In the thick of a classical revival, when China's literati returned fawningly to ancient prose, the folk epic Journey to the West was published in the vernacular of the country's streets and market stalls. It was the 16th century, and so uneasy was the novel's author at having written it, as one modern scholar put it, "in the vulgar tongue" that he chose anonymity. In the few hundred years since, the Chinese masterwork has been adapted for theater, television and the big screen, including a particularly grandiose, costly new film to be released in 2012. The movie will appear in the contemporary language of the people: 3-D.
China is in the throes of a cinematic growth spurt. Last year, box-office takings in the Middle Kingdom swelled 64% to reach an all-time high of $1.5 billion. At the source of the surge was James Cameron's sci-fi spectacular Avatar, which raked up over $205 million in China, or just under 10% of its global gross a record for the country. The enormous success of the import has spurred on a burgeoning domestic industry. China rolled out 526 pictures last year up 15% from 2009 rendering it the third largest maker of movies after Bollywood and Hollywood. The standard for Chinese blockbusters has also shot up; this month Let the Bullets Fly became, with a haul of over $100 million, the most profitable homegrown film in the nation's history.
The elements have aligned such that the development of China's 3-D movie market is rushing alongside its box-office boom. It's a fortunate confluence: as multiplexes are springing up in a dizzying infrastructure expansion, new cinematic technology and investor wealth are streaming in. It takes less than $60,000 to make 3-D-capable digital-projection systems of the kind China is now building. "Show one Avatar and you've made that sum back," says Hong Kong film producer and distributor Nansun Shi. In places with far longer cinematic traditions, retrofitting old theaters has been that much more pricey and time-consuming. China's Film Bureau reported in January that the country erected 313 theaters and 1,533 screens in 2010 for a total of over 6,200 screens. About 80% of those are digital and so far 1,100 of them 3-D-enabled, a number second only to the 6,000 or so 3-D screens in the U.S. Steeply priced 3-D tickets have, naturally, helped widen sales. But wider film sales or rather the profusion of movie-house shrines being built to them have also fueled the rise of 3-D.
It is a cultural moment and a commercial opportunity not to be misspent. As Yu Dong, chief executive of leading Chinese production company Bona Film Group, lamented at June's Shanghai International Film Festival, "China has created a superhighway for 3-D films, but has so far left the lanes open only to Hollywood studios." One of the most highly attended seminars at that gathering considered how local filmmakers might respond to Avatar's overwhelming achievement. Not so long ago, audiences in China had to be briefed on how to wear their 3-D glasses. Now moviemakers are scrambling to deliver three-dimensional images to a nation delighting in its own modernity.
But China's Avatar, should a domestic effort match that movie's success, will not look like Cameron's. As Shi says, "We don't do science fiction." Even when the packaging is of the cutting edge, Chinese pictures heave with history. Right now filming in a wintry Beijing, the $50 million 3-D feature Monkey King, by Hong Kong director Soi Cheang and featuring Chow Yun-fat, is based on an episode from that 16th century fable Journey to the West. The story is of a Chinese Buddhist monk sent, with a supernatural primate and other companions, to India in quest of religious scriptures. In a separate effort, Shi and her husband, the Hong Kong director Tsui Hark, are now shooting Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, a 3-D film starring Jet Li that is a remake of a martial-arts movie set in the Ming Dynasty. A new 3-D animation for release in July will pit an ancient rabbit in tai chi slippers against what else? a kung fu panda.
Still, for all their nationalist vigor, these vast-budget ventures are reliant on foreign help. Local production teams are as yet unprepared to go it alone and, by Tsinghua University cinema scholar Yin Hong's estimate, will not arrive at America's current technological standards for another 10 years. "The 3-D generation is here," he says. "China is not ready, but we have to cope." Monkey King has imported the whole of Hollywood's tech force: for 3-D and IMAX effects, it will employ Avatar's production crew, and for special effects, the same Weta Workshop that enlivened the Lord of the Rings trilogy. "Not enough people in China are trained in 3-D and we don't have the experience to make a movie of Hollywood quality," says director Cheang. "For us, this is just the beginning. But in this market, you have to move fast."
Local filmmakers are hoping to learn from the hired help to imbue their movies with that immersive, Avatar-esque quality that is so well suited to China's majestic period pieces. Now is as crucial a time as any: in mid-March, by a World Trade Organization ruling, China will further open its film market to foreign flicks and a wave of fresh competition. "It's not about the money," Shi says of the country's cinematic belatedness. "It's about a knowledge base that cannot be built up overnight. In America, the role of film has been completely different than it has been here." In other words, now that China speaks the language, it has quite a lot of reading to do.