Chinese market in mind, and the B-movie remake Red Dawn being was digitally altered to remove Chinese ‘baddies’, and thus restore the film to a vital market – China.

The Guillermo del Toro blockbuster Pacific Rim, while generally considered a failure in the USA, may get a sequel because of its enormous haul in the East’s biggest market – China.

Interestingly, China’s big box office hit of 2012, comedy Lost in Thailand, was the first film to earn more than one billion yuan at the domestic box office. Yet it was a domestic film American Hangover-influenced style of comedy. With the rest of that year’s Top 10 being dominated by American films, Asian cinema looked to be squeezed out by Hollywood. But 2013 told a different story.

In China, now the barometer of the success of the continent’s cinema, only three of the country’s 10 highest grossers were Hollywood films in 2013.

In fact in 2013 the top-grossing movie in China was not a Hollywood film but Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering Demons, a deceptively titled example of an unmistakably Chinese film triumphing on home soil. However, there have been tensions between China and Hollywood over China’s attempts to control when American films are released in China, often making them overlap so that domestic films do well instead, whereas Hollywood would rather not release blockbusters the same week.

Asia appears to be holding its own at home, whilst also making itself known in the West. Japan and South Korea also produce films that trounce their American competitors at the domestic box office, while India, South Asia’s major film industry, continues its long history of absorbing Western influence while retaining its cinema’s distinctive personality.

Bollywood films often crack the UK’s top 10 on release, Dhoom 3’s release in December 2013 being one example. Miyazaki’s magisterial The Wind Rises is due out in the UK in May. It took more than $100 million in Japan and is a frontrunner for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer sees a South Korean auteur make the most expensive film in his country’s history, one that retains its authors stamp while working in the English language for the first time, and working with stars such as Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and Jamie Bell. Legal wrangles with American producer Harvey Weinstein over the final cut of that film appear like a microcosm of a broader battle between Western and Eastern filmmaking styles and Western and Eastern money.

The balance and influence between Asia and Hollywood are rapidly changing, then, and this is also true of smaller, independent Asian cinema. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the programme for the Pan-Asia Film Festival 2014, with Opening Night Gala Unforgiven seeing director Lee Sang-il – who has interestingly criticised Japan’s inward-looking film culture as a sign of a worrying conservatism – reversing the historical trend of Hollywood remaking Japanese cinema, and instead remaking an American classic for Japan. Dangerous Liaisons, in shifting a novel made famous on film by Stephen Frears to 1930s Shanghai, manages something similarly bold. Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy shows Thai cinema engaging with the nature of identity in a technology-laden world, and is perhaps the film Wes Anderson could have made if he was more engaged with our times as his films are very self consciously ‘retro’ and are generally set in the past as opposed to the modern, technologically governed world. That Gucci supports the film is just another sign of the changing fortunes of Asian cinema.

A screen shot of Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain which will be screened at the ICA on 9 March.

A screen shot of Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain which will be screened at the ICA on 9 March

With the brilliant Chinese thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice recently winning the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, it’s clear that Asian cinema is moving with a changing world, and doing much to change itself. It is an exciting time to be running a festival such as this one.

Andrew Simpson is the Head Programmer of the Asia House Pan Asia Film Festival. 

For full details about the Pan-Asia Film Festival click here.