Tuesday, 26 July 2011

How Communist China is keeping Hollywood at Bay


[A version of this article was originally published on Flixist]

It has been a good summer for the Hollywood money-men. Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides has passed the billion dollar mark at the box-office; Transformers: Dark Of The Moon seems well on the way and has provided a much-needed boost for controversial 3D screenings, while Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part II is already breaking all sorts of records despite having been out barely over a week. Easily overcoming dire critical notices for the vast majority of its blockbuster output, Hollywood will be celebrating another summer of global success.

Except that there's one corner of the globe which continues to evade Hollywood's reach. The most populous nation on Earth, where almost 20% of the planet's population reside, is both the most enticing and frustrating market for the American film industry. The People's Republic of China has opened its borders in recent years to foreign money, resulting in an increasingly affluent urban population with a growing interest in movie-going - it is said that two new cinemas open every day in the territory. Why is it then that Hollywood is continuing to find so many obstacles in its path to establishing the same dominance over the Chinese market that it holds over the rest of the world?

The answer is that despite its huge success in moving into the Western-built capitalist marketplace, China and every aspect of its culture are still controlled by the authoritarian Communist Party of China (CPC), which has been in power since Chairman Mao Tse-tung led the People's Liberation Army, the party's military arm, to victory in the Chinese Revolution of 1949. Despite its widening presence in the free markets, the Chinese State continues to regard Hollywood as an agent for the subversion of its values and culture. The CPC is certainly well aware of the cinema's value as a propagandist tool, which has rarely been more clearly demonstrated than with the release last month of the State-produced Beginning Of The Great Revival: Birth Of A Party to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the party's founding in 1921.

China continues to heavily restrict the flow of all foreign movies onto its screens, with those fortunate enough to make it subject to severe censorship before being approved. Tantalisingly for Hollywood, jumping through those hoops can often yield great financial rewards: China's box office added an extra $200m to Avatar's gross, for example. However, having the State exerting such complete control over the market means that even when movies are accepted for Chinese screening, their distribution is still subject to the whims of a government which continues to see them as, at best, a necessary evil in presenting themselves as a successful modern nation in their (disconcertingly successful) bid to become the next global economic superpower. In other words, when the needs of Hollywood and the Chinese State are in conflict, there can only be one winner. 

Beginning Of A Great Revival proved that assertion beyond doubt. As previously mentioned, China's attitude towards Western culture seems to be acceptance solely insofar as it proves a point about the success of the Communist State's ability to offer its urban populace a lifestyle as affluent as that of any major capitalist democracy. Unfortunately for Hollywood, which had Michael Bay's Transformers ready to begin its big marketing push across the globe, the release of Great Revival inspired a new line of thinking, that it would be seen as a disgrace if an American movie were to outgross not only one of the country's most expensive productions, but one about the birth of the CPC itself. After all, how could they continue to claim that the party was successful and beloved if the people it ruled over refused to even turn up at the screenings?

The answer came in the form of a complete ban on any foreign movies whilst Great Revival was playing. Opening on over six thousand screens, some with up to twenty-four showings in a single day, Revival was subject to not only a huge marketing push, but reports of underhand tactics being employed to boost its intake as well. State-owned companies and schools were apparently forced to hand out free tickets and give students and employees a day off in order to watch the movie, whilst one chain of multiplexes was discovered to have been inflating the number of admissions by printing off tickets to Great Revival for any movie that an audience member asked to see, then manually altering the stub to the correct title. Despite these practices being revealed, the power of the State over the distribution of foreign movies within China meant that the companies affected just had to grin and bear it. Paramount's Chinese branch, whose Kung-Fu Panda 2 was wrapped up in the scandal, have yet to comment.

Despite or perhaps because of these heavy-handed tactics, the movie's subsequent struggle to live up to its pre-release hype has been a cause of major embarrassment for the Chinese government. Whilst a $50m gross in its first month is respectable enough in its own right, it is nowhere near the billion yuan (which can be very roughly rounded down to $150m) target that had been set and even below the amount recouped by the State's previous propaganda release The Foundation Of A Republic, which had a more modest budget and took in almost $10m more. The strategy of forcing companies and schools to block-book tickets - using taxpayers' money, don't forget - appears to have backfired, with reports of people preferring to use their day off to go home, leading to several auditoriums being completely empty at the time of screening despite having sold out. Meanwhile, after three weeks with no competition, the movie was comfortably pushed off the top spot by Donnie Yen's Wu Xia.

In addition to any red-faces caused by foreign press reporting on the tactics used to bolster Great Revival's box-office, negative reviews have been popping up faster than they could be deleted. Whilst subversive comments were quick to disappear from Chinese blogging website Weibo, the movie holds an abysmal 2.1/10 user score average on IMDB - a site long banned in China for precisely these reasons - and the reviews of foreign press have described the movie as everything from "too harmlessly flabby to be taken quite that seriously" (LA Times) to having a plot which "boils down to seemingly endless rounds of meetings" (Hollywood Reporter).

