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Sense and Sensitivities: China and Hollywood at Odds in the Cinema World

Thursday, April 29, 2021

The annual navel-gazing ritual known as the Academy Awards examines not only the accomplishments of the film industry but also the state of society that surrounds it. The Covid-19 pandemic took a toll on both, writes author and cultural critic Ken Smith, but the industry has proved open to a diverse range of talents and visions, not least from Asia. The main casualty appears to be Hollywood’s relationship with China, a marriage of convenience headed for divorce over irreconcilable differences.

Sense and Sensitivities: China and Hollywood at Odds in the Cinema World

Lights, camera but no action on Hong Kong's Avenue of Stars: The film industry, with its global center in Hollywood, has proved open to a diverse range of talents and visions, not least from Asia (Credit: Vanzyst / Shutterstock.com)

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.

The co-production craze: Not a love story

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.

The real make-believe, Shanghai: Hollywood’s relationship with China may be a marriage of convenience heading for divorce over irreconcilable differences (Credit: Robert Mullan / Shutterstock.com)

The real make-believe, Shanghai: Hollywood’s relationship with China may be a marriage of convenience heading for divorce over irreconcilable differences (Credit: Robert Mullan / Shutterstock.com)

That naturally led to a hunger for product, where Hollywood was at a tremendous disadvantage. Since the 1990s, China had maintained a firm quota of 10 foreign films a year, which meant that the US still had to compete with all of Europe, India and Japan. By 2017, after fierce US lobbying, that number was raised to 34 a year, which was still a drop in the bucket compared to the number of films available and exponential increases in audience demand.

People, though, had already noticed a loophole. Any film co-produced with a Chinese partner was exempt from the quota. Suddenly, Chinese companies with spare cash reinvented themselves as film producers, and Hollywood studios not only got a sizeable budget influx but also potential access to millions of moviegoers. It was, as dealmakers say, win-win – until one read the fine print.

My own brush with that Faustian bargain came in 2014, shortly after I had signed a contract with Lionsgate as a consultant for a television series billed as “Sex in the City in Shanghai”. Soon after our pilot was approved, the green light suddenly turned red. Despite the fact that the series had no plans to be shown in China, no production presence on Chinese territory or (to my knowledge) any Chinese nationals in the cast, the series was dropped after Lionsgate entered a US$375 million partnership with Hunan TV. (Chairman Long Qiuyun was later brought down on corruption charges, but not before he had been credited as a producer on numerous Lionsgate projects, including the Oscar-winning film La La Land.)

Similar experiences were writ large in a 94-page study from PEN America documenting at length the way China’s influence in altering “cast, plot, dialogue and settings” was geared not only toward “controlling independent thought in its own borders” but also “reshaping the bounds of what can be shown, said and told” in the rest of the world. The changes that were documented ranged from removing LGBT content in Bohemian Rhapsody to changing what was clearly intended as a Tibetan character in Doctor Strange to a Celtic mystic. The report cites Stanley Rosen, a USC professor of political science and international relations, who warned of a systematic campaign to control anything related to China’s national interests. “Don’t think,” he cautions, “that if you’re doing something that’s not intended for China, that it’s an indie film meant for a small market, that China won’t notice and that it won’t hurt your blockbuster film. It will.”

One country, two movie industries

Stepping back a moment from the heated rhetoric, I recall how David Bordwell, the film scholar and critic perhaps most responsible for elevating Hong Kong’s profile among cinephiles, often claimed that “Hong Kong learned all the wrong lessons from Hollywood, and Hollywood learned all the wrong lessons from Hong Kong.” Given Hong Kong’s track record in China it is safe to say that Hollywood’s deals have lacked due diligence.

Back in 2017, the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) hosted a panel devoted to changes in the industry after the 1997 handover. Little of the talk concerned mainland censorship, which was hardly news in Hong Kong, but rather how drastically the rudiments of Hong Kong storytelling fell flat across the border. More than 800 of the 1,100 or so mainland co-productions between 1979 and 2019 were from Hong Kong, done in partnership with veteran Cantonese filmmakers who had carefully spent their careers gauging local tastes.

Suddenly, they faced a billion strangers. Cantonese cinema’s two most distinctive genres – post-modern reinventions of traditional tales and modern crime stories rooted in moral ambiguity – found no takers. The first, assuming it could get past a long-held bias against “feudal superstition,” ran up against President Xi Jinping’s warnings against “messing with tradition.” Likewise, Hong Kong’s perennial matchmaking between crooked cops and honorable criminals – a staple long before John Woo’s The Killer (1989) and after Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs (2002) – became officially non grata. The only bright future for Hong Kong cinema, as panelist and film critic Shum Longtin told the HKIFF audience, was to reject Chinese funding, make the films you want to make, and find new ways to reach an audience.

