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Seattle’s filmtasy a reality– A talk with director of Chinese blockbuster Finding Mr. Right

Seattle is best known in China not because of Boeing or Microsoft (maybe a little bit because of Starbucks though), but mostly because of films: first Sleepless in Seattle, and now the Chinese blockbuster Finding Mr. Right, or Beijing Meets Seattle as it is known in Chinese.

Beijing Meets Seattle tells the love story of Wen Jiajia, a 26-year-old Beijing woman who went to Seattle on a tourist visa to give birth to the child of her rich married lover, and Frank, a down-on-luck immigrant who used to be a successful cardiologist in Beijing. Written and directed by Xue Xiaolu, a new-generation director known for her high-standard scripts and directing, Beijing Meets Seattle is Xue’s second self-scripted and self-directed movie, following Ocean Heaven in 2010, a tear-jerking film about a terminally-ill single father (played by martial arts super start Jet Li who took the role for free in support of the philanthropic cause) and his autistic son.

Made with a modest budget of roughly $5 million, Beijing Meets Seattle grossed $85 million in China in the 2013 spring season, which is generally a low season for movies. The film, which is the fourth highest-grossing Chinese film so far in 2013, ranks sixth on the list of top 10 films released in China this year. But what sets this film apart is not its box office success, but the impact it made on the popularity of Seattle.

For many Chinese, their first impression of the American city came from Sleepless in Seattle, the Hollywood romantic comedy featuring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Chinese tourists have been swarming to the city ever since. According to Visit Seattle, a private nonprofit marketing organization, the city saw a 90% surge in Chinese visitors in the past two years, which was recently greatly boosted by Beijing Meets Seattle. According to the statistics from, a Chinese tourism website, there was a 120% increase of online consultation about trips to Seattle by the end of March, merely a week after the film hit the screen on March 21.

Xue Xiaolu Photo: Courtesy of Xue Xiaolu

Writer and director Xue Xiaolu has received a number of accolades because of the huge success of the film. She was awarded the title of “Cultural Ambassador” by the government of Seattle and the nearby city of Bellevue in October. She became the very first Chinese female film director admitted into the renowned American professional organization Women in Film. Amid her busy schedule promoting Beijing Meets Seattle’s overseas screening, Xue sat down with and talked about her latest smash hit movie and her life.

International success

The Chinese film industry is growing at a rapid speed. In the first three quarters of 2013, the Chinese box office revenue almost reached the total of the entire year of 2012, a whopping 17 billion yuan (roughly 2.79 billion USD), with 27 films exceeding the 100-million-yuan threshold. In the overall box office chart, half of the top grossers are Chinese films, which is a noticeable change from the previous years when Hollywood blockbusters dominated the chart.

In 2012, China became the second largest film market in the world after the United States. While movie makers in Hollywood are trying to take advantage of China’s massive movie-watching crowd, the Chinese are trying to take a bite of the overseas market. However, the Chinese movies have not done very well overseas. For example, 75 Chinese films were screened in 80 countries and regions in 2012. But they brought in a mere 1.063 billion yuan profit ($174 million), less than 6% of the overall domestic ticket sales.

It is a fact that the Chinese films seldom do well in the overseas market, unless they are martial arts-themed. Nor do Chinese films tend to get the overseas critics’ attention, certainly not Chinese romantic comedies. However, Beijing Meets Seattle is an exception. On May 6, as soon as the film finished its theatrical release in the Chinese mainland, The Hollywood Reporter, a major publication focused on the American film industry, posted a review of the film on its website, a rather unusual act.

Following the October fans meeting and film screening in Seattle, the film made an official return to the US and premiered at an event hosted by Directors Guild of America on November 8. The American audience generally reacted positively to the film, which was exactly what Xue wanted to find out. “I was curious to see whether the American audience could understand the film or not,” Xue said in the interview prior to the screening.

Beijing Meets Seattle is now screening in a number of US cites. “We did not spend big money on promotion so it won’t be screened in mainstream cinemas in the US. And I have a moderate expectation of the box office performance,” Xue admitted.

The Chinese media have a general consensus that there is no Chinese film maker in Chinese mainland who has the power to command the overseas market like Ang Lee, which is considered a big barrier for the Chinese movies to “go out”. If Xue could create a similar B.O. success story in the US as she did in China, she may be poised to become such a director. But Xue brushed this notion off.

“I am interested in films that juxtapose China and another country. But I am not making films for the purpose of ‘going out’. That is just too utilitarian. I make a film because the story moves me. If it has the potential to ‘go out’, it will happen naturally,” Xue continued, “After all, I am a Chinese. I will continue to focus on the Chinese film market because I understand it better.”

Xue Xiaolu receiving the “Outstanding Individual for Promoting Sino-US Film Collaboration” award from Gary F. Locke, US Ambassador to China from the Motion Picture Association (MPA) On October 23. The award was given to her in recognition of her contribution to furthering exchange and collaboration between the US and Chinese film industries. Photo: Courtesy of Xue Xiaolu

On the increasing trend of foreign film makers coming to China to tap into the story bonanza that China offers, Xue said that the cooperation of Chinese and foreign film makers is not as easy as people think. “It is not a simple matter of money. The Chinese and the westerners have different work habits and different tastes in stories. Besides, the censorship in China is also a big obstacle.”

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