FUZHOU, China—For hundreds of years, China used the Silk Road to ship porcelain, tea and other goods around the world. Now the nation is using a new incarnation of the old trading network to export a signature good of China’s 21st century: movies.
The “One Belt, One Road” initiative, announced in 2013, would reconfigure global trading if it succeeds, and place Chinese investments including railways and power grids in at least 69 countries that mirror the ancient Silk Road, including parts of Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa. The program provides a natural export market for China’s growing movie industry.
Through co-productions with the other countries and nationalist on-screen narratives, China’s growing film industry is treating One Belt, One Road—also known as the Belt & Road Initiative—as a major test of its ability to export Chinese culture. A Chinese actress,
even wore a dress designed like a Chinese flag at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and explained it was to show support for the initiative.
“A lot of people have never been to China, but they get to see how the lives are like in movies,” said
president of Shanghai Film Corp. “They get to see how the people look and live their lives through watching films, so in today’s modern era, film is one of the most valuable cultural forms.”
The Belt & Road Initiative, named for a pair of land and sea trading routes, potentially creating a global entertainment landscape that isn’t as dominated by Hollywood as it is today.
Beijing-based Shinework Media has an entire Belt & Road slate of productions planned with producers from countries along the route. It includes a comedy with Iran; a sports drama with Brazil; and a disaster epic with Indonesia.
The films projects come as China makes other One Belt, One Road investments, including high-speed rail and oil pipelines, in those and neighboring countries.
Shinework is finishing filming on “Composer,” the first co-production between China and Kazakhstan, and the clearest example yet of a production targeting Belt & Road goals.
“Composer” will portray Xian Xinghai, a 20th-century Chinese composer who worked in Kazakhstan, as a sign of the countries’ history of trade and cooperation. The film was inspired by a speech delivered by Chinese President
that mentioned the musician.
“I was touched by President Xi’s account. It was then that I felt obliged to shoot the movie,”
a Beijing-based producer of “Composer,” told state media.
Chinese producers are heeding the call of Chinese officials, who in 2015 cited movies as a crucial piece of One Belt, One Road in a memo outlining the “visions and actions” of the program, which is expected to invest roughly $1 trillion in various projects through 2049. Establishing a “people-to-people bond” through film festivals and film production in the route’s countries was listed alongside goals like “policy coordination” and “financial integration.”
In China’s film industry, government support for a production can mean far more than just financial investment. Movies that adhere to officially sanctioned themes typically move easily past government censors and other bureaucratic hurdles.
China has produced countless propaganda films that run on state television, but the Belt & Road themes have so far been woven into more commercial productions. A major liability to the efforts is China’s record in mixing policy and production; such efforts have been seen by audiences as pandering, and few Chinese titles have resonated in overseas markets so far.
One example is “Kung Fu Yoga,” a January co-production between China and India about two archaeologists who join forces to find an ancient Tibetan treasure.
In reality, Indian politicians remain skeptical about joining One Belt, One Road, but the movie tries making the case for them. In one scene, an Indian archaeologist sells her Chinese counterpart (
) on the search.
“We could increase the cooperation in archaeological research between China and India,” the Indian archaeologist says. “It would also be in line with the One Belt One Road policy.”
“So well said!” a Chinese character responds.
More potential collaborations were on display at the fourth annual Silk Road International Film Festival earlier this month, an event created to promote co-productions and build a new market for movies catering to Belt & Road regions.
Held in Fuzhou, a port city and centuries-old trading hub, the festival featured a giant map of the original trading routes. Chinese film stars autographed it on their way in.
Government support for Belt & Road-themed projects came in handy for
a Turkish producer of “The Cook and the Princess,” a film adaptation of a 13th-century Silk Road fairy tale about a Chinese princess who travels with a Turkish cook to Anatolia to warn about invaders.
Mr. Yavuz said he had been trying to secure financing for the project for three years before meeting Chinese investors who lit up when they heard about its Silk Road themes.
When the movie starts shooting in May, he plans to film in China, Turkey and other Silk Road locations. After production has wrapped, the Belt & Road countries become a natural market for the movie, he said, since countries in the Middle East and Asia want more conservative features than what Hollywood produces.
“The productions that come out of Turkey are much more cautious about family values,” he said.
Within China, a number of nationalist blockbusters fill theaters featuring characters saving the day along the Belt & Road region.
In this year’s “China Salesman,” a Chinese cellphone specialist triumphs over European carriers for a contract in North Africa. “Wolf Warrior 2,” the highest-grossing Chinese title this year, features scenes of Chinese officials coming to the rescue in Africa after U.S. authorities fail.
“China Salesman” director
said the Belt & Road Initiative has boosted interest from overseas buyers of his movie. He has sold distribution rights in more than 30 countries along the route.
“My script is focused on sharing, and One Belt, One Road is also focused on sharing, so it just came together,” he said.
Write to Erich Schwartzel at firstname.lastname@example.org