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.

 

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Designing An Anti-Tebow

Editor’s Note: This article was written before the Broncos were eliminated from the playoffs,  but since our Crusade Bowl had already been set for Feb. 3, 2013, Tebow is still on track.

One of the great advantages of living thousands of miles away from America is that I find it easier to insulate myself from the more annoying and pervasive aspects of American culture. When my students ask me what music is popular in America nowadays, I can smile and honestly answer, “I have no idea.” I recently came across a news site with a photo of an attractive young girl named Selena Gomez. I have no idea why she’s famous – or if she’s over 18 – and I’m probably better off not knowing either.

The same thing goes for sports. I haven’t watched ESPN in twelve glorious months. I haven’t been exposed to Skip Bayless’s leathery goblin mug in years – though it still haunts my nightmares. Through the miracle of the internet, I can follow my teams and bypass the ESPN hype machine altogether.

I have, however, learned that a gentleman in Denver named Tim Tebow has garnered some measure of national attention. I first became aware of him during his college career. Though I’m a maniacal sports junkie, I can no more than casually follow college football, land of the BCS (a.k.a. the closest thing Americahas to the Chinese Communist Party) and Jerry Sandusky. Still, the kid was clearly a great college QB. I heard snippets of his personal life – his missionary father, his awe-inspiring virginity[1]– mostly from a Sports Illustrated article where his father, Pastor Bob Tebow, recounts the miraculous story of his birth. (Spoiler Alert: his parents don’t get the abortion.)

Now Tebow has joined with that most American of hype machines, the NFL.[2] Now, I’m a Giants fan, and I try to keep my football interests as Giants-related as possible. Since the Broncos never played the Giants this season I paid him little mind, but the sheer volume of Tebocity has been mind-boggling. Still, I valiantly stuck to my Giants news blogs, in a vain attempt to avoid being dragged headlong into the fray. Unfortunately, one day I happened to stumble upon a Tebow article by one of my favorite writers, Charles P. Pierce.

Money quote:

To call Tim Tebow a “Christian,” and to leave it at that — as though there were one definition of what a “Christian” is — is to say nothing and everything at once. Roman Catholics are Christians. So are Lutherans, Episcopalians, Melkites, Maronites, and members of the Greek and Russian Orthodox faiths. You can see how insidious this is when discussion turns to the missionary work that Tebow’s family has done in the Philippines. This is from the Five Priorities of the Bob Tebow ministries, regarding its work overseas:

It is the goal of the Bob Tebow Evangelistic Association to preach the gospel to every person who has never had an opportunity to hear the good news of eternal life in Jesus Christ. Most of the world’s population has never once had the opportunity to hear the only true message of forgiveness of sins by faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone.

It so happens that 95 percent of the population of the Philippines is Roman Catholic. Catholic doctrine just happens to be in conflict with what Bob Tebow and his son preach in regard to personal salvation. (To devout Catholics, for example, sins are not forgiven “by faith alone,” but through the sacrament of reconciliation as administered by a priest.) Bob Tebow’s goal is not to convert unbelievers. It is to supplant an existing form of Christianity.”

Sheeeit! Now I have a dog in this fight. I am by no means a practicing Catholic – I haven’t been in a church in about a decade – but a good number of my family members are, including three of my four grandparents (Grandmom is Presbyterian).  I don’t particularly care what religion you claim, as long as you keep it out of my face. But I absolutely cannot abide American Protestants who accuse American Catholics of impiety. Really, you wanna start the Catholic-Protestant beef again? Are we still in the 1800s? Fine, if you want to play the role of Bill the Butcher, then I insist we settle this on the street- Gangs of New York-style: you grab your top hat and knife and meet me at the town square at dawn. Prepare to receive the true Lord!

Maybe I’m too hard on Bob Tebow; maybe his only fault is being too vague.  After all, he’s not trying to evangelise all Catholics, only Filipinos. I used to live in the hardcore Christian dormitory when I taught at Jilin University of Economics, and two of the girls who taught there were Filipina. They certainly seemed, at first blush, like serious Christians, but I never got the chance to ask them whether or not they’d heard the gospel according to Bob Tebow. If they haven’, then their Christianity is clearly invalid.

Goddamnit, this Tebow business is polarizing! I can already feel my blood pressure rising. I’m being compelled to throw down a fat wad of pesos into the sleazy Tijuanacockfighting ring we call the Culture Wars.  Americans have long enjoyed staking their interest to proxy wars – fighting the “real” enemy through a surrogate. We tried this approach during the Cold War, and while it didn’t necessarily work out on the field of battle (Korean War – still technically ongoing, Vietnam – yeesh, arming the Afghan mujahadeen to fight the Soviets – turned out one of those guys was Osama bin Laden), it certainly produced great moments in the world of sports (Miracle on Ice, Rocky IV).

           The only problem is that Tebow, while polarizing, lacks a direct personal antithesis. He’sAmerica’s Christian Rocky, but who is his Ivan Drago? The liberal media? Secularists? In wrestling parlance, Tebow is a babyface with no heel.

This problem seems rather easily corrected – after all, good wrestling heels can be made as well as born.  When Vince McMahon needed a villain on the eve of Operation Desert Storm, he had Sergeant Slaughter team up with two “Eye-raqis,” providing a worthy foil for Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior to fight a proxy Gulf War. The Great Tebow War requires a similar nemesis- what we need is an anti-Tebow.

Normally, this kind of war is better left to individual sports, like boxing; Football, we are told, is the ultimate team sport. But Tebow appears to transcend the concept of the team – seriously, who outside of Colorado can name two other members of the Denver Broncos? So we need mould a talented, charismatic young quarterback to act as the mortal enemy of Tebow.

