The appreciation of cinema finally made it to the discussion of international relations.

On Saturday, 18th February I had the opportunity to speak at the 6th Young China Watchers/Lau China Institute conference, on the theme of “China: Going Global, Staying Local” held in person at King’s College London. I was part of a panel looking at UK-China relations through film exchange, together with actor and producer Alex Chang, co-founder of Paradox House, and chaired by Christopher Sargent, director of Young China Watchers. As part of the panel, I briefly summarised my research, which looks at UK-China cultural diplomacy through films, and how film relations between the two countries have evolved in the Xi Jinping era. Specifically, I am looking at UK-China film co-production since 2014 and at the way Chinese films which have been exported in the UK are received by UK audiences.

This was followed by a projection of the trailer of a recent film starring Alex Chang, A Woman at Night (2021). Speaking from a professional and practical perspective, Alex spoke of the difficulty of co-producing between China and the UK, and of broader cultural collaboration between the two countries.

Key problems which emerged were the lack of an adequately realistic and nuanced representation of British-East Asian and British-Chinese characters in the mainstream film landscape, where they are often playing roles reinforcing stereotypes or are not represented at all. Contemporary mainstream Chinese films, on the other hand, tend to reinforce national identities too sharply, without leaving space for cultural nuance and hybridity. Moreover, it was noted that contemporary Chinese films have adopted and developed technology and visual effects which make them comparable to Hollywood productions. These Chinese productions are following the Hollywood language, using impressive visual effects, high production costs, and including messages and narratives projecting the country as a leading power in the international order. In the case of Chinese films, this is the result of the film industry being recently used by the government as an important vehicle for political messages. However, audiences in the UK perceive the messages in Chinese films as too explicit, and mainstream media coverage of those mainly speaks of them under political terms.

Messages are clearly an important element of films, but probably not the main reason why the audience chooses to watch a film over another. Elements like entertainment, emotions, affection, action, or comedy are equally if not more important and might be easier to build cross-cultural exchange on, especially between two countries with different institutional, ideological and cultural structures. It was a lively and interactive discussion, to which the public contributed with insightful questions and hypotheses.

Other panels at the conference touched upon key topics pertaining China and UK-China relations, including a panel on China-North Korea relations, featuring the former British ambassador to DPRK Alastair Morgan, and an excellent panel on media representation and discourse around UK-China relations, in which the need for a more informed China policy in the UK which should make better use of the country’s Chinese studies

Guilia d’Aquila – PhD Candidate in Chinese Studies at King’s College Lau China Institute, previous winner, UK-China Film Collab Future Talent Programme

Giulia D’Aquila is a PhD Candidate in Chinese Studies at King’s College Lau China Institute. Her current research focuses on the role that Chinese contemporary films play in the international relations between the UK and China. In 2021 she was selected for the Future Talent Programme by the UK-China Film Collab, and carried out film-related activities and preparatory research as part of her project.