Plot twist: The complicated world of Chinese cinema

A scene from 'A Touch of Sin'. Picture: Berlin Film Festival

A scene from 'A Touch of Sin'. Picture: Berlin Film Festival - Credit: Archant

JAMES OLIVER reports on China's complex cinema culture, its relationship with domestic politics and international relations.

A scene from 'So Long, My Son'. Picture: Arrow Films

A scene from 'So Long, My Son'. Picture: Arrow Films - Credit: Archant

Amidst all the anxieties of lockdown, the economic fears and the psychic traumas that the last three months has wrought, spare a thought for the real victims in all this: the vast global corporations whose profits will be just that little bit smaller than they might otherwise have been.

At the beginning of March, the Walt Disney Corporation – by some distance the biggest name in entertainment and a model for others in their field – was set to release another of their live action remakes (ugh) of a well-loved animated feature, this one an adaptation of Mulan (1998). That, though, was well and truly scuppered by the dreaded lurgy.

It's just as well Disney's near-monopolistic grip on the entertainment world has been further tightened by a new streaming service or their poor shareholders might be facing a very lean Christmas.

When the new Mulan is released, it will be in a very different climate than before, and not simply because of the safety measures that will be required to keep audiences safe. And it's worth keeping an eye on this: even those of us who have little interest in seeing the film (and let's be honest, it'll probably be diabolical) should be interested in how it is received. To explain why, some context is required.

Zhao Tao in 'A Touch of Sin', Picture: Indiewire

Zhao Tao in 'A Touch of Sin', Picture: Indiewire - Credit: Archant


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The original incarnation of Mulan tells a story drawn from Chinese tradition. While the corporation undoubtedly had its eye on Chinese cinemas, then reckoned an emerging market, that was only ever considered to be a potential cherry on top after making its dough in established territories.

Twenty two years on from that original and the then-emerging market has fully emerged. A country that had about 3,000 cinemas in 1995 now boasts four times that number, many of them multiplexes – there are around 70,000 screens, which compares to 40,000 in the USA.

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Before a certain microbe threw a spanner in the collective works, this was expected to be the year when China overtook the US to become the biggest market in the world. The new Mulan was always going to be a lot more than the cherry on top.

Of course, American film studios have always done business overseas but the potential riches to be found in modern China are far greater even than in such lucrative markets as Germany or Japan.

A scene from 'So Long, My Son'. Picture: Arrow Films

A scene from 'So Long, My Son'. Picture: Arrow Films - Credit: Archant

Consider the case of Warcraft, the video game adaptation from 2016. It cost a great deal of money and didn't make much of it back in either America or Europe. And yet it managed to be the 15th biggest film of the year because of its success in China. Doing business in China, however, is a little more fraught than in Germany or Japan. The Chinese government – perhaps mindful of how other domestic film industries have been swamped by Hollywood product – maintains a strict quota system for foreign films (officially, that is; piracy is rampant). Only 34 non-Chinese films will be released each year, although – as ever – it pays to look at the small print.

If you're in the habit of frequenting the multiplex, you might have noticed that China has become a fashionable setting for large-scale Hollywood films. Dwayne Johnson – The Rock himself – found himself incommoded in Hong Kong in the disaster flick Skyscraper (2018) while Jason Statham did battle with a big fish in the South China sea during The Meg (2018), an entertainingly cheesy monster movie.

There are sound reasons for this. Blockbusters are an expensive business ($200 million is often par for the course these days), so studios are always looking for partners to help carry the weight. But Chinese producers can bring more than money. Under Chinese law, co-productions count as Chinese films, which means it doesn't have to compete with other western films for a release slot. And when that market means the difference between a flop and making a great deal of money, no producer is going to worry about re-writing the script to set it in Asia.

But even when a coveted release slot is achieved, there are still issues to deal with. While the censors are untroubled by films about burning skyscrapers or giant sharks, other subjects are less welcome.