Now, it goes without saying that this anti-Tebow must be Muslim. Nothing less will do. After all, Tebow’s must fervent supporters are many of the same people who believe that sharia law has invaded our judicial system and that Obama studied in an Indonesian madrassa. Besides, we haven’t had a quality Muslim sports villain since Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali[3], setting the stage for perhaps the most awesomely absurd proxy culture sports war in American history, the first Ali-Frazier fight. Fighting for the hippie, pinko, blame-America-first crowd was Muhammad Ali – a man now so universally beloved by Americans that he was chosen to light the Olympic torch. Fighting for traditional, mainstream white America was Joe Frazier, the 100% black grandson of sharecroppers – a man who actually won that fight, and was summarily dumped by mainstream American, dying in relative obscurity. Poor Joe Frazier even had to deal with the indignity of being the subject of an article titled “Is Joe Frazier a Black Champion in White Skin?”…written by Bryant Gumbel. I’m whiter than Joe Frazier and Bryant Gumbel put together, and even I think that’s cold.

Therein lies the beauty of the proxy sports war: we can build our champions and villains out of the ether.America wanted a Great White Hope to beat Ali, so we built one out of a black man. Since the NFL doesn’t have a high-profile Muslim quarterback, we’ll have to develop one, with the generous help of Wahhabi Islam endorsement money.

Can we convince the radical clerics of Wahhabi Islam to offer a huge endorsement deal to an American football player? I don’t see why not. Wahhabi Islam seems to have a lot in common with Nike: both are well-funded, youth-oriented industries with fantastically effective ad campaigns. (Clerics convinced young boys to martyr themselves for fantasy virgins; Nike convinced me I could possibly dunk if I bought their shoes) Who knows: the Wahhabis might have successfully conquered America back in the 80’s if only they had beaten Nike to the punch and signed Michael Jordan. Fortunately for us they never discovered the two most fundamental principles of athlete endorsements:

  1. People will buy anything Michael Jordan sells them.
  2. Michael Jordan will do anything – literally, anything – for money.

So let’s say we can convince the Saudi clerics to pony up a lucrative Islam endorsement deal – let’s say $150 million and 15 wives, at least 5 Somali – we’re still left with the matter of finding the perfect Muslim quarterback. My prayers were answered the other day when I read a report that reigning Heisman award-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III was seeking an agent to declare for next year’s draft. That kid set all kinds of NCAA passing records, and he’s expected to go as high as Number 2 inthe draft, so he can clearly play. One might be concerned to learn he’s not a Muslim – he is, in fact, a God-fearing Christian son of two Army sergeants who is currently working on his Masters degree – but if America can turn Joe Frazier into a white man, I think we can turn this kid into a Muslim.

Besides, once he signs that Muslim endorsement deal, his all-American background becomes all the more insidious, based on what I call the “All-American Muslim Effect.” You might have encountered it last month in the controversy surrounding the TLC documentary series “All-American Muslim,” when the show was protested by “family” groups offended by the dastardly portrayal of Muslim Americans acting like actual Americans. Can you imagine the shit storm that will ensue when the Florida Family Association is introduced to a Muslim quarterback with two parents in the military? The game is afoot!

Since football is still technically a team game, we need to select the right squad for our anti-Tebow to lead. The choice seems obvious: the San Francisco 49ers. The team has a top-flight defense, but their quarterback situation is still a joke. The city itself is the perfect foil for the Tebowites – could they possibly hate any city more than San Francisco? Gays! Hippies! Tim Lincecum smoking dope out of his pot bong! We could turn Candlestick Park into Mecca West: cheerleaders in burkas, halal food in the concession stands, a dancing bearded ayatollah mascot. And the coup-de-grace: our anti-Tebow prostrating himself toward Mecca after each touchdown.

With the Tebow and anti-Tebow placed in opposite conferences, the stage will have been set for the Granddaddy of All Crusades, next year’s Super Bowl XLVII. Now, the week before the Super Bowl the mayors of each team’s city usually make some cute bet involving a local delicacy, like Kansas City barbecue or New England lobster. I say, for the Crusade Bowl, we raise the stakes. If the Tebow wins, than Michelle Bachman and Rick Santorum become co-regents of a new puritanical utopia where everyone wears Pilgrim hats, burns witches and calls each other “Goodman.” If the anti-Tebow wins, we submit ourselves to sharia law and kill anyone who doesn’t grow a beard. If the Tebow wins, we’ll admit that the Lord’s name is God, and if the anti-Tebow wins, we’ll admit that the Lord’s name is Allah. And in case of a tie…haha, I’m just messing with you. Thanks be to God – or, if the 49ers win, Praise be to Allah – that we as a country have evolved beyond the need for ties.


[1] Tim Tebow maintaining his virginity at the University of Florida is perhaps the most impressive feat of self-denial in the history of mankind. He was a football star…in Florida! Seriously, I’m pretty sure Southern states legally permit their football players to keep concubines.

[2] The most NFL moment of my lifetime happened last year before the Super Bowl, when the NFL showed a montage of football players and military personnel reading the Declaration of Independence – the entire Declaration…not just the relevant parts. You’d think that someone would have read it beforehand and said, “Whoa, hold on a second. Maybe we should just read the first few paragraphs, because the rest of it is a list of specific grievances against King George III, and he’s been dead for like 200 years.” Nah, that’s not how the NFL rolls.

[3] “His mama named him Clay, I’m-a call him Clay.”