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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.