Made For China

How The Chinese Market Transformed Hollywood

The impact of China’s box office on Western entertainment extends far beyond the icy reception of Disney’s live-action Mulan. Is this curtains for Tinseltown as we know it, and are Chinese cash cows really at fault?

How The Chinese Market Transformed Hollywood
Julien Tromeur/Pixabay

In the 21st century, China’s economic power is undeniable. Industrialists’ acquisition of everything from American basketball teams to French heritage wineries is obsessively scrutinised, as is consumers’ predominance within European luxury fashion.

China’s cultural importance, meanwhile, remains underestimated. Despite most English speakers’ limited exposure to Chinese media, the country exerts a sizable influence on Western entertainment, and Hollywood in particular.

In 1994, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) first permitted foreign films, Hollywood earned US$3 million from the Chinese box office. It went on to earn US$275 million in 2005, and a whopping US$10 billion in 2019. 2013’s Pacific Rim marked a turning point, becoming the first Hollywood production to gross more within China than at home. Chinese cinema revenue is even forecast to surpass the USA’s in 2021.

Yet despite depending on international films to sustain local cinemas, China’s film quota only allows for 30 to 40 foreign releases a year. Factor in the CCP’s intensifying stranglehold on expressive freedoms — which already hobbles its domestic studios — and Hollywood’s willingness to toe the party line appears exceedingly commonsensical. 

The ethical implications, however, are too concerning to overlook.

Better left unsaid?

Chinese censorship is capricious and financially risky. Both international and domestic films, even with extensive government vetting, can be unexpectedly shelved mere days before or after premiering.

Some state interference is innocuous and comical, such as requests for laundry lines to be edited out of Mission: Impossible III’s Shanghainese skylines.

Other no-nos are well-documented, such as the “three Ts”: Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen. Doctor Strange’s Tibetan mentor was recast as Tilda Swinton, sidestepping controversy altogether. Director Scott Derrickson claimed, unconvincingly, that the Scotswoman was selected to avoid mystical stereotypes of Asians.

Lesser known yet more sinister, to name just one example, is the CCP’s wariness of time travel and dystopian plots, which it regards as an unwelcome backdoor for political allegory à la 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale

Free expression activist James Tager opined that with CCP sensitivities running high, “over time, writers and creators don’t even conceive of ideas, stories, or characters that would flout the rules, because there is no point in doing so. … The orthodoxies press down imperceptibly, and the parameters of the imagination are permanently circumscribed.”

Keeping friends close

Complicating matters is the growing trend of co-production deals, which exempt filmmakers from the dreaded quota and offer a larger-than-usual revenue share. Where Hollywood’s takings from Chinese screens once averaged as low as 13 percent, with co-production that figure can now rise as high as 43 percent.

On a storytelling level, co-production incentivises setting plots in China, or at least Chinese filming locations. It also encourages largely tokenistic casting of famous Chinese actors in bit parts, who provide a bonus sense of familiarity when promotional tours roll around.

Although it was not technically a co-production, the CCP was substantially involved in Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan, a move ostensibly motivated by the latter’s spirit of cultural appreciation. Mulan would damningly illustrate the pitfalls of getting too cosy with the Chinese state.

(Dis)honour to us all

Mulan star Liu Yifei’s support of police violence in Hong Kong and setpieces filmed in proximity to Uighur detention camps were far from the film’s only issues. Critics pointed out that despite claims to authenticity, revealing liberties were taken with the classical source material.

The heroine’s nomadic heritage was glossed over in favour of a monolithic Han Chinese identity, and she was endowed from the outset with superpowers via a mangled Western interpretation of qi. Worse, some interpreted the film’s antagonists as Turkic or Middle-Eastern-coded.

Political subtext aside, the soullessness of Mulan did not escape Chinese and Western audiences. Viewers lamented the shortage of comedy — Hollywood typically assumes Chinese moviegoers are humourless — compared to its animated predecessor, and the way Mulan’s new superpowers denied her vulnerability and growth in her story arc.

Writer Jeanette Ng criticised the film for “[defaulting] to a series of clichés the screenwriters seem to think represent Chinese culture: po-faced duty, filial piety, [and] magic fights.”

Simu Liu, the Chinese-Canadian star of Marvel’s upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, snarkily tweeted on the film’s release: “BRB though I gotta think about my honour for the fourth time this hour. It’s very important to me, as you can tell from movies that your people have written about my people.”

One wonders how a movie allegedly made with such good intentions could bomb so badly. Maybe, just maybe, those intentions were never as pure as presented.

Turning the tables

It’s worth noting that Hollywood itself is no stranger to censorship and dubious ethics, of which a lengthy tradition of white nationalist propaganda and the infamous Motion Picture Production Code are only two examples.

What’s insidious about Tinseltown’s overtures to the CCP is diminished accountability. Companies increasingly realise the marketing value of social justice. However, when Disney shrinks John Boyega’s image on its Chinese Star Wars posters, because of perceived local antipathy towards darker-skinned or black stars, it can conveniently deflect accusations of racism elsewhere. Likewise with the erasure or downplaying of LGBT narratives.

To be fair, queer erasure is also commonplace in Russia and the Middle East, while similarly whitewashed movie posters have been spotted in Italy. In addition, due to an aggressive military presence and early mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-China sentiment has resurfaced not only in America, but in India, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam … the list goes on. 

But Hollywood and the wider west’s scapegoating of China bears much deeper racist roots.

The Yellow Peril

Art critic Holland Cotter writes that “in the empire-minded 19th century … China was a resource to be exploited. When it resisted, its popular image altered. What was once a realm of fairy-tale grace became home to barbaric rulers, heathen masses and — after England imported opium from India into China — drug addicts.”

In response to rising xenophobia, the USA passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which halted Chinese immigration and barred existing residents of Chinese descent from citizenship. Echoing currently fraught US-China relations, Chinese people were frequently depicted as villainous and diseased.

Compounding misrepresentation was Hollywood’s penchant for yellowface, whose notable participants included icons Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, and Marlon Brando. Things weren’t much better on the rare times Asians did feature, as the exotic, Dragon Lady pigeonholing of Anna May Wong’s career attests. 

All this is far from ancient history, and misfires like Mulan highlight that Hollywood has a ways to go in reversing its one-dimensional, borderline inhuman perspective of the Chinese community. A first, bare-minimum step to progress would be ending the lazy stereotyping and capitulating, cynical conflation of the CCP with China’s diverse population.

Let’s not allow these Hollywood players to bask in praise for taking a stance on something, anything … until it makes the tiniest dent in their billion-dollar bottom lines.

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