During a state visit to India in 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a movie deal, paving the way for three films to be co-produced and distributed in both countries. This was part of Xi’s charm offensive towards China’s large and wary neighbour as he promoted his Belt and Road initiative, which aims to better connect the Eurasian landmass to China.
Last year, Xuanzang became the first of the three co-productions to hit the big screen. The film starred heartthrob Huang Xiaoming as the Chinese monk who journeyed through India in the seventh century hunting for original Buddhist texts (the monk was the inspiration behind Journey to the West, one of China’s four literary classics). Nevertheless Xuanzang flopped at the box office, collecting only Rmb33 million ($4.8 million), or roughly one third of its production cost.
Thankfully, the next two films – which premiered during the Chinese New Year holiday – were better received. Both were action comedies: Buddies in India and Jackie Chan’s Kung Fu Yoga.
Chan’s latest offering sees the 62 year-old play an archaeologist seeking an Indian gem with magical powers, while the other film follows a monkey trainer and a coddled tycoon as they travel through India.
Together the two films have taken Rmb2.4 billion in ticket sales and the strong performance of the co-productions has led Chinese film regulators to boost from two to four the number of movies from India set to show this year.
Kung Fu Yoga features the usual Jackie Chan action. His role as an Indiana Jones-style archaeologist is also a throwback to his epic flop The Myth in 2005. Moviegoers may have had high expectations of the fusion of kung-fu and yoga in the combat scenes, ThePaper.cn notes, but the result is largely lacklustre. “The yoga on display is largely confined to some pretty women dancing,” the news portal suggests.
However, it probably did help that Chan got some assistance from younger Bollywood stars. “The producers have widened the film’s appeal by casting a group of young actors and actresses… Along with the exotic backdrops and special effects, it is hard to deny that the film is entertaining to watch,” says TMT Post.
Ticket subsidies might have helped too. It is rumoured that the distributors allocated as much as Rmb100 million ($14.5 million) to subsidise the cost of the tickets. Chief Entertainment Officer, an entertainment blog, has revealed that a month before its release, tickets to Kung Fu Yoga were already available for sale for only Rmb8.8 on Alibaba’s movie platform. (This promotional tactic is generally used to boost initial sales with movie producers’ hoping that the positive word-of-mouth this generates will lead theatre operators to show their film on more multiplex screens.)
The Chinese government will likely have encouraged cinema bosses to devote more screens too, as the film comes with a political agenda. In one scene, for instance, an Indian professor is seen expounding enthusiastically about the Belt and Road policy. In another, Chan proclaims he is, “Supporting the country’s initiative One Belt, One Road by facilitating the cultural exchange between China and India”.
One netizen quips: “It sounds like a Party slogan. But then that’s hardly surprising since Jackie Chan always toes the party line.”
“Chan always makes sure he is politically correct. And even though he is promoting a film abroad he still manages to promote Party policy,” another wrote (such remarks recall earlier criticism of the Hong Kong action star, see WiC347).
Even though Kung Fu Yoga was hailed as a joint effort between India and China, Bollywood studio Viacom 18 dropped out of the production very early on. This explains why the film is more kung-fu than yoga. Nevertheless, in an effort to appease Indian audiences, there is a Bollywood-style dance sequence at the end.
The film looks like making the bulk of its earnings in China rather than India. According to Hollywood Reporter, it earned just 40 million rupees ($588,000) on its opening day in India early this month.
Media outlets there were also offended by the stereotypes portrayed in the film. The Hindustan Times called it “a mangled mess,” adding that the director Stanley Tong, who co-wrote the script, “is big on simplicity and stereotypes. This isn’t a nuanced take on either culture. It’s designed as a rollercoaster ride.”
The Wire India was more scathing still, describing Chan’s film as an “overdose of cultural stereotypes – Tong and his crew look like the kind of people who come to India, pay for a ‘slum tour,’ go back to their countries patting themselves on the back, claiming to have understood an entire country. Or the kind who failed cultural studies class in college.”
To be fair to Chan, any foreigner who seeks to make a film about India leaves themselves open to withering local criticism. Even the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire got its fair share of blowback.
For example, the critic Gautaman Bhaskaran wrote of Danny Boyle’s movie that “there is nothing Indian about this film” and went on to say it has “very little substance” is “superficial and insensitive” and has too much British English dialogue.
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