It's behind a paywall so I'll quote in full if that's ok - let me know if this isn't ok.
It's behind a paywall so I'll quote in full if that's ok - let me know if this isn't ok.
Yay, Top Gun is back! Did you see the trailer for the sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, which “dropped” last week? It shows Tom Cruise, as everyone’s favourite flying ace Maverick, going supersonic in jets. It shows Tom Cruise tearing across the screen on a motorbike. And it shows Tom Cruise, crucially, sporting that same iconic leather flying jacket that Maverick has, apparently, been wearing solidly for 33 years.
However, there is just one difference. The patches on the back of Maverick’s jacket that used to show the flags of Japan and Taiwan (both US allies), have been removed and neatly replaced with inoffensive geometric shapes. This has happened, allegedly, because the flags were mildly offensive to Chinese sensibilities — Taiwan is one of the so-called three T’s (the others are Tibet and Tiananmen) that can never be mentioned in Chinese mainstream cinema — and because Top Gun: Maverick is co-produced by a Chinese movie company (Tencent Pictures) for a majority Chinese audience. If you have a problem with any of that you can take it up, at your peril, with Xi Jinping.
No, really. As general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Xi cares about this stuff. In a speech in October last year, to the CPC Central Committee, he talked about the importance of Chinese culture in a global context and warned of the need to “cherish our cultural roots . . . [and] do more to foster a Chinese spirit, Chinese values, and Chinese strength”. At roughly the same time the CPC’s propaganda department tightened its stranglehold on cinema by taking over censorship and regulatory powers from Sarft (the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television — it reads your film script and, based on its alignment, or not, with party politics, allows you to make it, or not).
Shadowing this resurgent emphasis on the purity of Chinese values in cinema this year was a study released by the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Researchers confirmed what everyone had already suspected — namely, that China, which sells more movie tickets than the US, would finally overtake the North American box office in 2020 to become the biggest global market for movies. PwC predicts that China will make $12.28 billion next year compared with $11.93 billion for the US.
What, humble ticket buyer, does all this mean for you? It means that movies are not made for you any more. It means that there are just 34 precious release slots for Hollywood films in China every year (China runs a quota system) and so Tinseltown producers, aware that they are swiftly losing western eyeballs to Netflix and social media, will do anything to snag one of those extremely lucrative windows. This includes changing the nationality of Tilda Swinton’s character in Marvel’s Doctor Strange from Tibetan (those bloody three T’s again!) to, er, “Celtic”, or dropping in the obligatory “helpful Chinese scientist” character into everything from The Martian toGodzilla: King of the Monsters.
To secure a release slot, Hollywood movies can be made as joint ventures with Chinese producers. This method uses Chinese locations, therefore qualifying as “domestic” Chinese releases, handily leapfrogging the quota system. However, it results in bland, creatively neutral, inoffensive and ultimately agonising bum-numbing films such as Pacific Rim: Uprising, The Meg and Kong: Skull Island.
And it is not just the blockbusters. Green Book, which won the Oscar for best picture this year, was co-produced by Alibaba Pictures, a subsidiary of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. If you found that film coy (it dropped the gay subplot as soon as it appeared), sentimental (racism can be fixed by the power of classical music) and oppressively mediocre, here is why: it was a huge hit in China, where it made $71 million without annoying the censors. More depressing is that the Chinese blockbuster films that Hollywood needs to emulate are worse, more dramatically inept and politically questionable than any of the abominable Sino-American hybrids we have had so far. (You thought Jason Statham and a giant shark was bad?)
The highest-grossing film at the Chinese box office, for instance, is a 2017 action movie called Wolf Warrior 2 (it made $830 million compared with $610 million from Avengers: Endgame). It follows a Chinese special forces hero called Leng Feng (Wu Jing) who must fight an evil gun-toting American (booooo!) mercenary called Big Daddy (Frank Grillo) in the disease-stricken and strife-torn African country of, ahem, Africa. Along the way hundreds of background Africans are shot in the face (it’s one of the most alarmingly racist films I’ve seen) and others dance around open fires bongo-bongo style (“Once they’re around a bonfire, all their cares go away,” a Chinese soldier observes).
There is a scene featuring a mass African grave, in the same way that Indiana Jones movies feature seething floors of insects, and when our hero has to crawl over the bodies in the grave it’s very “Eewwww, gross”, rather than crimes against humanity. There is a scene where two warring African armies instinctively put down their weapons when they see Leng Feng raise the Chinese flag aloft (because African warlords love and respect China so much). And there is a sequence, near the end, where Leng Feng stands defiantly in front of a tank, in a gross inversion of the Tiananmen Square “Tank Man” moment — this time the tank driver is an American imperialist and the protester a patriotic Chinese Rambo.
So, no, it’s not looking good for movies, or for a multiplex future where the choice is between an enormous bland apolitical blockbuster about giant mechanical dinosaurs and superheroes or a highly charged political blockbuster about how great it is to live in China. Surely it can’t be that bleak? Surely the choice isn’t that rudimentary? It’s not, says Rana Mitter, the director of the University of Oxford China Centre, who points to China’s growing middle class as the key to more complex audience appetites.
