Graduate student examines the bustling world of Chinese-American movie collaborations
When Aynne Kokas watches movies like The Mummy, the Karate Kid or Mission Impossible she isn’t seeking entertainment value. Instead, she is considering the setting and the filmmaking process and how these things impact the workers who make them and the audiences who pay to see them.
“People often see images of China that conflict with their expectations,” says Kokas, a PhD candidate in Asian Languages and Cultures who is fresh off a summer in China, where she presented her research at two conferences and was a UCLA-Fudan Scholarly Translation fellow at Fudan University in Shanghai.
She says that much of what Westerners see of China is gleamed from popular film and television offerings, and this more often than not leaves them with the impression that China is still much like it was a century ago.
“When people think of China they often think of 1930s Shanghai and images of the Pearl of the Orient, or martial artists travelling through bamboo groves. This is a version of what China has looked like, but in terms of China in the 21st century a lot of times people are very surprised.”
The futuristic architecture of Beijing and Shanghai, as witnessed in the death-defying scenes of Tom Cruise scaling the Bank of China building in Mission Impossible 3, along with China’s blossoming economy and interest in American culture, make China an attractive location for American film producers to shoot. But it's not so easy to do. There is a Chinese policy that allows only 20 foreign films to be distributed there each year; an effort intended to keep China’s film industry strong but one that leaves filmmakers from other countries out in the cold.
American-Chinese co-productions are a popular and mutually beneficial compromise, says Kokas. There’s incentive in China to increase the number of Chinese films that are co-produced because they are more profitable for both sides and because the Chinese State Administration for Radio, Film and Television counts co-produced films outside of the film quota, says Kokas. These partnerships are also important for the professional development of Chinese filmmakers because they gain access to new film editing techniques and cutting-edge video equipment.
Kokas has been studying Asian cinema, modern and contemporary Chinese literature, and transnational Chinese cultural production for the past decade. Her interest in film was spurred in 1999 after she answered an ad from a woman who was looking for a new roommate to share space with her in the residential compound of the Beijing Film Studio. At that time, the studio was a work unit, says Kokas, and all of the film workers lived in the building next door. This living arrangement led to friendships with people in the film industry and inspired Kokas to consider how their work might blend with her research interests.
Her Ph.D. dissertation explores film and co-productions between China and the U.S., specifically the industrial processes of those collaborations. This includes how American film producers convey China and its people in their work, the collaborations between Chinese and American film producers that are increasingly being brokered, and the importance of cross-cultural communication among "below the line" film workers, including technicians, translators, stunt people and body doubles, to name a few.
“One of the biggest challenges is the issue of communication and assumptions surrounding what constitutes the right way to make a film,” says Kokas, stressing that miscommunication can lead to all sorts of problems. “Legal standards are different between the U.S and China. Definitions surrounding contracts, what is a work day, and workplace standards are all part of this. In the U.S, we have very robust contract law, whereas in China this is less developed. But there are other mechanisms in place to make sure things get done, for example, human relationships, which one could argue are less developed in the U.S.”
A related theme of Kokas's work — transnational and transcultural media branding — took center stage during a talk she gave at the UCLA-USC East Asian Studies Center’s Media and Culture in Contemporary China conference, held last week. It was the perfect forum, she says, to not only share her work but also to make connections with people who study and work in the film industry here and in China.
With Disney Shanghai expected to open in 2014 and higher levels of disposable income among Chinese citizens at an all-time high, Kokas says the company is positioning itself for long-term growth in the Chinese market. She says that the branding of Disney is on the rise in everything from blankets and clothing to furniture and interactive toys that introduce children to characters from diverse backgrounds and teach them basic English words and phrases. “Children learn Mickey’s native language while learning about Mickey at the same time.” Kokas says this role that Disney is playing as teacher must be done responsibly and with a great deal of consideration for the cultures and people it is representing and targeting.
Kokas learned about Disney and Mickey Mouse while growing up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Her interest in China was inspired by the economic climate she saw around her in the 1990s. The automotive industry that was driving the economy in nearby Detroit was beginning to break down. Auto plants were laying workers off and closing down shop, and a lot of factories were setting up business in China, she says.
She went on to study political science and Chinese at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and used her education and the opportunities that came to her to grow personally and professionally. She continued to expand her knowledge and experience during college by working for the United Nations food program in Bejing and later as a market entry strategy consultant in the corporate sector. She also participated in a year-long Asian Pacific leadership program where she, along with 39 other students from 20 nations, stayed at the East-West Center learning about issues of the region, intercultural communication and negotiation. A Fulbright Scholar and UCLA Presidential Scholar, Kokas has conducted research in Chinese, Korean, Spanish and German, and presented papers in Canada, Mexico, the U.S., China and Thailand.
She currently teaches students from around the world in the Global Environment freshman cluster in the Institute of Environment and Sustainability and says she’d love to have a career in academia. “I’d love to be able to do more work that facilitates both educational and cultural collaborations between the U.S. and China.”