Save Matt Damon! — or, Why These Chinese Viewers Don’t Want You To See “The Great Wall”

Just about the only good thing that comes out of Chinese censorship is the popular talkback. The imagination of the online Chinese community leaps and soars, as they lightly arch their necks against the boot keeping them down. After all, they are kept in a rosy state of fresh chafe by whispered rumors of people taken away for posting a comment, the uncertainty of whether a favorite column will survive the latest round of official scrubbing, and goofy admissions from Chinese Internet companies that “aliens have abducted the webpage you’re trying to access”:

 

 

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That cutesiness is the most outspoken the company can get about gag orders from on high. Chinese Internet users are fed up. They long to strike back at the daily scorn of censors powered by their tax dollars. Woe, then, to the object of their collective wrath, such as the collaboration between the Chinese and Hollywood, the movie “Great Wall” starring Matt Damon, due out February 2017.

Here is a quick sum-up of what the most upvoted Chinese users of Douban.com (Goodreads and Imdb rolled into one), have to say about the “Great Wall”:

“So spineless Hollywood was knocked to its knees with cold hard Chinese cash – I can accept that. But why should our very own Matt Damon get dragged into this muck? Giv’im back to me!”

“I can’t tell you how much I wanted this icky movie to be one gigantic prank, just a cult movie concocted by Director Zhang Yimou.”

“Okay, fine, Jing Tian’s acting is world-class —— now will you please drop the gun?”

A little aside about the gun. The Chinese government brought in the operators of the Chinese equivalent of Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB and Amazon for a chiding recently. They thought the sites were not doing a good enough job as gatekeepers of movie-goer reviews. Ambitious well-heeled domestic productions that sail forth with the full blessing of the propaganda department consistently flounder on the open sea of audience opinion. The authorities ordered more patriotism and less criticism in movie reviews by users. In other words, the government has just made movie reviews political.

One of the upsides of the ban on political comments of any kind in China is the chromatic way it paints everything political, in the sense that it raises political awareness in people who otherwise wouldn’t notice or care. Censors cast a wide net. To debate whether soup kitchens, legal aid and tutoring networks for children should be supervised by the police can catapult your average Joanie swiping her iPhone 7 to dissident status overnight. Chinese Internet users return the courtesy by twiddling with the many and exquisitely painful thorns buried in the side of the Chinese leadership. In this instance, they maliciously speculate that Jing Tian, the female lead of “Great Wall,” got the role through high-level connections within the Chinese system.

For Jing Tian is a great mystery. Of a belabored, heavy-duty beauty, with eyes surgically enlarged to achieve the terror-stricken stare of silent-film era stars in vogue, she has starred in a series of box office and critical low-ballers that hemorrhaged eye-popping sums of money. A veteran Chinese co-star provided an insight into the reason for her low popularity. Her icebreaker on the set was nothing short of artless: “I don’t know the first thing about acting. Do your best with that!” Only someone who paid to play could have afforded such disarming candor. Who footed her bill? There is a list of four names in circulation. A deputy Vice Minister of Propaganda? One of the direct descendants of the men who founded People’s Republic of China on a platform of banning official privilege? The possibilities are as fruitfully ironic as the imagination of the online Chinese republic, the only place in China where one can speak up.

But “Great Wall” could have survived even an association with the hybrid monster of a proletarian princess, if it had been done well. Part of audience disappointment is directed at Zhang Yimou himself. This one-time Gold Lion winner, whose courageous exploration of forbidden cultural and political territory was once banned (“To Live”), morphed into a champion of the state long ago. His movies consistently toe the censor-mandated line that the people of China require benevolent despotism to save them from their own folly and weakness. Viewers will never tire of revisiting this smarting betrayal, by tearing Zhang’s output to shreds. Hollywood merely put the finishing touches on this disaster, spitting out a predictable script “with as many plot holes as monsters.”

Little surprise, then, that “Great Wall” is struggling with a 50% rating on Douban (worse than 93% of all fantasy movies), despite a surge of paid boosters who attack the film’s detractors for “kissing the foreigners’ ass” and “sneering condescension at their own culture.” (Both the government and businesses in China are adroit manipulators of culture wars – sounds familiar?)

The Chinese government has reportedly gotten very good at jiggling Western guilt about the legacy of imperialism to get what they want. That’s how it got all these movers and shakers of the American policy establishment to accept, for decades, the bad things it does to its own people. (The idea is that if China should stop manhandling the Chinese, chaos would ensue. It’s fitfully benevolent despotism seen from a different angle.) If you feel bad that the Western powers had humiliated China for 150 years, keep that 50% rating in mind when debating whether to shell out another $39 bucks for your next movie outing. Follow the Chinese  people’s advice and skip the “Great Wall.”  The Chinese government would be delighted that the West is finally, in keeping with their rising power, looking to the Chinese for guidance. President Xi and company figure that the average Chinese patriot will be more willing to overlook the way they are treated at home, if their country is great again abroad. Sounds familiar?

