China at the Movies, Part 2: The CCP vs. Harry Potter…WHO YA GOT?

Click here for Part 1

The Founding of a Party (建党伟业) – June, 2011

I first learned of this film on the Beijing subway. Thanks to my hour-long daily commute, I’ve become maybe a little too familiar with the commercials and movie trailers of the Beijing subway TV channel – Lord knows; I can quote the omnipresent 58.com commercial verbatim, and the spokeswoman doesn’t even use my native language.

Sometime in the spring of last year a new movie ad started getting major spin on the subway TVs. Actually, it wasn’t an ad, per se – it was more of a movie blooper reel, with Chow Yun-fat and other big-name Chinese actors wearing late Qing Dynasty period dress, flubbing their lines and laughing hysterically into the camera. “What kind of movie would be advertised like this,” I wondered, “another zany kung fu comedy, perhaps?”

How wrong I was. I had stumbled upon the prelude to the advertising blitz for The Founding of a Party, the blockbuster set to premiere during the celebration of the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party.

I must admit I was initially drawn to the concept. A movie about the founding of a political party – how could that possibly be boring? If only we in America had thought of it first! One can only imagine the potential for a Founding of a Republican Party movie:

“Hark unto us, all you former Whig Party members, and we shall form a new party – a party so grand, it shall make the Whig Party look like the Anti-Masonic Party!”

There was, however, much about this film that could raise concern: considering this movie had the same director, characters, style and a similar title as The Founding of a Republic – but was set almost 30 years prior – this would be that most wretched of all cinematic creations, the prequel. Ah, prequel – I shudder at the very mention of the word. I had to put on surgical gloves before typing this paragraph – lest I be infected by the dreaded Prequel Herpes. Remember, kids: Prequel Herpes is forever, and it thrives on ignorance.

Sure, I somewhat enjoyed watching The Founding of a Republic, but not nearly as much as I enjoyed Dumb and Dumber. And considering the fact that I never had the slightest interest in watching Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, how could I possibly get excited for The Founding of a Republic-er: When Mao Met Zhou Enlai?

The movie presented still more problems. The Founding of a Republic was set during the Chinese Civil War, which leant itself to some dramatic battle scenes. Well the Chinese Communist Party wasn’t founded on the battlefield; it was founded by a meeting of 13 young radicals in a Shanghai women’s dormitory. How would a movie set in a Chinese girl’s dormitory possibly play on the big screen? Looking for precedent, I decided to google “Asian girls dorm movie”; and – surprise, surprise – I found some examples. This movie might have an audience after all – people seem to be very interested about what happens in an Asian girls’ dorm.

The CCP’s 90th anniversary celebration made Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee look like a pack of death row inmates toasting over a paper cups of toilet wine. The premiere of The Founding of a Party was set to be centerpiece of their celebration, much in the same way The Founding of a Republic capped off the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic ofChina in 2009.

Unfortunately, the CCP had an unforeseen dilemma on their hands in 2011- one that threatened to wreck them at the box office. The People’s Republic of Chinahad been founded at an opportune time – as far as movie premieres are concerned. The Founding of a Republic premiered around Chinese National Day – Oct. 1 – which happens to come a month after the end of the blockbuster summer movie season. No Chinese film dared compete, and there wasn’t much in the way of foreign films to choose from, so Founding of a Republic ran pretty much without competition – its prequel, however, was not so lucky.

The Founding of a Party was set to premiere right around the same time as the international releases of Transformers 3 and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Now, it is important to understand: Chinese people worship both of these film series, even more so than Westerners. Whenever the subject of movies is brought up, a Chinese guy will inevitably steer the discussion toward Transformers. I’ve had to discuss those films more times than I’d care to mention – and I don’t mean a simple, “Do you think that new blond chick is hotter than Megan Fox?” discussion…I’ve had to discuss each film on its merits.

Needless to say, the party was in a bind. If given the choice between their movie and Harry Potter, Chinese audiences would pick Harry Potter every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Still, the party had a trump card to play: their absolute control of the Chinese film industry. They have complete authority over what movies get played, and when. So they decided to push back the premieres of Harry Potter and Transformers until certain box office goals had been met.

