Stars shine with a different shimmer

Stars shine with a different shimmer

The appeal of foreign film deities in China is a mystery shrouded in cultural niceties and uncontrollable timing.

The recent death of an 83-year-old Japanese actor created a wave of commemoration in China, which is quite unusual in the current climate of tense Sino-Japanese relations.

Even though Ken Takakura is widely revered in both countries, his unique stature in China was made possible by a film that probably did not feature prominently in his 205-film body of work.

For Japanese audiences, Manhunt was just another of his movies; but for Chinese with a memory of the late 1970s, it was an eye-opener. It opened our vistas to films with chases, suspense, the hero wronged and the girl who dares to go on the run with him.

There is another Japanese celebrity on a - hmm, how shall I put it? - almost similar pedestal in the Chinese consciousness. Her name is Sola Aoi, and her Chinese microblog has 15 million followers.

The 31-year-old started her career in pornography and nude modeling, but has been branching out into mainstream entertainment.

Although she is well-known to consumers of Japanese adult video, the top Japanese diplomat to China had never heard of her until he arrived in China.

Asked by a Chinese reporter about the possibility of hiring Aoi as a grassroots goodwill emissary between peoples of the two countries, ambassador Masato Kitera replied, according to a report by ifeng.com, that he considers it a shame for Japan's art and culture that Aoi, of all Japanese artists, is the most popular in China.

The popularity of entertainment personalities has many variables, some of which cannot be easily explained. (People try anyway.) And their overseas status is often the function of factors that even the best analysts and pundits cannot fathom but, interestingly, may reflect certain cultural variances.

For example, why do Chinese movie buffs swoon over Keira Knightley but not Reese Witherspoon? Both are movie-star gorgeous and both have acting chops to boot.

You can cite the works they appear in because their public personas are invariably molded by the roles they take on. And the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is certainly a widely watched platform for Knightley to strut her stuff.

But there is more than hit movies at work here. Shia LaBeouf and Mark Wahlberg are in the Transformers movies, which got astronomical returns at China's box office, yet their name recognition in China is probably less than that of Wentworth Miller, whose only memorable role is in Prison Break.

Like Ken Takakura, Miller was lucky that his TV series entered the Chinese realm at a special moment, in this case when video content began to be streamed or downloaded en masse and thus made available to a new generation growing up with the Internet.

Had he appeared five years later, though, the impact would have been much diminished because Chinese netizens by then were swamped with a plethora of programming choices.

Unlike Takakura, Miller turned out to be a one-trick pony who is largely forgotten in his own country.

In business parlance, both actors enjoyed first-mover advantage, coming into a market that had just been opened. Obviously, the meaning of "open" here is hard to define.

Your movie could be screened in cinemas and fail to attract an audience of significant size, or it might not find any distributors but somehow stumble upon a huge following, often through a channel newly available and not yet noticed by mainstream distributors.

Right now, if you could tailor-make a show for the fragmentary viewership of the mobile gadget, you would be able to win a viewer base unrivaled by any traditional media.

When debating cross-cultural appeal, two camps usually emerge: One is for sameness, and the other differences.

The former argues that, despite our surface differences, human nature is fundamentally the same, which makes possible the appreciation of stories and characters from faraway lands; the latter values the things that set us apart and identify us as who we are.

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