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

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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.