Virus permitting, this year should see the release of the belated (and frankly unnecessary) sequel to Top Gun. When the trailer was released, it was noted that Maverick (Tom Cruise) was wearing the same jacket he sported first time around, except it seems to have had a trip to the seamstress; a patch that previously depicted the flag of Taiwan has been altered to show a couple of meaningless geometric shapes.

The island formerly known as Formosa is one of the Chinese government's great unmentionables; to say the (communist) authorities have 'beef' with a country that evolved out of their opponents in the civil war of the 1940s is somewhat of an understatement. The Chinese government didn't let the World Health Organisation acknowledge that Taiwan handled Covid-19 better than anyone else, so they're certainly not going to allow even the slightest hint of its existence appear on their cinema screens (most especially not in a film that draws attention, even indirectly, to America's military commitment to maintaining Taiwan's independence).

Taiwan is one of the three subjects – usually summarised as 'the three T's' – that are off limits to anyone who wants their film shown in China; Another 'T' is 'Tiananmen', referring to the pro-democracy protests of 1989, and especially the way they were crushed.

And 'T' is also for 'Tibet'. Not everyone in the world accepts that Tibet is an integral a part of China, but any expressions of those doubts – even being nice to the Dalai Lama – are given the shortest shrift by the Chinese government, as Richard Gere will tell you. The actor, a Buddhist, has been a long-time advocate of Tibetan freedom and he says it's cost him work. 'There are definitely movies that I can't be in because the Chinese will say, 'not with him,'' he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2017. 'I recently had an episode where someone said they could not finance a film with me because it would upset the Chinese.'

At least Gere's conscience is clean: many of the stars who marched alongside him for Tibet 20 years ago are strangely silent now, an abject reminder of how much celebrity activism is mere fashion. Hollywood even made a couple of films in the 1990s about the young Dalai Lama (Seven Years in Tibet (1997) and Kundun (also 1997). They wouldn't risk that now.

Studios have a better grasp of what might cause offence in Beijing and adjust their productions accordingly, but things still go awry. Christopher Robin (2018) might seem like a perfectly innocuous film to most of us – a reverie about the character from A.A. Milne's stories as a grown-up re-connecting with his childhood friend Winnie the Pooh – but was still denied a release in China to spare their leader's finer feelings.

Winnie the Pooh has been an unlikely symbol of Chinese resistance to their government since someone noted a resemblance between General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping and the famous honey-scoffer of the Hundred Acre wood and used it to mock him on social media, prompting official annoyance. Unlike most people, Xi can do something about his trolls.

It's easy to criticise the film business, but they're far from the only western industry or institution to fall over themselves for a slice of the Chinese action. Other companies have made their own compromises and accommodations and it's not simply restricted to the private sector. (David Cameron declined to meet the Dalai Lama in 2013.)

Nevertheless, Hollywood's kowtow is the most visible example of this sometimes disquieting engagement, a microcosm of the whole west's response.

If you want to understand how China's rise, western greed to capitalise on it and the moral ambiguities that have resulted, then the film industry offers a better illustration than most.

But this works the other way too. Chinese film offers an expression of how the country is surging in confidence, its industry bolstered by the support of a government that understands soft power. Chinese films are going to become a fixture at the leading film festivals and it's a safe bet that they'll start collecting major prizes soon.

Some of the most outstanding films released in this country in the last 18 months have been Chinese; An Elephant Sitting Still (a near-four hour panorama of troubled lives; Long Day's Journey into Night (an odyssey of obsessive love that boasts a 3-D sequence that led unscrupulous Chinese distributors to market it as a blockbuster to unwary audiences) and So Long, My Son, an epic family drama that may be the best of them all. These are serious films, far away from ra-ra flag-waving. In fact, Chinese film is often a good deal more nuanced than one might expect from a country where some consider Winnie the Pooh a threat.

The leading auteur of the moment is Jia Zhang-kia. In 2013, he made a film called A Touch of Sin, four stories about the flip-side of the economic miracle, the corruption, crime and exploitation that's fuelled the boom. (It played at Cannes but was subject to a domestic ban). Made in 2003 – a couple of centuries ago at the rate that China is moving – Blind Shaft is one of the most magnificently cynical films ever made about a would-be murderer/thief who begins to be troubled by his conscience, critiquing the amoral greed of the new order. That got banned too, funnily enough.