“Even now, when Chinese censorship is being tightened — and there is no doubt about that — there is still an understanding that you can’t simply feed people, the entire time, pure propaganda,” he says. “There is a more sophisticated middle-class audience who go abroad a lot and understand what wider global cinema looks like. And, yes, they’re perfectly happy to watch things with a strongly pro-patriotic element in them, but the idea that you can simply shove Red Army propaganda at them is no longer the case.”
There are, of course, examples of Chinese blockbusters that aren’t especially, nakedly, patriotic. Last year’s big homegrown hit Dying to Survive, a drama-comedy in the Dallas Buyers Club mould about an amiable huckster who imports expensive cancer drugs from India for his dying father, was mildly socially critical. The Mermaid, from 2016 (the sixth highest-grossing film of all time in China), was about a newly discovered colony of mer-people and had a big environmental message about cleaning up industries and saving the oceans. Yet both films were ultimately tremulous, safe and tame. Dying to Survive ends by congratulating the Chinese government on changing the healthcare system to cover the cost of cancer medication, while The Mermaid spends much of its time berating superficial capitalists (“I’m shallow. All I care about is money,” boasts one) and simultaneously celebrating poverty and ancient Chinese traditions.
Equally, there are sophisticated award-winning Chinese film-makers working today, such as Jia Zhangke (Ash is Purest White) and Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers). However, even this echelon of acclaimed artists is starting to feel the political pressure from Beijing. Zhang’s most recent film, One Second, about life on a prison-farm during the Cultural Revolution, was unceremoniously yanked from the Berlin International Film Festival in February with no explanation given other than “technical difficulties”. Most seasoned media watchers suspected censorship (the Cultural Revolution is a hot button topic for Sarft). It has yet to be shown in China or elsewhere.
Although all of this is happening in China, China is nurturing its own plans for global cinema domination. In a recent interview the former film director Gao Xiaosong, who is now chairman of the strategic committee at Alibaba Pictures, revealed that he was hired by Jack Ma, the Alibaba founder and one of China’s wealthiest people, to “conquer Hollywood”. The goal is to make Chinese films that travel — that storm international and US box office charts. It is, Mitter says, very ambitious and is fundamentally hampered by the need to maintain a pro-party stance. “It is simultaneously very difficult to put forward a vision of your society that an international audience will find attractive at the same time as making it clear that the nature of that society is strongly top-down and authoritative,” he says. “Whereas the Americans, for good or ill, have managed over the last 50 years to create a vision of society through cinema that lots of people from societies very dissimilar to the United States still find very attractive.”
And yet, isn’t that the rub? American films, in their attempt to infiltrate the Chinese market, are becoming conspicuously less American. The identity of Hollywood blockbusters, a genre that began with Jaws in 1975 and gave us such monumentally expressive movies as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Alien and The Matrix, is being lost in the great commercial compromise of our time — the rush to win China. As a handy thought experiment, imagine Robert Shaw’s USS Indianapolis speech from Jaws in any China-friendly blockbuster today, say Men in Black: International or the Fast and the Furious franchise, it’s almost obscene. This creative betrayal is visible every week on screen in the continued foregrounding of simple action over complex dialogue. It is in the celebration and the incessant overuse of CGI spectacle. And it is also in something as simple, or as profound, as the removal of a patch from an old leather jacket.
YOU WON’T SEE THESE IN A FILM BOUND FOR CHINA
All that Tibetan activism has not impressed Beijing. Richard Gere has blamed his career downturn on the influence of China, saying: “There are definitely movies that I can’t be in because the Chinese will say, ‘Not with him.’ ”
China refused to grant a cinema release for Disney’s Winnie-the-Pooh adventure Christopher Robin in 2018 because President Xi Jinping has been compared to Pooh by a few brave online humorists. Although in the case of Christopher Robin, they didn’t miss much.
In 2008 the Chinese censors at Sarft (the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television) issued guidelines on screen sex. Any films, they said, showing “sexual acts, perversion, homosexuality, masturbation and private body parts including the male or female genitalia; containing dirty and vulgar dialogue, songs, background music and sound effects” must be cut or altered. Chinese films are, perhaps unsurprisingly, very big on kissing.
The Chinese mega-action blockbuster Operation Red Sea (the fourth most successful Chinese film) closes with a post-credit sequence inspired by the Marvel movies. Only instead of a witty café scene featuring bantering superheroes, this one features real Chinese navy warships, lovingly photographed from all angles like the stars of sexy car commercials.
Brad Pitt (this year anyway)
Brad Pitt was banned from China after making the 1997 anti-regime film Seven Years in Tibet. He was briefly allowed into the country in 2014 as a guest of Angelina Jolie, his partner at the time. His 2013 zombie blockbuster World War Zwas given a Chinese release, but only after the film-makers changed the location of the original zombie virus from China to South Korea. The big test, however, will be Pitt’s new Quentin Tarantino movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. That film is rumoured to contain everything that Chinese censors hate: vulgar dialogue, perversion, immorality, moments of subtlety and, we hope, a cameo role for Richard Gere clutching a fluffy yellow Winnie-the-Pooh. Good luck, Brad.