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Soft Power and Chinese Cinema

Someone, somewhere in the Beijing higher ups has decided that The Thing that’ll get China onto the world map is making a load of really, really cool movies that show the country in the best possible light.  In the same way that (I’m told) Hollywood and it’s related nonsensical chic is lusted after in the west.  To really complete the PR package, China needs to be seen on the big screen.

While speeches that go on for hours and endless meetings are winners if you want to get ahead in Chinese society, the movers and shakers in China’s recent soft-power drive have realized that promoting China just by putting a few very old things in a museum doesn’t actually resonate with your average foreigner.  To really win the foreign hearts and minds, you need to find something that’s the equivalent of Bruce Willis running around in a dirty vest.

Chinese movies don’t do well overseas – at least when they don’t follow the Zhang Yimou schtick of brightly coloured action sequences filmed at varying speeds.  Recent exports from China have produced nothing more than a whimper at the US box office.  When the low-budget sleeper hit Lost in Thailand debuted in America, it didn’t even come close replicating it’s runaway success that it had in China.  The film, a feel-good comedy about an ambitious executive trying to negotiate and important deal with his boss in Thailand, proved that dealing with contemporary issues in Chinese cinema can be both censor and box-office friendly – the film managed to beat out James Cameron’s Avatar in ticket sales, taking $200 million on it’s $2.2 million budget.  Conversely, proving the adage that comedy never travels well, the film bombed in the US, managing a paltry $88000 upon it’s release.

So alienated are audiences from the Chinese propaganda machine that a recent biopic of idolized revolutionary soldier Lei Feng failed to sell one single ticket in it’s opening weekend.  When a film celebrating the founding of the People’s Republic was released, mandarins put all other releases on hold, and even resorted to faking ticket returns in order to generate buzz.  Needless to say that with all the Iron Mans and Kung Fu Pandas, both of these expensive failures by the Chinese government have sunk without a trace to the bargain DVD bin.

Which is the reason, you may have noticed, that you’ve been finding bits of China in your blockbuster.  Hollywood pap is the quite possibly the best vehicle for promoting Chinese pap, mostly because they don’t do things like contemplate human rights, or civil liberties, and they focus on pleasing as many people as possible in order to extract as much money as possible from people who enjoy watching famous people walking away from big explosions.

The big draw for American movie producers is that while Chinese people have a lot of money, or, at the very least, there’s a lot of Chinese people will little bits of money that add up to one big bit of money.  The problem is that the movie industry is pretty much monopolized by the government, so it’s prudent business sense that no one tries to market a movie that will hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.  Of course, you could argue that Chinese people complaining about how Chinese people always seem to be the bad guys in movies is kind of like Auschwitz prisoners complaining about pickpockets in the shower room, this is soft power we’re talking about here.

Sucking up the Chinese government so that your movie gets approved for distribution is one way of trying to get your hands on the slice of entertainment pie – only 34 foreign movies are approved every year and your movie has to be the suckiest in order to get a screen at the local multiplex.  Another way of getting seen in the mainland would be to do the co-investment thing, whereupon a state-run Chinese film production company gives you money in exchange for positive exposure on the big screen.  This second option has the added benefit of side-stepping the quota, since it’s a co-production, it’s no longer seen as being a foreign import.

Selling out artistic credibility in order to please shareholders is never going to go down well with the libertarian lefties, even when you pull out a Powerpoint presentation and try to explain in simple language that Iron Man 3 isn’t really about artistic credibility, it’s about getting Robert Downey, Jr’s kids through college.  The movie industry has been called out for pandering to the whims of the Chinese government, without grasping the idea that American movies are doing pretty badly in the Chinese marketplace.  On it’s release in China, Mission Impossible 3 held the number one spot for a mighty 23 weeks, yet in the past year, the market share for American movies has dropped 65%, with domestically produced romantic comedies and feel-good buddy flicks trouncing Hollywood efforts at the box office.

In a final testament to the place that cinema holds in the push for soft-power, the Chinese government recently spend $13 million turning swampland outside Tianjin into a square kilometer of housing, office space, state-of-the-art computer facilities for CG animation and special effects and a cavernous complex of film studios.  The rebound in Chinese cinema removes a multitude of headaches for the government.  The stars are less likely to go on human rights crusades, like our dear friend Christian Bale did, fighting his way to see dissident lawyer Chen Guang Chen in his village, and the films are more likely to promote the China and the values that the Chinese government desperately wants promoted.