As fine as these films are, they're made for (and shown in) the arthouses. It's far more instructive to look at more mainstream fare. As Hollywood has noticed, Chinese audiences like their blockbusters. What should cause Hollywood sleepless nights, however, is that Chinese producers are getting the hang of making their own.

The Wandering Earth (2019) is on Netflix here but this sci-fi odyssey (think Interstellar and Gravity, although not as good as either) was a huge hit in China. Like three-quarters of a billion huge (and that's $, not ¥).

But that was as nothing compared to Wolf Warrior 2 (2017), which took near enough a billion dollars in its homeland alone. The first Wolf Warrior was about a member of an elite special forces unit, played by Wu Jing, who defends his country's borders. In the sequel, though, he's gone freelance and wound up in Africa, where he undertakes a mission to rescue some civilians (and find the bastard who killed his fiancée). It is an action film, and succeeds admirably on those terms: within five minutes there is a fight underwater (in the middle of the ocean, no less!) and it builds up to a tank battle. Beyond all this hurly-burly is something more, a fascinating document of how modern China sees itself and its place in the world – its investments in Africa, its acceptance of a rules-based order but most of all its refusal to be humiliated. The climax of the film hardly needs a spoiler (it should not be a surprise that the hero faces down the bad guy) which is useful since it is incredibly revealing. That baddie (he's a mercenary called 'Big Daddy' and, not insignificantly, he's American) readies himself to kill the Wolf Warrior: 'People like you will always be inferior to people like me. Get used to it.' Inevitably they are his final words. 'That's history,' the Wolf Warrior tells Big Daddy's corpse.

As if that wasn't blatant enough, our hero leads a convoy to a battlefield where a gun battle rages. Unfurling a Chinese flag, he orders the convoy forward and the combatants cease firing as the trucks pass,protected by the apparently sacred standard that flutters above.

All this has caught the mood of the nation and then some: it's been a little lost amidst the other news, but this past year has seen Chinese embassies in Australia, Canada and Sweden being... shall we say, proactive in defending what they see as their country's interests.

This is at Beijing's instruction, who ordered ambassadors to embody a more vigorous style of representation. They called this style, without any detectable irony, 'Wolf Warrior diplomacy'. It is not hard to criticise Wolf Warrior 2, most especially for the somewhat – er – 'traditional' view of African people that it presents. But let's be honest: such things are far from unknown in western movies even now. And while the film could legitimately be called propaganda for Beijing, much the same could be said about American action films; Wolf Warrior 2 is certainly no more jingoistic than the original Top Gun.

As with so much about the rise of China, western criticisms of Wolf Warrior 2 contain elements of hypocrisy. It's easy enough to see why, more broadly, the Chinese sometimes suspect that they're being held to standards that the western powers don't always keep to themselves.

Until very recently, the story of the two film industries offered a clear trajectory – a confident, assertive China surging forward unencumbered by doubt while Hollywood is beset by compromise and second guessing, losing sight of what made it special in the first place. But that was before the virus hit and attitudes to China began to harden. That will play out in diplomacy and trade deals but the film industry will offer an immediate and very visible weather vane.

The live action Mulan will only be the first test of these new attitudes; it will be interesting to see how western audiences, especially those in embattled America, now respond to the Chinese influence in Hollywood films.

Top Gun 2, for instance is a Chinese co-production and it's far from difficult to see how certain orange populists might react to the symbolism of that: an oven-ready illustration of US military decline for those who want to see such things. It's quite possible that Hollywood will be having its own reassessment of its links with China. After all, a desire to expand abroad only makes sense if it doesn't start costing you audiences at home.

But one doesn't have to admire the Chinese government to admire their country, its people and the culture they create. Like all art, movies offer us a way of seeing beyond our borders and connecting with a shared humanity. Amidst all the Trumpian bluster and sceptic Sinophobia, that is more important than ever.

• All things being equal, the new Mulan will be released on July 24. Probably.

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