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.