Wellington, February 23rd 2014 (Alochonaa): An interesting trend in filmmaking in the last few decades has been Hollywood’s courting of the Chinese market. This has lead to some interesting changes in what films are getting made, where they’re set, and what they’re saying.
Big budget action films tend to be the most popular in China. For example the $200 million budgeted Iron Man 3 was the highest grossing American film in China in 2013, with a $64 million opening weekend in China alone. These films, with their relatively simple dialogue and effects driven sequences are easier to translate into Chinese than complex character studies or comedies. Also, the spectacle of these blockbusters is less reliant on western cultural capital and references that a Chinese audience might be less familiar with.
The Chinese government allows only around 35 foreign films to be released in China each year, of which 15 are reserved for 3D, IMAX and other spectacular affairs. Those that are released are often censored, have limited distribution, and pay heavy taxes. In part this recalls 18th century trade practices, including the Canton System, driven in part by Chinese skepticism regarding Western goods. This view was epitomised by Emperor Qianlong’s proclamation in the 18th Century that:
Our land is so wealthy and prosperous, that we possess all things. Therefore there is no need to exchange the produce of foreign barbarians for our own
The demand for Western access to the Chinese market in the 18th and 19th centuries led to the Opium wars between 1839 and 1860. The unequal treaties signed after these wars marked the beginning of China’s century of humiliation. Thus the release of western films in China is, for some, wracked by historical significance.
The acceptance of Western films in China also ties into a wider debate about “whether it needs to borrow more ideas from the West or follow its own particular course”. It also links with concerns about Western cultural imperialism and the incompatibility between some aspects of traditional Confucian and western liberal philosophies.
What this all means for movies is that studios are encouraged to concentrate their funding into one or two very large and expensive films, rather than spread it among several smaller ones (only one or two of which could be released in China).
Both of these factors are pushing the development of extremely high budget films – in the hundreds of millions of dollars, putting more and more eggs in one basket. This trend is increasing rapidly. No film costing more than 200 Million USD (other than 1997’s Titanic) was produced before 2004, and all films costing more than $250 Million have been made since 2007. The Hobbit Trilogy alone cost a stunning $745 million.
We’re also seeing a rapid growth in large-scale films set, in part, in China (Transformers 4, Batman: the Dark Knight, Pacific Rim, 2012, Skyfall etc.) In the most part these act as a kind of ‘holiday spot’ which characters visit to accomplish a specific task before returning to the US or Europe. However, the bulk of Pacific Rim takes place in or around Hong Kong, and Lucy spends its first act dealing with Korean gangsters in Taiwan.
Paralleling this is an increase in the prevalence of Chinese characters (and, to a slightly lesser extent, actors). For example Chow-Yun Fat plays pirate lord in Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and the ‘Wei Tang triplets’ play an important role as the representatives of China in Pacific Rim. Cynics suggest this is done specifically to appeal to Chinese audiences
Chinese nationalism might be expected in Chinese produced films. For example in martial arts film Ip Man, the titular hero, a perfect representation of Confucian ideals of modesty, family piety and propriety, defeats a Japanese karate-master general during the Second World War. Similarly in the second Ip Man film, by defeating a loud mouthed ‘foreign devil’ English boxer (and the corrupt colonial administration which supports him) Ip metaphorically throws off the yoke of British imperialism. He then finishes with a didactic lecture to the assembled British audience. In the context of the century of humiliation which had come before, both films offer powerful messages of nationalism (and some amazing fight sequences).
More surprising is to see similar themes in Western films. Several blockbusters contain brief, easy to miss scenes in which they too seem to act as a kind of mouthpiece for the Chinese state.
The fourth Transformers movie (incidentally the highest grossing film in China) has one of these strange scenes. To put it in context, the film’s third act largely takes place in Hong Kong. The stated reason for this location is that an alien bomb must be detonated in a place with the highest population (this would be more likely to be near the Yangtze River delta, rather than near Hong Kong’s 7 million). More valuably, What Hong Kong offers the opportunity to make a political point.
In a scene, out of nowhere, an unnamed Hong Kongnese official (who we never see again) states firmly that “we gotta call the central government for help” A quick cut takes us to the Chinese Ministry of Defence in Beijing, where the minister of defence, makes a speech virtually at the camera, sternly and seriously vowing to defend Hong Kong. In proof, various (presumably Chinese) fighter jets whizz past in the background of the robot fights, but don’t seem to do anything in particular.
However, what this scene does do is emphasise the Chinese central government’s commitment to Hong Kong, whose calls for increased democracy have grown stronger in the past year. David S. Cohen, writing for Variety points out that, “Not coincidentally, “Age of Extinction” is considered an “officially assisted production,” made with help from… official state broadcaster CCTV’s China Movie Channel”, and continues that “no such deal gets struck in China without the consent and approval of the Beijing government and the Chinese Communist Party, and in this case, Paramount is in business with the Beijing regime directly, through CCTV”
By extension, these displays of benevolent and effective action reiterates the sagacity of China’s policies of preserving its territorial integrity in whole (including by holding on to disputed regions in the South China Sea, North West Xinjiang, the Himalaya, and Taiwan) as well as refuting the century of humiliation.
It’s interesting to see; in a film so crammed with US patriotism and machismo, that China too (which co produced the film) is using it to reinforce allegiance to the state. However as Cohen points out, that when representatives of the two governments appear onscreen: “America’s government is portrayed either ridiculous or diabolical, [the antagonist is a rogue CIA agent] but China’s is assured and effective.”
However, in many ways, the strained, clunky way in which the fourth Transformers movie sings the praises of the Chinese Government is little different from the tsunami of product placements and adverts that drown the first three films, and come close to drowning this one as well. Where the advertising lucre of American industry helped finance the first films, here a government foots the bill. The fact that we see government interference as a more insidious says much about the way in which our culture views power.
When looking at films, especially big action blockbusters, it’s easy to see them as dumb entertainment. As well as this they’re cultural artifacts, and can have much to tell us about the cultures that produced them. These western films shown in, and shaped by, China speak of a strengthening but still uneasy relationship. Its one with strong commercial benefits, but of which the political, cultural and social implications are less clear.
 For many years China would only accept silver in exchange for silk, porcelain, tea and other Chinese products. This situation was only changed after opium use became widespread, and harsh treaties were imposed by Western powers legalising it following the Opium Wars.
 notably the communitarianism (placing the welfare of the community before that of the individual) and filial piety (think of it as respect for your elders and family) of Confucius conflicts the “individualism, autonomy, the right to be different, and the sense of permissiveness that comes along with them”
 The previous Transformers film Dark of the Moon is the third highest grossing film in China from the West, and the sixth highest overall.
 I was watching it mostly out of morbid curiosity, to keep track of what has become of a beloved childhood icon, rather than for its artistic merit
*Peter is a regular writer for Alochonaa. He holds a First Class Masters Degree in political studies from the University of Auckland. His research has been focused on the relationship between electoral systems, party systems and underlying social structures. He has also taught media-politics at the University of Auckland, and lectured on the potential for the internet and new-media to undermine democratic discourse and institutions. In his spare time Peter is a keen mountaineer and rock climber.
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