Why patriotism won’t save the Chinese film industry

Imagethief was intrigued to read in an AP article a week or two ago that Han Sanping, Chairman of the government-backed China Film Group, has called for more patriotism in Chinese movies. Han minced no words, saying:

“The reality of this country’s economic reforms is that the country, the race, is prospering. This must be extolled. It can only be extolled. There can’t be anyone who makes fun of it. People who do either have ulterior motives or they’re mentally challenged,” the executive was quoted as saying.

“As a Chinese director … as a Chinese actor, this point of view must be firmly entrenched,” Han said.

He also said he wanted to see more “ethically inspiring” content produced by his group.

Imagethief is all for extolling that which needs to be extolled, although he also believes that almost anything, including the rise of China, can be made fun of. Imagethief is also easily excited when bureaucracy sticks its nose into popular culture because it is inevitably a train wreck and often precludes the need for anyone else to make fun of anything. In fact, government involvement in any aspect of popular culture, unless it is simply cutting a check, is generally bad form. This is because politicians and bureaucrats are, by and large, crappy arbiters of taste.

This is not a uniquely Chinese or even Asian problem. Any American of my generation can be driven into a cold sweat by these two words: Tipper Gore. In 1985 the then future second lady started an entire political movement in the United States based upon the conviction that Prince was perverting her daughters (ironic, considering that seven years later those same daughters would spend a great deal of time in close proximity to horndog-in-chief Bill Clinton). Today, the Parent’s Music Resource Center smolders on the ash heap of cultural history. Prince rocks on, even if his CDs do now carry a “parental advisory: explicit lyrics” sticker, itself a desperate redundancy in the era of hip hop and digital downloads. Darling Nikki might have been masturbating with a magazine, but at least she wasn’t popping a cap in yo’ ass.

Dan Quayle, a serial self-debaser, also once got into the act, publicly chastising Candice Bergen’s fictional newscaster “Murphy Brown” for setting a bad example by glamorizing single motherhood. He’d have been better off leaving the value judgments aside and pointing out that Murphy’s baby was when the show jumped the shark and began its decline. But in a moment of phoenix-like comedy resurrection, the producers actually incorporated Quayle’s comment into one of the waning show’s funniest moments. Moralizing politicians: 0. Hollywood trash merchants: 1. Yet again.

And so it goes. Politicians, civil servants and bureaucrats simply aren’t mentally equipped to do battle with the entertainment industry. Politicians forget that showbiz professionals thrive in environment that selects for ruthlessness deal-making and amoral chicanery even more than politics does. Furthermore, while some actors might be dumb, comedians and humor writers tend to be smart. Honestly, do you think there is a politician out there who stands a rhetorical chance against a successful sitcom writer? Or, barring that, against the lowest-common-denominator mass market tastes that virtually guarantee that a free media will produce 95% schlock and 5% provocative, literate art? In a free media environment schlock largely subsidizes provocative, literate art, and can probably be seen as a form of cultural tax.

But you can see why politicians can’t resist moralizing at the film industry. With near global uniformity, the movie industry is filled with pimps, sleazebuckets and coke-heads. But it turns out that pimps, sleazebuckets and coke-heads are exactly who you want green-lighting movies, assuming you want anything watchable hitting the screen. Certainly I’d pick them over bureaucrats. If you want to see what happens when bureaucrats control a film industry, look at Singapore. Quick, name a famous Singaporean movie.

I thought so.

And even seasoned, morally bankrupt Hollywood couch-casters get it wrong regularly. After all, they gave us “Herbie Rides Again”. I think I speak for most of the developed world when I say that the only movie I want to see starring L!ndsay Lohan and a car has her spending most of the time in the back seat, morality and family entertainment be damned.

But morality isn’t the only thing that bureaucrats want from movieland. Let’s come back to China. As we read above, Han believes passionately that China must be “extolled” and must not be made fun of in film. He pointed out that:

[Nationalism] was also common in U.S. movies, saying they often cast Americans as saviors.

“(In Hollywood movies) every time mankind faces disaster, Americans rescue mankind … When an evil monster that wants to destroy the world appears, who saves mankind? Americans. This is patriotism too. You can’t deny it,” Han said.

Well this really shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. But it’s not just patriotism. It’s also business. If an American movie studio with an American director makes a film for American audiences, then, yes, it’ll probably be Americans saving the world. You think if Hollywood made a film about a relentless killer asteroid being deflected by a rocket ship full of heroic Latvians that Americans would stampede out to see it? The Latvians can make that movie, if they can get the budget together. We’ll send Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck and Michael Clarke Duncan thanks very much. Americans might also sneak in some stealth-Canadians, like Brendan Fraser or Keanu Reeves, and even the occasional Englishman, but all other foreigners are likely to be  villains, exotic sex appeal or comic relief. Occasionally they might even be all three (consider the evil Liz Hurley robot from “Austin Powers II”).