Now, the Chinese people are known for their ability to bear unconscionable amounts of bullshit. Ask any elderly Chinese person, and they will casually fire off a list of stories of personal hardship that would make any Westerner weep. However, a new generation is in control now, and they want their Transformers, dammit! Rarely had I heard Chinese people so openly mock the government. If I wanted to get a laugh from my students, I had only to ask, “Are you going to see 建党伟业?” They absolutely loved making fun of that movie. In one of histories greatest ironies, an intelligent discussion about freedom of choice had been started, at least partly, by a Michael Bay film – which is the last time I will ever write “intelligent” and “Michael Bay film in the same sentence, so help me God.

In the end, the China Film Bureau got their box office goal the old-fashioned way – they flat-out forced people to go. Companies were forced to buy loads of tickets, and they, in turn, forced their employees to march dutifully to the theater – on their days off, of course. The people endured, as always – since each ticket for The Founding of a Party was one step closer to the moment when they would finally be allowed to see Harry Potter take on Lord Voldemort. Considering that the movie was made in the hopes of generating good PR, I think it’s safe to say that The Founding of a Party was not as successful as its predecessor. The moral of this story is, as always: everyone in the world needs to STOP MAKING PREQUELS!!!

Bonus quote of the day:

“Michael Bay has his own style of making movies. I like to call it ‘Bay-hem.'”

– crew member on the set of The Island – perhaps the worst Michael Bay film which didn’t violate the memory of those who fought at Pearl Harbor.

“Take a Picture, Trick!” The Lonely Island in China

To the Chinese, the karaoke, or “KTV”, bar is the number one way to spend an evening (or afternoon) with friends (or hookers). Some Chinese friends invited me to an upscale KTV place near Ritan Park yesterday afternoon. I took this shot while checking for English songs.

As you can see, the choice of English songs at any given Chinese KTV place can be…well…eclectic. Just on that page we have Rihanna, Pink, Susan Boyle, Enrique Iglesias and…the Lonely Island???

I didn’t feel quite up to doing “Jizz in my Pants,”  but fortunately they also had “I’m on a Boat.” I must say, I knocked it out of the park, even without the aid of Auto-tune. I really belted out the last line: “I FUUUUUCKED A MERRRRMAAAAAID.”

China at the Movies: Part 1

If there’s one thing the Chinese film industry has on its American counterpart, it is a ruthless – and surprisingly enviable – efficiency. For those who lament Hollywood’s pandering to the lowest common denominator with their non-stop orgy of remakes, sequels, prequels and half-assed 3-D conversions, it’s somewhat refreshing to live in a country where crappy movies are made for a fraction of the cost.

The Chinese Film Bureau runs a tight ship. It controls which movies are made and which movies are played in theaters. The Chinese movie industry operates on its own unique supply-and-demand model, and when making movies they rely on these three immutable facts:

  1. They are the only ones making Chinese movies.
  2. Chinese people want to watch Chinese movies.
  3. There are a buttload of Chinese people.

That, my friends, is a license to print money. They can turn a profit on nearly any film with second-rate kung fu and third-rate CGI not even fit for a high school audio visual club. The one drawback of this filmmaking strategy is that you rarely see a Chinese blockbuster – or, more specifically, a Chinese-made blockbuster. Chinese people are crazy for Harry Potter and worship at the altar of Michael Bay – an altar no doubt made robot testicles wrapped in C4 – and by far the biggest “event” movie to premiere during my five years in China was none other than Avatar. Chinese-made films just don’t generate that kind of buzz among the natives. My wife is a rabid defender of Chinese culture, and though she’s seen her fair share of Chinese films over the past few years, she couldn’t recall a single one off the top of her head: “Chinese movies? You’re not supposed to remember them after you watch them.”

That isn’t to say that there haven’t been a few event movies made by the Chinese during my time here. I can think of three clear examples, and the circumstances surrounding the release three movies were each so quintessentially Chinese that I, as a student of this proud culture, feel honored to have witnessed.

 

建国大业 The Founding of a Republic – Oct. 2009

 

On any normal year the Chinese celebrate their National Day with enough pomp and circumstance to make even the most hardcore Fourth of July celebration look as lame as Kirk Cameron’s Five-Dollar Footlong Birthday Bash, but this particular year was special: the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China! I’m still not sure why 60 was such a significant number –after all, Betty White is almost three decades older. Chinese scholars maintain that the founding of the PRC was more significant than the birth of Betty White – but since they were reared on PRC propaganda while I was reared on reruns of “The Golden Girls,” we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

The celebrations culminated in the release of “The Founding of a Republic”, the most hyped film to premiere inChinain my recollection. The ad blitz was unprecedented. Just about every big-name Chinese actor – Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi and John Woo, to name a few – would make a cameo appearance in the film. Apparently the China Film Bureau had spread the word: “if you’re not in this film, then you hateChina.”