 

China’s Censorship: A Year in Review

January 2, 2012 Leave a comment

William Farris is running a good retrospective on what gets censored in China complete with screenshots from major search engines from throughout the year

CCTV’s Greatest Hits

February 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Rare is the day that CCTV contains actual news about China, the editorial staff at the station routinely concoct fake stories, use fake footage (sometimes culled from Hollywood movies) and use fake people to keep everyone happy and safe in the knowledge that they living in a socialist paradise.  Here’s a run-down of some the worst news gathering not seen since…well…ever, really.

Top Gun

Not happy with the use of actual real news footage, CCTV spliced in a scene of a missile destroying a plane.  The video was posted on the myriad thousand video sharing sites around China, along with various, non-too-complimentary comments.  The Wall Street Journal reported that the video might have actually been part of the promotional materials used by a jet manufacturer.

Taking a leaf from the Chinese Book of Effective PR, a spokesman promptly denied that they used the footage to beef up its advertising.  “It’s impossible and unnecessary for us to do anything like that,” Ding Zhiyong, AVIC’s director of public relations, told China Real Time, “The J-10 is an accomplishment we’re proud of–why would we even need to use ‘Top Gun’ footage?”.  Thankfully, once the tweets had hit the fan in the Chinese blogosphere, no one at CCTV was available for comment because of the Chinese New Year, and the story blew over quite conveniently.

The $12 Apartment


For anyone who has lived in Beijing, the housing market is something that weigh s heavily on the mind.  Contracts are often worth more than the paper they’re hurriedly printed on, landlords greed can often mean that people are thrown out of their houses with a few days to find a new place to live because the landlord is selling the place, and the government is trying to contain a rapidly expanding property bubble.

One of the misguided efforts that the CCP made was to stage an interview with a Beijing resident claiming that the apartment in which she lived had a monthly rent of a mere 77RMB for a princely 45 square meter pad (to compare, this author’s apartment in Chongwenmen is 3300RMB per month for 68 square meters).  Hu Jin Tao replied that the glorious Chinese Communist Party was doing everything it could to help people on low incomes live, well, like they weren’t on a low income, proclaiming “The party and the government pay great attention on improving people’s livelihood. Now we’ve adopted series of measures, and more are expected to come to improve lives of low-income families.”

Internet users were not happy, and soon uncovered a series of photos that showed the esteemed apartment owner, Mrs. Guo and her daughter taking not-so-low-income jollies to places like Shanghai, Dalian and Xiamen.  The broadcast ultimately backfired, deepened the discontent within the Chinese middle classes who have had to cope with increasingly high rents.  The problem got so bad that the government ordered the story and comments to be scrubbed from all discussion forums and social network sites.

Google Porn

The Chinese government is very proud of the fact that it has a clean and harmonious Internet environment.  Yes, in a country of 1.3 billion people, it’s forbidden to look at porn, and of course, the CCP Propaganda Department is anxious not only to establish itself as the thin red line, but also point out that looking at porn on the Internet is worse than eating babies in church, or drowning bag loads of kittens in the Yangtze.  To wit, the CCTV “current affairs show”, Focus Interview, broadcast an interview with a student who was addicted to looking at X-rated imaged on the web.  In a delicious twist, the interviewee pointed out that most of the images were to be found on the Chinese governments favorite search engine, Google.

Chinese netizens – all 300 million of them – were unimpressed and just a little skeptical of the claims.  A little searching around (probably using Google) uncovered the evil plot – Gao Ye, the student being interviewed was actually one of Focus Interviews’s own interns.  The Internet monitors in Beijing promptly added the words “Gao Ye” to their keyword blacklists, which in turn managed to grind the most of the Chinese Internet traffic to a halt since “gao” means “tall” and “ye” means “also”.

