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Director behind 'Great Wall' says China has a long way to go to rival Hollywood

China has a long road ahead if it wants to rival Hollywood's influence, said award-winning movie director Zhang Yimou.

Chinese audiences hotly follow U.S. actors and movies, but Americans "probably" don't care much about Chinese movies, Zhang told CNBC. On the outside, maybe they've tracked a couple of stars like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or Jet Li, he said.

"What we need is Chinese people to produce better films, and this will take some time," said the well-known director.

China has splashed billions into the entertainment industry to cobble influence abroad — giant firms like Dalian Wanda and Alibaba invested big in Hollywood. Those moves will theoretically help China to build soft power, especially as the world's second-largest economy seeks to become a valuable global connector. But China has yet to reap the rewards, and still doesn't hold Hollywood's clout. Some critics say Chinese government censorship restricts creativity, while others say the industry is still building the necessary know-how.

Censorship has "always been there … It's the reality of Chinese society," Zhang said. "I hope this will change in the future, and that things become more open as the country continues to develop … but right now, it is what it is."

Zhang has attracted government censors before — his 1994 movie "To Live" was banned in China. Still, over his long career, he's scored numerous top awards and notched plenty of major hits, including "Hero" and "Raise the Red Lantern." His latest, and first English-language film, "Great Wall," was a China-Hollywood co-production largely anticipated to pave the way for the Chinese film industry to blossom internationally. But critics tore down the movie, calling it trite, and slamming the casting of American actor Matt Damon — instead of a Chinese actor — in the lead.

Identity politics aside, Zhang said it's true that foreign firms have more advanced skills, techniques and technology, and that adds pressure to Chinese film studios. But in the long run, he added, more Chinese-Hollywood co-productions can only be a good thing.

"It creates competition, and that can drive Chinese companies to set a higher bar for themselves," Zhang said. "Cooperating with foreign teams allows Chinese to learn many new things, and we are now using what we've learned to improve."

Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou speaks with CNBC.
CNBC | Barry Huang
Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou speaks with CNBC.

For Hollywood, China remains crucial — the entire Chinese market was worth $6.6 billion at the box office last year. And for China, it's an "opportunity to export Chinese culture abroad," Zhang said.

That's an increasingly important theme as Beijing continues to pursue its "One Belt, One Road" policy — a giant plan to develop and strengthen links between China and the rest of the world. With this plan, "we are engaging others … then, we can see what we can do together, and this will be beneficial for everyone," Zhang said.

Aside from movies, Zhang has also worked on staged productions, including the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. This June, his "2047 Apologue," a theatrical dance and music concept show that explores the interaction of technology and humankind, will debut in Beijing.