Jason Blum and Tang Media’s CEO Donald Tang just made a surprise announcement at the Shanghai Film Festival: they’ve agreed to partner on a series of Chinese-language horror and thriller films to be distributed in China. The first one up will be filmed in Los Angeles, which is where Tang Media is actually headquartered, and comes with the tantalizing title American Nightmare. Insert Trump joke here.
But, hold on. Horror movies? In China? Really? Are we sure they didn’t mean South Korea? Or anywhere else in Asia, really? God knows Japan knows its way around a horror movie. But China? This is the country whose film restrictions are so well-known Sony didn’t even bother to officially submit its Ghostbusters remake to over there since Xi Jingping’s government regularly forbids any films which “promotes cults or superstition.” Now, Tang, who has lived in America since he was 17 and had a prior life as a Wall Street power broker before moving into film and TV production after the recession, and Jason Blum want to face that head-on? Why?
Oh, right. Right, right, right. The money. Blum’s effectively conquered the domestic market by settling on an unbeatable formula for profitability, but the domestic market isn’t the biggest game in town anymore. Tang, for his part, recently told THR his philosophy is to pursue a “dual-core business model” which takes the best of Hollywood (the moviemaking magic) and China (the entrepreneurial and innovative ways films are marketed there in impressively cost-effective fashion). Now, he has one of Hollywood’s premiere storytellers and genre experts helping him.
Still, they’re facing an uphill challenge. As TimeOut Shanghai explained three years ago:
China has undefined limits on violence and sexual content, two mainstays of the horror genre. Even worse are the state’s limits on superstitious content, which extends to ghosts, zombies and other symbols of the supernatural. Despite, or in fact because of, the fact that ghosts have long played a role in Chinese mythology and folk tales, they’re not allowed to appear in Mainland films for fear of encouraging superstition.
Well, that’s a problem for anyone wanting to make a horror movie, but not an unbeatable one. Locally made movies have been skirting the restrictions for years. Again, TimeOut Shangai:
Mainland horror films still include the supernatural, effectively by cheating, which leads to some pretty ludicrous plot twists. Take last year’s hit The House That A Chinese Ghost Story Never Dies (spoilers ahead). The film, inspired by a real, ostensibly haunted house at 81 Chaoyangmen Nei Dajie in Beijing, centres around a woman tormented by ghosts in a stately mansion. The film’s strong production values made it a smash at the Chinese box office despite some seriously melodramatic acting, clichéd imagery, and a feeble final act curveball in which it is revealed that the story’s protagonist was actually dosed up on LSD the whole time, rendering the ghosts we’ve seen hallucinations. Other films have likewise explained away paranormal elements as the result of bad dreams, insanity or hypnosis.
Get ready for a lot of “It was all a dream” endings, I guess. Or flashback framing devices with rather unsatisfying, but censorship board-approved happy endings, like Gao Bo’s 2017 effort The Door, which is an otherwise traditional slasher movie.
Further complicating matters: China doesn’t have a movie ratings system. The best you’ll get is a parental warning attached to anything considered to be “adult” in tone, but they only started doing that last year and kids are still allowed to get into those movies. Otherwise, everything released in China is considered acceptable for people of all ages.
Nothing graphic. Got it.
A Quiet Place managed to skirt around all of that and gain entry into the Chinese market, earning $33m in the process, which is considered a healthy sum for a horror movie over there. Blum’s own Happy Death Day was just tame enough to make it into China, where it earned $9.6m.
So, it can be done. Plus, while there are certainly some inherent challenges to advancing the horror genre into the Chinese market it also represents a tantalizing opportunity. The biggest film market in the world effectively has no real horror presence to speak of. As film producer Kevin Nui, who is also currently attempting to make headway with the horror genre in China, recently told Forbes,“There are rarely fantasy thrillers and horror films produced and screened in China. That’s why anything like that will be a breath of fresh air for the local audience.”
Just get ready to think up some creative workarounds – and probably some hokey endings – to satisfy local restrictions.