The film was hyped as a dramatic, but historically accurate, retelling of the Chinese Civil War between the Soviet-backed Communists and the American-backed Nationalists, which meant two things right off the bat:Americawould be the bad guys and Papa Joe Stalin would be among the good guys. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to see this movie.

As a student of history, I was excited to see the narrative the filmmakers would use. The story was, after all, the conflict between two Chinese political parties. Had this movie been made the Mao era the story would have been an easy sell: the defeat of corrupt, bourgeois capitalists by the overwhelming and sacred power of Marxist ideology. However, that kind of bullshit just won’t fly in modernChina. The Communist Party does a remarkable job of maintaining the name of communism while so completely disregarding the basic tenets of communism that they were recently singled out for praise by none other than Newt Gingrich, who said that theUScould learn a thing or two from the CCP and their 0% capital gains tax. It’s safe to say any government supported by Newt Gingrich isn’t going to make a film celebrating the struggle of the worker.

I sat in the theater – one of only two foreigners among the packed house – with a palpable sense of excitement. I was about to see a Communist-made movie about the victory of communism that couldn’t mention anything overtly communist. Could they pull it off?

Their solution to the narrative problem was as creative as it was ballsy. The film picks up at the end of World War II. The Nationalist party, led by Chiang Kai-shek is trying to consolidate their power at the expense ofChina’s other parties, including Mao Zedong’s Communists. The Communists leadChina’s other parties in an epic struggle against Nationalist domination, driving Chiang Kai-shek into exile inTaiwan. At the end of the film, the Communists invite the other parties to sign the charter for the new People’s Republic ofChina. As Mao and his cohorts stand proudly on stage, the subtitles announce that 19 political parties were invited to the first congress of the PRC. The end.

Huh? Nineteen political parties…in China? So the Communist Party’s victory wasn’t a victory for communism at all…but a victory for multi-party democracy. One can only guess as to what happened next: those other 18 political parties found to CCP to be so awesome that they all willingly disbanded. And to this day, no Chinese person has even thought of starting another party.

That bizarre narrative aside, the writers didn’t take the opportunity to thoroughly demonize the Nationalists. I guess that was to be expected – the relationship betweenChinaandTaiwanhas thawed significantly in the past few years, and Chinese audiences have mostly lost their taste for films bashing the Nationalists. Still, I was hoping for a good old-fashioned Maoist propaganda film, and I was left with a movie that was disappointingly nuanced.

The atmosphere in the theater was surprisingly tame. Spirits in the crowd were piqued a bit during the climactic scene in which the Americans lowered their flag and abandoned their embassy, but I never felt like I was about to be lynched.

My most awkward moment as a spectator came during a rather unimportant scene. As Chairman Mao and his staff discussed strategy, a cook came out to meet them. The mere sight of this pudgy dufus sparked a delirious fit of laughter among the Chinese in the audience.

My wife sensed my confusion. “That man is Fan Wei,” she explained, “the number one comedian inChina. He is so funny! Everybody loves him!”

I could certainly see that. Listening to the crowd’s reaction triggered a depressing thought: there is no comedian on Earth who can get that kind laughter out of me simply by walking onscreen.

The dufus professes his undying love for Chairman Mao and says he will work diligently as the chairman’s personal cook. Mao humbly accepts and offers the cook a cigarette. The cook squeals with delight: “I cannot smoke the cigarette given to me by Chairman Mao. I must keep it. I will cherish it forever.”

The cook’s manic, sweaty bit of Mao-worship brought more howls of laughter from the audience.

Cut to the next scene. Nationalist warplanes savagely bomb the Communist camp. As the soldiers flee for their lives, the cook suddenly stops in his tracks. “I forgot Chairman Mao’s breakfast on the stove! I must go back for it!” No sooner does he run back to the kitchen than the building takes a direct hit from a Nationalist bomb. Cut to a graveyard. Chairman Mao offers a brief eulogy and honors the cook buy leaving a whole pack of cigarettes on his tombstone.

The idea of casting the funniest man inChinaand killing him of for Mao’s breakfast was more than I could bear. I must admit to letting out the most inappropriate laugh heard in a movie theater since Homer Simpson first viewed the classic Han Moleman short “Man Getting Hit by Football.”

