Save Matt Damon! or, Entertainment Content as Political Commentary in China

Telling political commentary is buried in unlikely places on the Chinese Internet.  Scandals about high-ranking officials and popular criticism of the government are disguised as entertainment gossip. The best proof of the potential for political change found in such gossip is in the goofy admissions from Chinese Internet companies that “aliens have abducted the webpage you’re trying to access”:

 

 

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The fact that the companies are not content with just making the content disappear, but want to point fingers to the censors that make them do it, however subtly, speaks volumes. One of the most recent targets of this type of veiled political commentary is 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? Save him!”

“Director Zhang Yimou has been dead a long time already.”

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

Waving the said gun, the Chinese Communist Party wants to keep its image as the sage leader of a powerful and prosperous country front and center. The Chinese equivalent of Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB and Amazon were chided by the censors recently.  Propaganda-approved movies pushing the Party’s message often received rock bottom scores from a jeering public. The authorities ordered the Internet firms hosting movie content to stop the nosebleed of its disgraced propaganda. How? By messing with user feedback on movies. The companies may delete unfavorable reviews, or even stop users from voting on a movie at all.

So let us  take a look to see how this has benefitted the Great Wall, a Chinese-Hollywood collaboration. It’s too bad that the steamy innuendos which sell movies so well are, in this case, about the movie but not in it. Jing Tian, the female lead of “Great Wall,” purportedly got the role through high-level connections within the Chinese system.  Ms. Tian is a great mystery. Of a belabored, heavy-duty beauty, with eyes likely surgically enlarged to achieve the terror-stricken stare of silent-film era stars, Jing has starred in a series of box office and critical low-ballers that hemorrhaged eye-popping sums of money. She acts about as well as a rock, hence the sarcasm of the last Chinese user review quoted above.

The man who foots Jing’s bill feeds the gossip mill that erodes the government’s legitimacy. 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 contrast between the image of Xi’s Party as austere, all-correct and faithful, and such blatant patronage and corruption in China’s state-dominated movie industry, is not lost on the millions of gossip-news readers. This is the underside and bottom-up part of China’s anti-corruption campaign, and it’s likely to last long after Xi puts away the scalps of his arch-enemies.

Audience rejection of Party propaganda also comes out strong in their criticism of Director Zhang Yimou. Viewers feel a particular disappointment in Zhang, something akin to seeing Spike Lee morph into an unctuous Leni Riefenstahl chasing greenbacks. Zhang, a one-time Gold Lion winner, spent his more recent movies trumpeting that the people of China require benevolent despotism to save them from their own weakness and folly. Liberal Chinese mourn the one-time Gold Lion winner Zhang, whose courageous exploration of the Party’s misrule, including the Cultural Revolution, was banned (“To Live”).

Little surprise, then, that “Great Wall” is struggling with a 50% rating on the Chinese IMDB 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?) Hollywood merely put the finishing touches on this disaster, spitting out a predictable script “with as many plot holes as monsters,” to quote another disdainful user review.

I would like to think there is a moral here. 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.” But by all means let us keep watching the political fireworks  that come out of China’s online gossip mill. It signals public dissatisfaction with Xi’s government that belies its 90% poll ratings. 

Post script: Xi’s government shut down a number of entertainment accounts on Chinese social media in June 2017. The official reasons given include “vulgarity” and the “hyping of the relationships and private lives of stars.”  A telling protest letter from a reader to a Hong Kong publication writes: “Frankly, the truth is that in China, political and entertainment news rub shoulders.”

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