The Knowing Ducks of Spring: How to tell when China is Ready to Compete with Hollywood

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People associated with China’s film industry recently declaimed on the CBS program 60-Minutes that the Chinese are poised to give Hollywood a run for its money. Rob Cain of Bloomberg was quite emphatic as to why not. And I wholeheartedly agree with him.

In this I am taking my cue from China’s own tough-love critics, whose opinion I figure must be weighty on this subject. Ranging from Chen Danqing, an artist and arbiter of culture, to Ran Yunfei, a public intellectual harassed by authorities, they all agree that cultural China is but a shadow of its former self. They feel that the ravages of the country’s recent past, such as the Cultural Revolution, left China adrift, severed from much of its heritage and uncertain of its future. You can’t tell powerful stories when you don’t know who you are or where you might be.

China is, therefore, in a long cultural convalescence, and in such straits poses no threat to Hollywood’s global dominance. By the same token, however, healing may eventually usher in a renaissance.

The great Song-dynasty renaissance man, Su Dongpo (1037-1101), writes that “When warm once again the tides of spring grow/The ducks are always the first ones to know.” Here are two spheres of Chinese cultural life to watch, as Su’s proverbial ducks, for the arrival of that cultural renewal. Now, it is inevitable that observers will vehemently differ on whether backsliding or leapfrogging is gaining the upper hand. There will be inexhaustible opportunities to track eye-popping developments on the ground and to wrangle over what they mean. That will be part of the fun.

The Chinese Language. Chinese is slowly recovering from the Maoist style of writing and speaking. Li Tuo, a literary critic, pointed out in 1997 that the language of propaganda and revolution held back modern Chinese. The standardized Maospeak outlawed, and virtually wiped modern Chinese clean, of classical Chinese.

To understand what this means, imagine an English with the widest part of its Saxon and Latinate vocabulary surgically removed. Then ponder how you can grapple with that state of things, knowing only a few odds and ends from your entire literary past that political leaders, the government press and a couple of lionized writers happened to cite. That’s what the Chinese are up against.

Restoring and regrowing Chinese language and culture is an uphill climb. Still, Hollywood should not get too comfortable. For the last several years, a section of Chinese society has honored their past by waxing nostalgic for the culture of the Republican era that immediately preceded Communist rule. For example, Mu Xin, a recently discovered writer’s writer, is beloved of young hip readers as representative of “what Chinese literature would have looked like, had it not been devastated after 1949.” Readers and writers are slowly reforging the broken link to their rich birthright.

Chinese Dramas and Their Critics. While the majority of Chinese audience put up with what domestically produced movie and TV theatricals censors allow them to see, an irrepressible minority have made a wildly popular cottage industry out of ripping into government-approved content that offend them as insults to their IQ. Barrages of jokes and quips greet trite fare restricted to a few categories:

a. Imperial court intrigue emphasizing the sagacity of rulers and the grandeur of Chinese empires;

b. The 101th rehashing of myths on how underground tunnels and airplane-felling pistol shots from Communist guerrillas beat back the Japanese invasion in WWII;

c. Shoddy rom-coms slovenly modeled on Japanese and Korean originals, adapted to Chinese tastes with endless catfights between daughter- and mother-in-law.

Stuff that will not shake Hollywood to its foundations any time soon. Having said that, watch out for the gush of irreverent creativity from their critics: theirs is an outstanding testament to the Chinese imagination and its potential for storytelling. 

Given how formidable that creativity would be if harnessed the right way, just like the country did in the manufacture of more tangible things, China may yet catch up with light-year speed. Nirvana in Fire, a popular 55-episode drama that was seen a total of 3.5 billion times on Chinese streaming platforms as of October 2015, is one recent breakthrough that for once has the homegrown critics applauding. This historical fantasy differs in many regards from mainstream fare. A re-conceived Count of Monte Cristo, it sports a moral backbone, where other censor-sanctioned drama veer between saintly stereotypes (WWII) and nihilistic cynicism (court intrigue). It boasts strong female characters whose horizons extend beyond the love of men. Its treatment of historical details is precise and intimate, going beyond professional polish to that reforging of links to Chinese heritage so vital to China’s renaissance. All this result in a reticent aesthetics rooted in the high tradition of Chinese painting and poetry. The camerawork, costumes and set design are of an understated beauty in a quintessentially Chinese way that has won over viewers both old and young.

In a word, I think we would do well to look to Chinese civil society in order to figure out when their creative springtime is at hand. Until then, Hollywood can try to stay ahead of the game by learning from the worthiest Chinese endeavors. For Hollywood, like China, has to endlessly recreate itself to stay true to its dreams. In that there is no zero-sum game.