BTCC Spring Festival Fire

Ove the Spring Festival in 2009, a fireworks display went out of control and turned the Beijing Television Cultural Center in a massive roman candle that could be seen for miles around.  In the ensuing investigation, it was discovered that officials at CCTV had authorized the display, but hadn’t applied for permits from the local Beijing government, not only that, but they had ignored repeated warnings from the police  that the fireworks would be too powerful and dangerous.  As it turned out the fireworks were too dangerous (who would’ve guessed?) and the resulting inferno raged for 5 hours, killed one firefighter and completely destroyed the $731 million building.

Arrests immediately followed, including the former head of CCTV’s construction bureau, 50-year-old Xu We.  Attempts to clamp down on the news story also followed, resulting in a wave of criticism from Chinese netizens and the international press. In a leaked memo to the New York Times, Beijing authorities had apparently ordered “No photos, no video clips, no in-depth reports…the news should be put on news areas only and the comments posting areas should be closed”.  The reason?  The fire was said to symbolize bad luck for the coming New Year.

James Fallows, of The Atlantic wrote, “that the perils of the fireworks and firecrackers are more than a joke…. that people responsible appear to have been CCTV employees; and that the whole subsequent matter of investigating, publicizing, making sense of, and drawing omens from an unignorable spectacle involving the country’s leading propaganda/communication outlet and the city’s most distinctive new landmark will say a lot about the emotional and political state of China right now.”

Spring Festival Utility Men

And finally, the epic CCTV Spring Festival Gala raised it’s ugly head once again earlier this month, and while it’s becoming less and less popular, and turning into more of three hour infomercial, more fun can be had spotting people in the audience.  While typically, the sponsors of the show will have their CEO’s given the best seats, it’s the “ordinary people” – carefully vetted members of the public and “utility men” that netizens have the most fun with.

Yes, although CCTV has had the bright idea of using actors as fake members of the public, they haven’t really thought the whole thing through, and have used the same actors in the same shows for, er, the past 10 years.  One can only assume that they’ve been hoping that no one will catch on.  The bad news is of course that, well, people caught on.  And so did a lot of western news sources. Chinese netizens helpfully posted screen grabs of the utility men in a series of photos going all the way back to 2001.

Fantastic Prizes to be Won!!

December 14, 2010 Leave a comment

Taiwanese animators at the Apple Daily and NMA weighed in with their satirical short film “China Creates Peace Price to Rival Nobel” and “Li Xiao Bo: A Story of Hope and Struggle” both of which skewer the political miswranglings of China’s finest diplomatic minds.

Not wanting to be outdone, the Chinese responded to pressure from, er, the Norwegians, by awarding a it’s own citizens with prizes for outstanding achievement in the fields of harmony and peace.  The World Harmony Award, created by the World Harmony Foundation was awarded to none other than Chi Haotian, a Chinese general who had orchestrated the troops at Tian’anmen Square in 1989, encouraged Chinese people to fire on women and children on the battlefield (although what women and children are doing on the battlefield is anyone’s guess), and drew up plans for a Chinese invasion and occupation of the USA:

Our military battle preparation appears to aim at Taiwan, but in fact is aimed at the United States, and the preparation is far beyond the scope of attacking aircraft carriers or satellites. Marxism pointed out that violence is the midwife for the birth of the new society. Therefore war is the midwife for the birth of China’s century.

Er.  Go China?

U.N. Undersecretary General for Economic and Social Affairs lent a certain weight to the award ceremony to the insane old man honorable CCP cadre, by gently handing it to him, rather than smashing him over his wrinkled old noggin with it and doing us all a favour by putting him out of our misery.  Needless to say, the UN’s Human Rights High Commissioner, Navanethem Pillay, declined to attend the award ceremony for Liu Xiaobo in Oslo

Furthering the cause of peace in the troubled province of Taiwan was the aim of the Confucius Peace Prize, which was duly awarded to Lien Chan of the KMT – who promptly denied ever hearing of it, as was told to the Taipei Times:

“We’ve never heard of such an award and of course Mr Lien has no plans to accept it,” said Ting Yuan-chao (丁遠超), director and spokesman of Lien’s office.

The KMT yesterday also denied having any knowledge of the the award, but defended his contributions to cross-strait developments.

“The KMT is not aware of the news and it would be more appropriate to comment on the matter after we make sure there’s such an award and learn the details,” KMT Spokesman Su Jun-pin (蘇俊賓) said.