“What was the fucking point of all that,” I howled. As I regained my composure, I glanced at rest of the audience. The Chinese people didn’t seem to mind; there were enough laughs to be had by all.

 

Memories of Chinese New Year

I’ve had a few reasons to celebrate recently: my fifth anniversary in China, my fifth Chinese New Year and, most importantly, the New York Giants’ fifth trip to the Super Bowl. Since this isn’t the first time Chinese New Year – Spring Fesitval, as the  Chinese like to call it – has coincided with a Giants’ Super Bowl run, I thought I’d reminisce on the magical day of Feb. 10, 2008 in Changchun.

 

            One problem with watching important American sporting events live in China – meaning, in the wee small hours of the morning – is the gaping void left in the rest of your day. Had I watched the Giants’ miraculous Super Bowl XLII upset of the Patriots back in the states, I would have celebrated deliriously for an hour or two, and then passed out from sheer exhaustion. As it was, the clocks inChina had just passed noon, and outside my window Chinese office workers shuffled about on their lunch breaks, totally unaware of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, the 18-0 Patriots, and the magnificent David Tyree helmet catch which had just sent their world crashing down around them.

What should I do now? It was payday, which meant a fresh paper bag stuffed with discretionary cash waiting for me at school. There I caught up with my buddy Erik.

“Wanna grab a couple beers and buy a bunch of fireworks?” he asked.

“Hell yeah,” I replied, “This is a day worth celebrating.”

Spring Festival – the granddaddy of all Chinese holidays – was fast approaching, and the fireworks stands had spread to nearly every street corner in the city. I’ve always had a somewhat complicated relationship with this holiday. I love the days off, but I’m terrified of the chaos of traveling at the same time as roughly 900,000,000 Chinese people. I appreciate the startling casualness of elderly people playing majiang, but I’m frustrated by their initially violent refusal of any gift – I know they want the gift, I know they’ll take it eventually, do we really need all the pretense and keqi? I love the dumplings, but I still have a hard time biting into pig’s feet. But I have nothing but love for the fireworks.

For a few weeks each year the people of Changchuntake to the streets each evening – child in one hand, fireworks in the other – and light off a blitz of light and sound that consumes the city. The sheer number of people lighting fireworks, combined with the rather lax Chinese approach to public safety, gives the Spring Festival season a chaotic feel that is astonishing to behold – less “4th of July” and more “firebombing ofDresden.” The year before I had called home and held my phone out the window so family and friends could hear the carnage; I felt like a war correspondent covering the Battle of Britain. It truly is a joy to watch, but you have to keep your head on a swivel, ready to hit the deck if some misfired rocket should happen to explode a little too close for comfort.

Erik and I hit the fireworks stands just after sundown. We came with two large black trash bags, ready to devour the smorgasbord of fireworks laid out before us – skyrockets, bottle rockets, fountains, roman candles, belts of M-80’s. Within minutes we had caused a minor uproar on the street; Chinese witnesses were calling their friends to tell them that the waiguoren were buying up all the fireworks in sight. Nothing impresses the Chinese quite as much as a man willing to blow an obscene amount of money on fireworks.

I spotted a massive multi-shot box behind the fireworks stand: “The grand finale, we gotta have it.”

We hauled the spoils over to the nearest open space:Culture Square, in the center of the city. Spending any amount of time outdoors inChangchunin February is a life-or-death battle against bitter cold and the treacherous, icy sidewalks. Every foreigner who has lived inNortheast Chinahas at least once laughed of the absurdity of people celebrating a “spring” festival in late-January/early-February, with the temperatures often plunging past fifteen below. Still, the Chinese were calling it spring, and they had the fireworks to sell: when inChina, detonate as the Chinese detonate.

We started the show, launching glittering rockets toward the penthouses of the high-rise apartments, laying anaconda lengths of firecrackers to pop-pop-pop across the icy street. Chinese people came from blocks around, eager to partake in the mayhem. This wasn’t usual crowd of stalkers come to peer shamelessly into the exotic world of the foreigner. This was a kindred vibe – almost as if it were two regular dudes lighting off the fireworks. The crowd came simply to show the show.

As I lit off the grand finale I called out, “This is for the Giants!” The crowd clapped their approval. Of course, nobody in the crowd knew a goddamn thing about the Giants, or American football. They simply loved the fireworks.