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Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy
By Erich Schwartzel
When Jiang Zemin saw “Titanic,” he was extremely impressed. Was it the film’s politics? The scuffling between the disadvantaged proletariat below decks and preening nobs above? Sure, James Cameron’s blockbuster displayed a rudimentary class consciousness, of the sort that a Communist leader might be expected to note and grimly endorse. But that wasn’t what earned the particular admiration of the president of the People’s Republic of China. No — Jiang, reports Erich Schwartzel in “Red Carpet,” was blown away by the movie’s “emotional appeal”: Leo and Kate, the gale-like voice of Celine Dion, the artistic engineering of the feelings. “I invite my comrades of the Politburo to see the movie,” he said at the next National People’s Congress. “We should never think that we are the only ones who know how to persuade people.”
Persuade people to do what, is the question. To buy movie tickets and associated merch? To conform in a totalitarian state? Both? “There is, in fact, no such thing as art for art’s sake,” Mao Zedong said in a lecture delivered in Yan’an in 1942. On this point, he and capitalism were in complete agreement: You’re always selling something, be it a revolution or a pair of sneakers. “Red Carpet” is the story of the nexus that formed when Hollywood realized it needed China’s cash, and China realized it could first manipulate — and then appropriate — Hollywood’s special gifts for enchantment, coercion, lifestyle control, and inducing audiences to tear up by means of orchestral swells and Tom Hanks talking earnestly to small children. Or, for that matter, an 18th-century Mel Gibson all bulging with love of freedom: When Sony executives sent a print of “The Patriot” to the censors in Beijing, hoping for a release, they were told that such approval had been denied — but could Chinese officials hold onto the print? “We want others in the bureau to watch it so they can understand how to make a good propaganda film.”
The two stories, the humbling of Hollywood and the swelling of Chinese soft power, twist and combine across Schwartzel’s masterfully organized book. Hollywood is felled by, among other things, prestige television and the collapse of the DVD market. (In 2003, on the day of its release, Disney sold eight million copies of the “Finding Nemo” DVD; by 2008, Disney’s DVD sales had fallen by 33 percent, more than halving the studio’s operating income.) As domestic and global box offices slump, China — slowly and suspiciously opening itself up to Western influences — becomes the new frontier: a great lake of virgin moviegoing imagination, a vast untapped resource.
But China is not a democracy, and its economic leverage over Hollywood allows its leaders to subject American movies to an unprecedented process of ideological filtration. In the movies approved by China’s censors you will find no mention of an afterlife, no time travel and no masturbation. (There’s a great joke in there somewhere.) “Underdog narratives” — little guy takes on the system — are a problem. Hollywood stars on promotional visits have to follow the rules (don’t mention Tibet or Taiwan) and negative images of China are to be expunged. “Red Carpet” itemizes the removal of clotheslines in a Shanghai street scene from “Mission: Impossible III” (drying underwear too retrograde); the rewriting of “World War Z” to clarify that the apocalyptic zombie virus did not actually originate, as previously thought, in China; the cutting of a scene in “Skyfall” in which James Bond Bondishly offs a Chinese security guard (makes Chinese people look weak); and — most spectacularly — in a remake of “Red Dawn,” the postproduction pixel-by-pixel transformation of an entire invading Chinese army into an army from North Korea. (“The flags are one nightmare unto themselves,” a weary special-effects wizard tells Schwartzel, “and then there are all these subnightmares.”)
In addition to those things being taken out of American movies at the behest of China, there are also things being put in, generally by eager-to-please American producers. “A Chinese city, actress or energy drink,” Schwartzel writes, “which producers referred to as ‘Chinese elements,’ became selling points for a film.” Sometimes the Chinese film bureau will make a suggestion: Instead of heroic American jets roaring in to save Hong Kong from marauding giant robots in the climactic scenes of “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” how about — oh, I don’t know — heroic Chinese jets? Sure! says the studio, for whom Chinese cooperation is “an economic no-brainer.”
At the same time, in Chinese films, Americans are getting worse. “While Hollywood studios were stripping their movies of Chinese villains,” writes Schwartzel, “Chinese filmmakers were not extending the same courtesy.” He instances the 2017 mega-smash “Wolf Warrior 2,” in which the Chinese hero Leng rescues African villagers from a disgusting, stomping, supremacist American mercenary called Big Daddy, handsomely played by Frank Grillo. “People like you will always be inferior to people like me,” grunts Big Daddy, locked in bloody struggle with Leng and pushing a blade toward his throat. “That’s history,” says Leng, the second before he twists away and stabs Big Daddy in the neck. “In the movie’s closing credits,” Schwartzel writes, “played as some sold-out auditoriums sang or burst into applause — a pronouncement appeared: ‘Citizens of the People’s Republic of China, when you encounter danger in a foreign land, do not give up! Please remember, at your back stands a strong motherland!’”
This is a fascinating book. It will educate you. Schwartzel has done some extraordinary reporting, and a lot of legwork. He talks to Disney executives and compulsorily rehoused Chinese farmers; he talks to Michael Gralapp, an American actor who made a career out of playing Winston Churchill in Chinese movies, until he suddenly found himself playing Warren Buffett. He ends up in the Masai village of Suswa, Kenya, at the end of one spoke of China’s world-historical Belt and Road initiative, a “collection of Chinese loans and infrastructure deals aimed at redrawing global trade maps.” China is building a train station in Suswa, as part of a grand project to connect the city of Mombasa, on the coast, with the Kenyan interior. It has also delivered StarTimes satellite dishes to some of the villagers, and is piping in, among other entertainments, Chinese game shows and 24-hour kung fu. All part of the same “campaign for African opinion” that brought you “Wolf Warrior 2.”
During the ’80s, in what Schwartzel calls the “rah-rah era” of American cinema — “The Right Stuff,” “Back to the Future,” “Dirty Dancing,” “Top Gun” — the inward-looking Chinese were mainly consuming their own rather stodgy propaganda. “Superman,” starring Christopher Reeve, was briefly released eight years after its American debut, but condemned on the grounds that Superman himself was “a narcotic which the capitalist class gives itself to cast off its serious crises.” The possibility of a state-administered political narcotic, it seems, had not yet, or not quite, occurred to Chinese leadership. “Red Carpet” is about what happened next.