And this is as it should be. Not just in America, but everywhere. Your people are the heroes. Everyone else is set dressing, villainy or jiggle. Even the North Koreans have figured that one out. It’s more apparent with Americans because America has the biggest global film export business and produces the slickest product. But make no mistake: it’s produced to satisfy the domestic audience first, with the assumption that most of the rest of movie-going world won’t mind the occasional jingoistic American flag as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the spectacle or the tits. And those countries where an American flag will have a significant effect on the box office (Iran? Pakistan? North Korea?) are probably not the biggest legal markets for Hollywood.

This isn’t a result of government direction. It’s a result of marketing, and any benefits conferred upon government are incidental and may expire without notice. It is, however, true that Americans can take cinematic patriotism to an obnoxious extent. Apropos of the asteroid example above think of Michael Bay, who is literally incapable of making a movie without American fighter planes (although he did cast stealth-Scot Ewan McGregor as his hero in “The Island”).

We’ll even inject our patriotism into other countries’ movies. The Japanese had a good thing going where Japanese people were saving Japan from a giant radioactive monster created, as it would happen, by the Americans. Hollywood couldn’t leave that alone, however, and had to replace the perfectly good Japanese nationalism in that film with 45 minutes of Raymond Burr standing around talking into a microphone. That was a raw deal for everyone involved. Even Raymond Burr. Fortunately the Japanese recovered nicely from that indignity and to this day Japanese celluloid heroes are saving the world from an assortment of radioactive monsters, giant robots and sinister alien races in pointy helmets and sunglasses. Good for them.

But lost in Han Sanping’s point of view is the little secret that America makes plenty of movies that don’t conform to the conventional idea of patriotism. For every “The Green Berets” there is an “Apocalypse Now” brooding darkly over the shape of American governance and power. There are movies that question American politics, society and history. There are movies that upend the conventional American narrative. There are movies that sympathize with our past adversaries. There are subversive movies in which the government is the villain. There are documentaries that poke and pry and sniff into every aspect of American life, policy and society. And there are countless movies that make fun of America, the American people and the American government in every conceivable way. The patriotism needs to be seen in that much broader context — as a single facet of American film making that fills one of the markets many needs. Patriotism doesn’t need to be mandated or suggested to Hollywood. It comes naturally, as does everything else.

And it would come naturally to Chinese film makers also. If Han Sanping truly loves the Chinese film industry he should therefore do everything in his power to ensure that the government sets it free, because at the moment it’s in pretty woeful shape, and dictating priorities from the top is not going to help. Chinese films (and imports shown in theaters here) can’t have sex, superstition, Chinese gangs or excessive violence. That’s basically the entire movie-making playbook off-limits before the cameras even roll. Furthermore, since there are no film ratings in China, all films must be suitable for all audiences. In a country with 1.3 billion people that sets the lowest common denominator pretty low indeed.

Once you take all the fun stuff out what do you have left? A bunch of woeful, overproduced, badly paced period films full of people standing around in gorgeous costumes looking pensive while horrible indignities are heaped upon Gong Li’s breasts without ever actually revealing them to the audience. It must chafe the mandarins of the Chinese film industry that they are investing their hopes in a genre that was perfected in its modern incarnation by a Taiwanese director who has been appropriated by Hollywood. No wonder people stay home in droves and buy pirate imports.

Diktats from above notwithstanding, the Chinese seem quite clear about the kinds of movies they want to watch. If the government wants to look into this the market research will be easy. Put a guy with a suitcase full of DVDs on the corner and have him flog them for 8 kuai a hit. Come back at the end of the day and see what’s sold. I’m thinking it will be the movies with sex, superstition, Chinese gangs and excessive violence. And maybe even some patriotism, just by accident.

Perhaps rather than trying to state-manage their way to film success the Chinese government should consider backdating their ownership of the Hong Kong film industry to 1970 and just calling it theirs. More constructively, Imagethief offers the following advice to the Chinese government, the China Film Group, and other bureaucratic culture czars on how to make the mainland Chinese film industry world class. I propose three simple steps:

  • Nationalize the pirate film rings, appropriate the distribution networks for similarly priced legal content and rub out anyone who muscles in with ruthless gangland tactics.
  • Create a rating system so not every movie needs to be suitable for eight-year-olds.
  • Build more nice theaters with decent sound and projection and price tickets under 20 kuai.
  • Shut the fuck up.

Imagethief looks forward to the rebirth of Chinese cinema.

Stand up for China!

Stand up for China!


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