When Aynne Kokas watches movies like "The Mummy," "The Karate Kid" or "Mission Impossible," she isn’t seeking mere entertainment. Instead, she is considering such factors as production processes and film locations — particularly if the films were shot in China.
Doctoral student Aynne Kokas studies modern-day collaborations between China and America.
Kokas, a Ph.D. candidate in Asian Languages and Cultures, has been studying Asian cinema, modern and contemporary Chinese literature, as well as transnational Chinese cultural production for the past decade. She is fresh off a summer in China, where she was a UCLA-Fudan Scholarly Translation fellow at Fudan University in Shanghai and presented her research at two conferences.
Much of what Westerners envision of China, Kokas said, has been gleaned from popular film and television offerings that leave audiences with the impression that China is still much like it was a century ago.
"When people think of China," she said, "they often think of 1930s Shanghai and images of the Pearl of the Orient, or martial artists travelling through bamboo groves."
But that’s changing. Movie audiences got a look at the futuristic architecture of Beijing and Shanghai in death-defying scenes of Tom Cruise scaling the Bank of China building in "Mission Impossible III." Settings like this, along with China’s thriving economy and avid interest in American culture, make the country an attractive location for American film producers. Yet a policy of the Chinese State Administration for Radio, Film and Television allows only 20 foreign films to be distributed there each year. The policy, which is intended to keep China’s film industry strong, leaves filmmakers from other countries out in the cold.
Westerners often imagine that China still looks as it did in this scene from 1930s Shanghai, Kokas says.
A mutually beneficial compromise, filmmakers are finding, are American-Chinese co-productions, which aren’t affected by the 20-films limit and, given China’s massive film-going audience, are more profitable. These collaborations are also important to the professional development of Chinese filmmakers, who gain access to their American partners’ state-of-the-art equipment and expertise.
Kokas, who grew up in Bloomsfield Hills, MI, first became interested in China in the late '90s as she witnessed the decline of the auto industry in neighboring Detroit. While manufacturers were laying off workers and closing down local plants, she observed, they were simultaneously setting up factories in China. Kokas went on to study political science and Chinese at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. While in college, she worked 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 graduate-level program offered by the East-West Center in Honolulu.
In 1999, while living in Beijing, Kokas’s interest in film was serendipitously sparked when she answered an ad from a woman looking for a roommate in the residential compound of the Beijing Film Studio. That living arrangement led to friendships with people in the film industry along with new avenues for research.
Shanghai's futuristic architecture makes it a popular location for film productions.
For her dissertation, Kokas is exploring several facets of American-Chinese co-productions, from how American producers convey China and its people in their films, to the importance of cross-cultural communication among "below the line" film workers, including technicians, translators, stunt people and body doubles.
"One of the biggest challenges is the issue of communication and assumptions surrounding what constitutes the right way to make a film," said Kokas. For example, "legal standards are different between the U.S and China. Definitions surrounding contracts, what is a workday, 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 area of expertise — Kokas also studies transnational and transcultural media branding — took centerstage when she gave a presentation earlier this month at the UCLA-USC East Asian Studies Center’s Media and Culture in Contemporary China conference. Her topic: the upcoming Disney Shanghai theme park and that company’s preparations for the 2014 opening with Disney-brand products that range from clothing to interactive toys that introduce children to Mickey Mouse and other characters while also teaching basic English words and phrases.
A Fulbright Scholar and UCLA Presidential Scholar, Kokas currently teaches Global Environment courses through UCLA’s Institute of Environment and Sustainability. But her interests in China remain at the forefront.
"I’d love to be able to do more work," she said, "that facilitates both educational and cultural collaborations between the U.S. and China."
Read articles by Kokas in Asia Pacific Arts magazine.