Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

Chinese tastes and our expectations

Grady Hendrix has what was to me a satisfying piece up in Slate on the topic of popular Chinese film. In it, he makes the following point:

American distributors like to import movies that toe a certain political line, depicting modern-day China as an environmentally degraded hellhole where human life has little to no value, where most people live in poverty and women have no rights. (See Lost in Beijing, Blind Shaft, Still Life, Summer Palace, Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju, etc.) The best marketing tool for selling a Chinese film in America is to plaster “Banned in China!” across the poster. American audiences love the idea of the little guy with the shopping bags blocking the tank at Tiananmen Square; we’re schooled to think any officially approved movie out of China is going to be propaganda and the only way to “really see” China is through the eyes of filmmakers out of favor with SARFT, China’s official film censorship body.

The reality is that many of these “banned” movies weren’t banned at all.

A couple of weeks ago I went with some friends to see Jia Zhangke’s 24 City (which blogged about here). It was virtuosic in its subtlety, both in a general sense and in how it fit the bill of “depicting modern-day China as an environmentally degraded hellhole where human life has little to no value…”

karateFollowing the movie we were talking about Chinese film generally and someone mentioned reading an article about how Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon had been a commercial flop in China for its slow pace (its “elegance”) and non-constant action (its “non-self-indulgence”). I’m not sure which exact article he was referring to, but I turned up one from the Guardian making the same general point:

“For Hong Kong Chinese there’s simply not enough action,” says Maria Wong, a post-production film executive in Hong Kong. “I grew up with this type of film. You can see them every day on TV. It’s nothing new, even the female angle. But Crouching Tiger is so slow, it’s a bit like listening to grandma telling stories.”

For Hong Kong and Chinese audiences, the historical martial arts (or “wire-fu”) genre is exemplified by 1980s films such as Ronnie Yu’s The Bride With White Hair or Tsui Hark’s Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain and his Once Upon a Time in China series. The fight scenes are usually longer, more frequent and more technically skilled (Michelle Yeoh was the only real martial arts expert in Crouching Tiger).

Further, any intervals between fights are filled either with slapstick comedy or rapid-fire exposition…

While Western art-house audiences are drawn to Chinese directors who portray their homeland as bleakly as possible, those same audiences are also heavily proclived towards such bleakly one-dimensional understandings of Chinese people themselves as the one contained in the Guardian quote above. The directors of bleak films, to us, are the rare few standing against the mass, brainwashed shallow by China’s regime.

My intuition is that that is far too simple, far too easy, and, from the perspective of a culture that just gave Transformers 2 one of the biggest opening weekends in history, completely un-self-reflexive. The plant closing depicted in 24 City was inhumane from the perspective of the interviewees that carried the narrative of the movie, but especially now in America, does not seem any less humane than what is routinely experienced in the West. Compare it, for example, to this emotionally harrowing Magnum photo essay.

There are many damnable aspects of modern China that have no equivalent in the West, but the dehumanizing economic hardship of plant closures is not one of them. The humanity of Zhang’s portrayal, if one is open to it, speaks at least as much to the experience, from whatever perspective, of that common reality as it speaks to the particularities of the experience of living that reality in Chengdu. This, I would like to think, is why I found it so powerful—as opposed to some unexamined orientalism (which, if I’m honest with myself, most likely was a factor to some extent).

By further contrast to the Western expectations I’ve described, Hendrix in his Slate article describes another dimension of contemporary Chinese film, which he illustrates through the experience of the director Ning Hao:

Ning Hao is a good example of a director who saw the light. Pandering to Western tastes, he was a financial failure, barely able to scrape together a living from the scraps U.S. distributors threw him. His twee, contemplative, downright embalmed art films Incense and Mongolian Ping Pong received wide American play, lots of film festival exposure, critical raves, and zero money at the box office. So he decided to make a comedy.The result was Crazy Stone, a deliriously complicated tale of thieves, con artists, bottom crawlers, and thug capitalists chasing after a precious jade artifact in Chongqing, plotting, scheming, double-crossing, and shooting one another in the back with crossbows. With no stars and shot on a tiny budget in multiple regional dialects, Crazy Stone wound up grossing $3 million off a $400,000 investment. The sequel, Crazy Racer, is an even slicker and more accomplished film that grossed almost $20 million. Ning Hao is now one of China’s biggest hit-makers, and the world is a better place for his decision to trade art for adrenaline. Airless indie films are a dime a dozen, while actually excellent comedies like Crazy Racer are rare.

And that’s the strangest twist of all: Rather than pandering to the lowest common denominator, many of these SARFT-approved Chinese blockbusters are complicated, fascinating films.

No doubt China is not a friendly environment for free expression, and I don’t want to defend the regime’s censorship, but it doesn’t amount to legitimation for the regime to acknowledge the cultural potency of the people it sits astride.

Here’s another reading, from Secrets of the City, of the Chinese reaction to Crouching Tiger and the subsequent films made in its mold:

Enter Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon … the film appeared on the top ten list of virtually every critic in the U.S., landed ten Oscar nominations, and was declared a “Martial Masterpiece” by Time. In China, however, the reaction was nearly the inverse, with many critics dwelling upon the fact that the film’s story line was utterly hackneyed, even by the perpetually low standards of Chinese network television. Worse still, some of Lee’s Hong Kong cast spoke poor, heavily accented Mandarin that elicited derision in both theaters and reviews. Above all, Chinese critics, audiences, and even some directors seemed to resent the fact that someone from Taiwan—the island is considered a renegade province on the mainland—had profited from an overseas market by exploiting the most Chinese of genres.

Despite the critical scorn, a $128 million U.S. box office is pretty much impossible to ignore in a country where a $5 million domestic box office is respectable. So when Zhang Yimou came out with Hero in 2002, no one in China was surprised that he tailored it for the American audience thrilled by Crouching Tiger. Even more than that film, Hero relied upon the tropes and clichés of Chinese period television; and again, the enthusiasm of Americans for this film was greeted with confusion in China. When I saw the film on Christmas Eve in a Shanghai theater packed with families, there were plenty of moments in which the dialogue elicited groans and snickers. While American critics praised the film’s three-stage retelling of Emperor Qin’s planned assassination, their Chinese colleagues rolled their eyes—for audiences in the country, the tale was as profound as a ride into the sunset at the end of a Gunsmoke episode.

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