A couple of years ago, when Crazy Rich Asians was dominating the Hollywood headlines, I got a call from a friend in New York flush with Chinese American pride. “This is amazing,” he exclaimed, “the first film ever with an all-Asian cast!” I was about to say, “I’m in Hong Kong, and I think we’ve already had a few here,” but ended up biting my tongue and saying something vaguely encouraging. The moment stuck with me, though, because it so clearly indicated how an international art form with a global business model could become so provincial.
Long before the 2021 Academy Awards on April 25, Hollywood’s relationship with Asia has long been in the news, though any convergence between the arts and business sections is often coincidental. So too does the story change with one’s vantage point. Back when the commercial and critical success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon seemed to point toward a true “world cinema,” Pico Iyer mused in The Global Soul (2000) about what a “multiculture” would look like once narratives were generated not by second-generation kids rooted in a new world but by the parents who actually did the planting.
Two decades later, author and journalist Fatima Bhutto wrote a rejoinder of sorts in New Kings of the World (2020) arguing that America’s dominance in the entertainment industry has plummeted in favor of more local arbiters, including Bollywood, K-pop and regional television from various countries now widely available to their diasporas.
What Iyer – and to be fair, the executives at Columbia Pictures who set up a Hong Kong office to develop “the next Crouching Tiger” – somehow missed regarding “post-national” culture is that visionary artists like Ang Lee – or, for that matter, Bruce Lee 30 years earlier – fully adept in mining their experience from both sides of the Pacific do not simply appear because of a business plan. As Bhutto was streaming her “local” films and television dramas, preaching the decline of Western hegemony, she apparently forgot that Netflix and YouTube were still American platforms.
Even now, after the 93rd Oscars ceremony, professional and amateur observers alike are still trying to process exactly what happened. Even in China, where some of the nominees inspired a comprehensive media blackout (extending to Hong Kong with local broadcaster TVB dropping the telecast for the first time in more than 50 years), the state-owned tabloid Global Times felt compelled to weigh in. There was no lack of controversy on either side of the aisle.
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Like pretty much everything in the past year, the 2021 Awards will be marked as “the Covid Oscars.” And like pretty much everything else, this means that the Covid-19 pandemic has merely exposed weaknesses and highlighted developments that were already in place. For at least a decade, the US film industry has engaged China with equal parts thrill and trepidation, and even now the film world remains a keen barometer of where that engagement is heading.
In May 2012, the Dalian-based conglomerate Wanda Group paid US$2.6 billion to acquire AMC Theatres, the world’s largest movie chain with nearly 5,050 screens in 350 theatres in North America. But that was nothing compared to the nationwide construction boom in China, where in 2016 the BBC reported that 15 new movie theatres were opening every day.