Since Chan wasn’t sure if the award even existed, he didn’t attend the award ceremony (described as “chaotic” and “hastily organised” by attendees) so the glass…thing was given to a young Chinese girl with ponytails instead, because, of course, Chinese girls “symbolize peace and future”.

The whole pointless, posturing fiasco is best summed up by the inimitable James Fallows at The Atlantic:

South African officials eventually looked back with regret on the years in which they jailed Mandela; while racial inequalities are still with us in America, even Glenn Beck pays honor to Martin Luther King. Let’s hope Liu and his family live to see the day when official China can look back with regret on its decisions at this time.


Keep Repeating to Yourself, It’s Only a Movie

November 19, 2009 Leave a comment

The old chestnut of how Chinese people are represented in US blockbusters has once again risen up and the patriotic morons who populate the Chinese web forums (most whom I would warrant could benefit from six months being beaten senseless in an Internet addiction therapy centre).  This time, it’s none other than 2012 – a movie that is based on the idea that Mayans knew when the world was going to end (in 2012).  Reaction to the movie has been well, stupid, with stupid Chinese people asking “could 2012 be real?” (no, it’s a only movie) and even stupider Chinese people asking “should 2012 be banned in China” (no, it’s a only movie).  The truly moronic amongst them have even thought that writing in newspapers about it about the fact that it is too horrific for children – especially Chinese children who live in a socialist utopia, and spend their free time dancing in the sugarpulm rainbow fields skipping through the wheat with gumdrop smiles  – with one critic suggesting that even he, a fully grown man (and actor, no less) with a driving license and everything, was too terrified to sleep after watching it.  Hong Jiantao wrote:

“…ever since 9:30 last night when I finished watching the film, I haven’t been able to get to sleep. I’ll nod off for a few moments but then I’m startled awake by my dreams, which consist entirely of horrifying scenes…I could still not help being convinced that disaster was really about to strike. Really, you absolutely cannot take children with you to watch this movie. A teenage girl sitting behind me was so scared she started crying, and my own palms were slick with a cold sweat”

From what Jintao writes, 2012 is nothing more than The Exorcist for our generation.  At this point, it’s seems fair that anyone who thinks that the world is really going to end in 2012, and who thinks that Los Angeles sliding off into the ocean (something that, till now, has been nothing but an oft-prayed-for fantasy), despite reams of geological evidence, and common sense that this seems hugely unlikely, should not be let anywhere near a computer, a blog, or a cinema without first being doped up real good.  Also, in my experience it’s not that hard to find a film that a Chinese girl will cry at.

Ignoring for one moment that there mustn’t be too much in the way of mass media that Chinese people find offensive, and ignoring for yet another moment that it’s a only movie, and for a further moment still that it’s a Christmas blockbuster  and not really meant to be taken seriously.  Movies of this ilk are two minute cigarette breaks, a five second orgasm, they’re not supposed to be Zen-like mediations on the existence of God, death, life the universe and everything.   The real problem seems to be that Chinese people are mostly represented as pig-farmers with money who made it to the bright lights of the big cities, and are mostly helpless without the aid of big brother America coming to save everyone’s skins.  And since when do the Chinese want validation from the Yanks?  I didn’t leap on my word processor when all those action movies came out in the 80’s that had the bad guys spouting Shakespeare in bad English accents.

The accusation that the movie is creating a negative social effect is ridiculous because it gives the impression that the world will end in three years echoes the equally ludicrous notion that Kung Fu Panda exploits the memories of the people who died in the Sichuan Earthquake last year.  This of course is not true, because it’s a movie.  Asking Roland Emmerich to direct a movie about the end of the world is like asking Ted Bundy to do the catering at your wedding – you’ve got a pretty fair idea of what the content is going to be.  If the overly patriotic Chinese bloggers (and there are a lot of them) think that they can get a movie withdrawn because a girl cried, (and dear Lord, grown adult men have got to be pretty hard up for publicity if they readily admit that watching this bilge gave them nightmares), then they are demonstrating a naiveté not seen since Mao turned to his troops and said “don’t worry, it won’t take us long to get there.”

I mean, it’s only a movie.

Lost in SARFT

“I thought there would be some trouble, though not this bad. When I heard their decision, I couldn’t help a bitter smile. It was the same thing that happened to me in the past, the same thing that many directors have experienced. I bet even the official who made the announcement was bored.”

