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Chinese film ‘Aftershock’ shakes tradition

May be ticket to U.S. market

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China isn't content playing a critical role in the U.S. economy by gobbling up chunks of the national debt.

Now the global powerhouse is exporting some of its most popular films to American theaters, courtesy of AMC Entertainment. The theater chain is showing "Aftershock," the highest-grossing film in the Asian nation's history, and not in traditionally subtitle-friendly art houses but in multiplex theaters alongside Hollywood blockbusters.

It's part of an exclusive deal between AMC Entertainment and China Lion Film Distribution. The pact will bring up to 15 Chinese films per year to American theaters to be released on the same date in both countries — also contrary to the usual practice of releasing foreign-language films in the U.S. months after their home-country release and/or screening at American festivals.

"Aftershock" uses two devastating earthquakes — the 1976 Tangshan quake and the 2008 Sichuan quake, which killed about 250,000 people and 70,000 people, respectively — to frame a tale of a young mother forced to make a "Sophie's Choice"-type decision regarding the safety of her two children.

After a San Francisco Bay area opening last month, the film expanded recently to 23 AMC screens in eight U.S. markets with sizable Chinese-American populations — including two venues in the D.C. area, the AMC Hoffman Center 22 in Alexandria, Va., and the AMC Loews Georgetown 14 in the District.

The sprawling epic earned more than $100 million in its homeland and will be the country's official selection for best foreign-language film at the 2010 Oscars. The film is being shown with its original Chinese soundtrack and subtitles in English and Chinese.

Chinese films traditionally reach U.S. shores via independent theater houses, such as the Landmark Theatres chain. The AMC gambit could change that pattern while extending China's cultural reach.

Sean Phillips, executive producer of Yahoo Movies, called it a bold and calculated move for foreign movies such as "Aftershock" to bypass traditional art-house venues.

"It's a totally viable experiment for AMC. ['Aftershock] is a movie that already has great popularity and was made with care and quality," Mr. Phillips said. "Some audiences, even non-Chinese audiences, might be interested in films like this."

AMC boasts the kinds of resources that mom-and-pop indie theaters often lack.

"They have control over what trailers go up in their chains. If they really wanted to dedicate some of their promotional real estate, they can make it happen," he said.

AMC President of Programming Robert J. Lenihan said in a statement that the deal is similar to others that the company struck with Bollywood and Latin American-based films. The theater chain did not respond to messages from The Washington Times for further comment.

The film was not listed at Box Office Mojo, making it hard to tell how well "Aftershock" is doing. A Sunday afternoon show in Georgetown had, in addition to a Times reporter, just three viewers in the theater.

Still, members of the small audience said afterward that they enjoyed the film. Michael Cullingford, 70, and his wife, Suying, 55, were at "Aftershock" at their daughter's suggestion. Mrs. Cullingford was in China during the 1976 earthquake in Tangshan and experienced that time in China's history firsthand.

The couple said it was a "very good movie" and showed the strength of family. Mr. Cullingford added that its representation of China was "very accurate, very truthful and very realistic."

John Landers, 23, who was in China during the 2008 Sichuan quake, heard about the film through a couple of friends and had been anticipating its release. He said he enjoyed the film but had been "expecting more of a disaster film than a drama, but I prefer dramas anyway."

The film-review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes lists just two reviews of "Aftershock" — both positive. Still, of the 287 registered Rotten Tomatoes users who rated "Aftershock," 87 percent did so positively.

Leonard Maltin, host of "Maltin on Movies" with ReelzChannel and longtime critic at "Entertainment Tonight," said American audiences have had a taste of Chinese films courtesy of such popular Hong Kong talent as director John Woo and actors Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat.

The reverse is also true regarding the Wests impact on Asian directors.

"And, let's face it: Hollywood films have exerted a degree of influence on filmmakers around the world. There's certainly cross-pollination," Mr. Maltin said. "Whether that's creating a more universally palatable type of moviemaking, I don't know."

What's far more certain is that times are tough for films not that aren't remakes or reboots.

"The audience for foreign-language films, sadly, is not growing. It's been shrinking for a number of years," said Mr. Maltin, noting that films such the Oscar-winning British-Indian co-production "Slumdog Millionaire" remain the exceptions.

Doug Jones, associate programmer for the Los Angeles Film Festival, said he wonders whether AMC can reverse behavior patterns regarding foreign-film viewing in the U.S. Many ethnic and religious communities have settled on their own distribution models to see films from their homelands, Mr. Jones said, be it through private screenings or online downloads.

"That step of going to a theater to see Chinese films has gone away for a number of years," he said.

Mr. Jones called it shrewd for Chinese film companies to seek entry into American movie theaters, saying one way the international community can learn about a given culture is through its film exports.

"In that sense, a series like this could provide a great opportunity to get a sense of what is on the mind of your typical Chinese filmgoer," Mr. Jones said. "What do they respond to?"

The new film deal could be another way for China to expand its cultural interests abroad. This years blockbuster remake of "The Karate Kid" was shot in China, showed the country's natural beauty and cast its cultural traditions in a positive light.

Joseph Tse-Hei Lee, a history professor with Pace University, said the Chinese government has been encouraging its industries to expand in recent years to "globalize their own culture."

"The government wants to expand its cultural soft power," said Mr. Lee, though he suggested that this could backfire.

"The leaders of those cultural industries took advantage of the permission to do their own thing," he said, making art that doesn't always align with the pro-government agenda.

Mr. Lee found "Aftershock's" criticism of contemporary Chinese politics "impressive," but others found some of the film's content troubling. The film doesn't explore the Maoist government's lack of infrastructure at the time of the 1976 earthquake, nor does it mention China's refusal to accept foreign aid at the time.

Mr. Lee said directors such as Mr. Woo, who have worked within the Hollywood system to make movies like "Face/Off" and "Broken Arrow," are eager to bring what they've learned back home. Last year, Mr. Woo released a traditional period sword epic, "Red Cliff," that he made in mainland China to U.S. filmgoers, though, unlike "Aftershock," it showed mostly in U.S. art houses.

Mr. Woo "is trying to train the Chinese to use the latest computer graphics to make dramatic war scenes," as they're done in the U.S., Mr. Lee said. "It makes it easier for American audiences to accept good, quality Chinese movies."

Andrew Entzminger contributed to this report.

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