Culture & Society

Where Hollywood Meets Beijing

One of the most powerful women in the U.S. film industry discusses her work in China.

October 23, 2012

| by Michele Chandler

In 1986, Janet Yang landed in Shanghai as the top China advisor to Steven Spielberg during the filming of Empire of the Sun, a drama about an English boy who goes from living in a wealthy British family in Shanghai to becoming a prisoner of war during World War II. At that time, moviemaking in China was tightly regulated and the Chinese government controlled everything from approving the script to handling visa requests. Much has changed in China, and today films are being co-produced there by American studios that have enlisted Chinese partners.

Against that backdrop, Yang, president of Janet Yang Productions, continues to be a cultural ambassador who seeks to use movies to bridge understanding between China and the United States. Her film and TV credits include The Joy Luck Club, a movie that follows four Chinese-American women who live in California and gather weekly to play mahjong and share their life stories. In 2009, she worked with Disney Studios to make a Chinese version of its coveted franchise, High School Musical, for Chinese audiences. Most recently, Yang produced the film Shanghai Calling, which bills itself as “a romantic comedy about modern-day American immigrants in an unfamiliar land.”

She visited Stanford Graduate School of Business in September for the annual China 2.0 conference, and spoke about her experiences. Here are excerpts from an interview:

How did you become interested in film?

I started to see the evolution that followed the Cultural Revolution, where writers, painters, sculptors, and filmmakers were just sticking their necks out a little bit now that freedom and democracy were being discussed. It was an exciting time. I had met one filmmaker who had made a film titled Sun and Man. I was blown away by that film, I saw it as a very brave and human attempt to digest what was going on. Any discussion of the extreme activities and suffering that took place during the Cultural Revolution was considered at the time — and still — very risky or taboo.

What are the biggest issues Hollywood faces in taking films to China?

The big issues are the kinds of films and the content of the films. The Minister of China’s State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television recently made a comment about co-productions and how so many people now are trying to do very little to qualify for co-production status. People know there’s money in China and there’s a market in China, so people basically are taking international films and throwing in something very symbolic or minimal about China and then calling it a co-production. The minister said that’s a trend that has got to stop.

Both your parents were born in China. You grew up in the United States and were a teenager when you made your first trip to China with your mother, just after President Nixon’s historic visit in 1972. What was the country like then?

I can’t say it was necessarily love at first sight, but it was definitely intrigue and fascination. It was obviously a very severe place. I had my moments of trepidation — crossing the border, lots of guards, being interrogated in a small room. I didn’t even speak Chinese at the time; my mother had to interpret. There was the military presence everywhere, and this feeling of being watched and people whispering all the time. Thus began a journey for me. I felt the urge to know China and learn Chinese. I had a very palpable feeling about my roots, which I hadn’t had before, growing up in a Jewish neighborhood on Long Island.

Recently you produced Shanghai Calling in China. Remembering back to the filming of Empire of the Sun, what were the differences between making movies in China in the 1980s and in 2012?

Back in the ’80s, everything was done through government organizations and everybody belonged to a government organization — every single one of our employees from the driver to the art director to the movie extras. Everything was organized from the top down. These days, you still need a permit from the government to shoot, but they are not telling you where to shoot because they can’t dictate anymore. Going in as an indie production with Shanghai Calling, we had a lot of freedom. We could do what we thought was best, and we could choose the locations we wanted. It all really depended on our own savvy to get what we wanted.

What was your first job in China and how did that experience impact your career journey?

I graduated from Brown University, but I was also a visiting student at Harvard University. I had told all my teachers I wanted to go to China and learn proper Mandarin. A Chinese language teacher of mine at Harvard found me a job. I went off in 1980 to work for the Foreign Languages Press, the publishing arm of the government that published all the books and magazines for export. I helped them edit and translate books. Without that year in Beijing, I would not have mastered Chinese, despite years of studying it in school. I believe it’s nearly impossible to really learn a language unless you’re living in an environment where it’s constantly spoken. Furthermore, the experience helped me solidify my mission, which has inspired me to this day. I saw a creative spirit in the Chinese people that I had not seen in the States, and I also saw that Chinese faces could be just as captivating on screen as any. It was not a fait accompli that somehow we were shut out of the world of drama and entertainment, as I had subconsciously concluded growing up in this country. So many people are jumping into the China space due to the lure of money and a huge market, without necessarily knowing how miraculous it is that China got to where it is today. It is not the material wealth of the nation that is impressive. More importantly, it is the resilience and resourcefulness of the people that has made the highly improbable possible — that, I find awe-inspiring and endlessly fascinating.

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