For someone who has been banned from making movies in China for five years, Lou Ye doesn’t really seem too bothered about the decision. For the director whose trademark is combining the discussion of politically sensitive subjects (at least in the mainland), being told off by SARFT is something of an occupational hazard. Weekend Lover, Suzhou River and Summer Palace, all of which have the career-killing combination of covering sensitive political topics with a hefty dose of nudity, have earned the director the dubious moniker of the enfant terrible of Chinese cinema.

Summer Palace, described as the most controversial film to come out of China for the last 50 years, and Ye shatter sexual and political taboos of Chinese cinema – mixing the political upheavals of 1989, both in Germany and in Beijing around an sexually charged, and very explicit plot( which includes for the first time in a Chinese film, full-frontal nudity of both flavors). Now, I know that any French readers, raised on a diet of Betty Blue and the Emmanuelle movies would drag deeply on a Gauloises, and give a slight shrug of bemusement, but trust me, in China, this is a big deal.

Despite having his career stolen from him by the Chinese censor, Lou is remarkably upbeat about the whole, going as far to say that “The political system is more flexible, the economy is growing fast and the relationship between people is more equal.”, he firmly believes that things in China are better than they ever were. He’s adamant that his films are not political, although he has a harder time trying to explain why there is so much sex and nudity in the movie, he says that “I don’t understand why the authorities are so sensitive about 1989. They shouldn’t worry about it. The facts are out there already. Analysis of those facts still requires a lot of work. But I’m not trying to make a comment. This movie is just a love story set against that background.”. Lou Ye is not alone is suffering the wrath of the Chinese censor, at the start of the year, Li Fang’s Lost in Beijing was edited, submitted, re-edited, resubmitted. None of the adjustments to the story were good enough for SARFT, and, even after 20 minutes of footage was cut for Chinese audiences, the film was still banned, and then Li was banned from making any more films in China for 2 years. Shot in a realistic, documentary style, similar to that of Eric Zonka (the wonderful The Dream Life of Angels), the movie follows the stories of a masseuse, her abusive boss, her husband and her boss’s wife.

Like Traninspotting, the first half of the movie is very funny, in fact, it’s almost farcical. After her friend gets fired from the foot massage parlor, they go out and get drunk on their lunch hour, Liu then returns to have a short nap in one of the massage rooms. Her boss discovers her, and halfway through the physical act, they are caught by Liu’s husband – who works as a window cleaner and was cleaning the wrong window at the right time to catch his wife and her boss at it on one of the beds. The plot thickens when Liu falls pregnant, and her boss makes a deal with the couple to unofficially adopt the baby – his wife is unable to bear children. The whole deal will depend on who the father of the child is.

The apathy that the film promotes, and the constant bombardment of unfinished apartment blocks, the squalor that Liu and her husband live in, is unavoidable, indeed the directorial style is such that the film grabs you but the throat and rams apathy and the emptiness of a city existence down it. Even something like Trainspotting had a message, and had some delightfully self-centered moments in it, but after watching Lost in Beijing, there’s nothing but the empty, dreadful feeling that we’re all going to die. The surprising thing about these two filmmakers is that they say they are both willing to edit their films so that they can be exhibited. Lou Ye says that while he’s willing, the Chinese negotiations with the Chinese authorities have broken down, the government isn’t interested in giving him a second chance: “I think the most fundamental reason is that they think movies are a form of politics. If that was their opinion 10 years ago, I could fully understand. But the reality today is not like that. In 2006, films are part of the entertainment industry.”.

Fang Li made over 50 cuts and reedits to Lost in Beijing in an attempt to appeased the government regulators, even then, after working with them in what the producer feels was total compliance, the film has been banned. The reason for ban was that the authorities believed that the producers were deliberately choosing themes that they knew were sensitive and controversial in order to pick up international accolades. That the directors have all engineered this to garner public sympathy from abroad to promote their movies to the lucrative western markets is the crux of the whole debacle. The “bleeding hearts and artists” of course will leap to the filmmakers defense, and champion Lou Ye for deciding to oppose the ban and team up with a Hong Kong writer to work on another movie. Fang Li and Lou Ye have repeatedly said that they have worked with SARFT in order to get distribution approval, after all there’s little point in making a movie if no one goes to see it. Lou Ye counters the accusations of sensationalizing the ban on on his film.”I feel that western critics don’t fully understand this film. They ignore a lot and focus only on Tienanmen and sex. But that is only a part of the story,” he says. “What is more important is what is going on inside the characters. This is a journey of the soul of a female Chinese intellectual. Such a trip could only happen here.” “I’ve never been antagonistic toward those official agencies. I’ve been feeling my way along. Where are the lines?”, asks Li.