Rumours circulated at the time of release that blockbusters like Transformers 3 were being put on hold until Great Revival had made a minimum of 800m yuan. With that number now seemingly out of the question, Michael Bay's movie opens in China today. (As if they hadn't suffered enough). It will be interesting to see whether a movie which could be regarded as a piece of American propaganda in its own right - regardless of the unlikelihood of Chinese censors allowing the literal flag-waving to pass untouched - will be able to repeat the success it has achieved elsewhere. Or perhaps it will be quietly disappeared before then.


No less fascinating is a Chinese movie which opened opposite Transformers 3 last week, an animation three years in the making which bears a striking resemblance to Kung-Fu Panda. Only different, because it stars a fat rabbit chef-turned-kung-fu master instead of a fat panda chef-turned-kung-fu master!

If the Chinese government's attempt to artificially engineer a blockbuster in the shape of Beginning Of The Great Revival was supposed to prove that China's movies could be every bit as successful as their American equivalents and that their pro-Communist message was validated by the people (although some have pointed out the accidental irony of a movie funded by an authoritarian government which hailed the achievements of a revolution overthrowing another form of authoritarian rule), Legend of A Rabbit seems can surely be seen as nothing but a literal attempt to prove that anything Hollywood can do, China can do too. The damn thing's even being released in 3D!

You might well note that Kung-Fu Panda is a pretty strange film for China to be cloning, given how despite being an American release, it's one which offers positive messages about Chinese culture that by any logical measure ought to meet the CPC's approval. You'd be right to make such an observation, but there's an easily-overlooked detail in the trailer above which perhaps gives away how deeply ingrained Chinese paranoia is when it comes to the foreign movies it imports.

Pause at the 0:39 mark. That grumpy looking panda you see, which is present at several other points during the trailer, is in fact the movie's main villain. The official plot synopsis, courtesy of Twitch Film, reads as follows:

"One day, a dying Sifu flees from the Imperial City to a small village. He's being hunted and is on his last dying breath. He is found by a humble farmhouse cook named Tu who, at the request of the dying Sifu, must return a very important Kung Fu Academy Tablet to the Sifu's daughter Moli in the imperial city. Tu made a simple promise that turns out to change his life forever.

Never having been to the city, Tu already got off to a dangerous start. He finds the Kung Fu Academy but finds that it has already been taken over by a ruthless panda named Slash. The old master (Sifu) and his daughter has gone missing. But to keep to his promise, Tu has no choice but to stay in the Academy to wait for their return. He's bullied from day one for knowing no Kung Fu. But serving as a cook there, he picks up some Kung Fu as the days go by.

At the imperial city he meets a mysterious girl (Moli) who identifies herself as Moyan to keep her own safety. Rabbit never knew that this girl is the one he's supposed to pass the tablet to. After many misunderstandings, they finally are able to connect - but not before the big bad villain Slash decides to kill Moli and Tu for intervening with his evil plan to take over the entire China."

If we consider how China likes to use its movies as propaganda, there are some pretty fascinating messages contained in that spectacularly unoriginal plotline. Far from seeing Kung-Fu Panda as a positive reflection of its culture, Legend of The Rabbit appears to view it as an affront that a foreign production would even consider using Chinese culture as the basis for its story. Despite the two movies being so similar in terms of each hero's journey, the villainous panda can be read as almost a straight reversal of Kung-Fu Panda's Po, who acquires Kung-Fu and uses it to protect his home where Legend of the Rabbit's evil panda Slash first takes over a Kung-Fu Academy and then plans to conquer all of China. If you were one of Kung-Fu Panda's villains, isn't that pretty close to how you'd see Po's actions?

Where a Western eye would perceive Po as embracing Chinese culture, the Chinese government sees an attempt to assimilate and gain control of it. Where Kung-Fu Panda contains messages about the importance of friendship and finding peace within yourself, Legend of the Rabbit seems to exist as a warning for vigilance against foreign enemies impinging on the Chinese way of life with their own values and ideas. The implications of the fact that the panda is one of China's most important national animals, meanwhile, are either weirdly self-destructive or have been completely overlooked by the producers.

Seen through that lens, China's love-hate relationship with Hollywood, where it is as willing to ban foreign movies as it is quick to copy them and add nationalist messages, is elevated above common ideas about protecting national cinema against Westernised hegemony to a fascinating insight into the mindset of a nation whose ruling power depends upon being open to foreign business in order to fuel economic growth, but culturally insular enough to prevent the rise of pro-democratic ideologies inspired by the American ideals espoused through their movies.

That the Communist Party's efforts to present a false image of itself are being increasingly shown up only goes to further reinforce its inability to keep up with changing times and technology, but also how the power of cinema and the values it inspires in its audiences - whether government-mandated or subversive - continues to be on the cultural front line in an age-old battle between freedom and oppression. The irony is that the Communists would probably achieve more for their cause by unleashing Michael Bay and the dreadful Transformers 3 on their unprepared population than any attempts at censorship could ever manage...

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