Decoupling, the movie

So where does that leave us now? According to Comscore, an American media analytics company, China has finally reached its ambitions in becoming the world’s top movie market, its US$3.1 billion box office surpassing the US by more than a billion dollars. And this was accomplished predominantly without Hollywood, since the few big-budget productions that were released (including Wonder Woman 1984 and Disney’s Mulan) failed to resonate with Chinese audiences.

Cut!: The pandemic shut down cinemas worldwide and, even when they reopened, masks and social distancing were required (Credit: XArtProduction / Shutterstock.com)

Cut!: The pandemic shut down cinemas worldwide and, even when they reopened, masks and social distancing were required (Credit: XArtProduction / Shutterstock.com)

But that data point, though, requires an asterisk – a pointer to Covid-19. China’s market spiked in 2020 and into this year primarily because a housebound nation was suddenly turned loose and cinemas were the only thing open. In the US, where cinemas remained closed, fewer big-budget films remained in production and many that were already in the distribution queue kept being delayed for a more ceremonial release.

An even greater disparity than the screening circumstances was a fundamental divergence in cinematic sensibility. China, eager to return to its pre-pandemic splendor, basically embraced grand opera. America, still in the midst of a public lockdown, veered toward chamber music. Even Hollywood studios that had long held streaming platforms at arm’s length accepted their distribution network as a necessity, which clearly influenced the types of films being made.

Which brings us back to “the Covid Oscars” and seeing recent developments coming to a head. Iyer’s admiration of Toronto’s multiculturalism in The Global Soul had made me yearn for American films that matched the unselfconscious grace of Canadian counterparts like Naoko Ogigami’s Toilet (2010) or Mina Shum’s Long Life, Happiness & Prosperity (2002) in portraying an authentic clash of cultures. Shortly before the pandemic, I found one in The Farewell, Lulu Wang’s story of a young American Chinese woman visiting her dying grandmother in China and falling into the family’s conspiracy to keep her terminal condition a secret. A product of the Sundance Institute, The Farewell was entirely free of Hollywood froth, a personal statement that required subtitles in either New York or Beijing, but one that would be fully understood in both.

This year’s Oscar nominee list was Sundance writ large, rich in diverse ideas and creative vision. As the Financial Times pointed out, all eight nominees for Best Picture combined grossed only US$35 million at the box office (though the story failed to mention that, given their modest budgets, several still made a profit). But this was clearly not the message the Academy was trying to deliver. In a year filled with racial unrest and Black Lives Matter protests, Daniel Kaluuya walked away with the Best Supporting Actor award for his portrayal of Black Panther activist Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah. So too did Korean film icon Youn Yuh-jung’s nod as Best Supporting Actress for her turn as an immigrant grandmother in Minari send a crucial rejoinder against a US epidemic of anti-Asian violence.

While Minari cut to the heart of the American immigrant experience, Best Director winner Chloé Zhao’s film Nomadland offered a sensitive account of America’s downtrodden that betrayed no obvious trace of her Chinese background. Amid a media blackout around Zhao that began once an interview from 2013 resurfaced citing her criticism of China, the Global Times was caught between documenting Zhao’s historic Oscar win while keeping it at a distance The article quoted Beijing film critic Shi Wenxue’s estimation that Zhao’s personal style and focus on American social issues “may fail to capture the interest of Chinese moviegoers”. (Shi likewise discounted Do Not Split, a nominee in the Documentary Short Subject category about the Hong Kong protests, as being “subjective, partial, one-sided” and having “ulterior motives”.)

Ultimately, the Oscars left most key questions unanswered. After the pandemic, will American audiences regularly return to the cinema, or has home streaming made the big screen the cinematic equivalent of the horse, a majestic creature trotted out on special occasions but no longer a primary means of transportation? Will increasingly diverse artists – particularly Asian and Asian Americans – with something to say still find mainstream audiences eager to listen? Will China’s box office continue to surge ahead largely on the basis of films that play solely to domestic audiences? Remember screenwriter William Goldman’s famous dictum against Hollywood predictions: “Nobody knows anything!” But as far as China and the US being linked in a global industry, we can see the uncoupling has already begun.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute

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