Whereas SARFT may well approve the script for Summer Palace, they then ban the distribution of the movie because of the sex and the political tone of the movie. If the sex and political tone of the script was a problem, then it should have been rejected at the script approval stage, rather than wasting the time of an entire film production crew, actors and other creative talent that went into getting the film made. In contrast to the claims made by the film makers, the film banned not only because of the subject matter, but also because the film was technically below par for exhibition. The Beijing News reports that “the picture was too fuzzy, and the sound was too low.”, which would have caused some embarrassment to the Chinese people and government if anything less than a slick, well produce movies should ever appear in movie theaters around the world. “Lou Ye tried out some new artistic methods in this film, but the committee of censors judged it as not being up to technical standards. This struck a blow to the director, and he cannot accept this result at present,” so says producer Nai An. With Lost in Beijing, it’s a little different.

Obviously, Chinese cinema is a tool for exporting Chinese culture, and no-one wants to promote a culture that sees causal rape, child-selling and rapant sexual acrobatics when the Olympics is going to be held in your country in less than six months. The Hollywood Reporter was less than impressed with the movie, noting that audiences didn’t walk out of the movie because of the sex, degradation and generally crappiness of life in an Olympic city that is presented in the film, but that it was actually pretty boring. The bans of these two films, and the controversy generated thereof comes at a rather unfortunate time for Chinese movie fans. In December, an unofficial halt of the import and approval of American films came into effect. The ban was never announced in writing, but many suspect that it’s China’s reaction to the rather vitriolic complaints from the already rabid intellectual property rightists in the US. While the ban doesn’t seem to have originated from SARFT, “Enchanted,” “Bee Movie,”, “Stardust” and “Beowulf.” have all been locked out from Chinese exhibition. Things understandably came to a head following the comments of Susan Schwab, US Trade Representative at the World Trade Organization, who said “inadequate protection of intellectual property rights”. This was rather unfair as, on the 20th December, a Chinese court came down on Yahoo for deep-linking to MP3’s on it’s music search facility. IFPI applauded the rule, with John Kennedy saying that “The ruling against Yahoo China is extremely significant in clarifying copyright rules for Internet music services in China.”.

One of the problems with the censorship in China is that there is no definitive list of rules. For the Internet censorship there is no list of what sites are blocked and what sites are acceptable, websites are blocked and unblocked on an almost ad-hoc basis. During my research into the Internet blocking, courtesy of the Golden Shield project, I came across an interesting theory which postulates that it is that exact strategy that generates self-censorship in mainland China. Occasionally, people are reminded that censorship is in place, but it’s not always enforced. By making examples of individuals who do get caught, a reminder is sent that the government is watching.

While it’s written in the constitution of China that Chinese citizens enjoy freedom of speech and expression, there is an abundance of evidence that that is not the case. It’s true enough that other countries do censor films, my home country, the UK has one of the oldest and most controversial movie censoring bodies in the world. Countries where religion and politics meet also stringently scrub and cleanse media before the masses are allowed anywhere near it, the problem is that the Chinese government treats everyone the same, they make a decision and are so used to not having to explain the decision that everyone is left in the dark as to the reason why things work the way they work.

In October, when a group of Dutch marathon runners gathered to run around what had been promised as a tour of Beijing’s best and brightest “modern and historical” sites, they were, in actual fact, given a tour of Beijing’s wastelands – some of the buildings were so modern that they hadn’t been finished yet. The marathon date had been set at least one year in advance with all the participants. After running through mile after mile of highways and building sites, the runners only had one thing to say to the gathered press at the finish line: “We won’t be coming back.”. The reason for the sudden changes in the itinerary? The announcement, three weeks before the start of the marathon, of the biggest political event in the country, National Congress of the Communist Party of China.