China Power

The Avatar Effect

The debut of Hollywood movie Inception is delayed to make way for China’s Aftershock.

I'd been looking forward to seeing Inception at the movie theatre here in China. No joy, though—the powers that be have blocked its debut.

But they do have a very good reason for the embargo: Avatar. When Chinese theatres released Avatar at the beginning of the year, it was the biggest movie sensation in Chinese cinematic history that was NOT politically motivated. Then, in mid-February, the central government announced it would pull Avatar from about two-thirds of screens in China to show Confucius, which stars one of my favorite actors, Zhou Ren Fa (Chow Yun Fat).

Moviegoers protested angrily online at the intrusion into one of modern life's more enjoyable experiences: an entertaining film. The central government backed down (read: lost Face), and allowed Avatar to run on most screens in the country until people's attention spans took them elsewhere. It didn't help Confucius that most audiences found its plot bloated and the bit of action that there was turned out to be weighed down with moralizing baggage.

But the censors weren’t about to back down again and let a movie like Inception steal the thunder of another Chinese hit—Aftershock—which as Jason Miks explained this week is about the 1976 earthquake in Tangshan.

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The New York Times recently commented that, ‘Aftershock, directed by Feng Xiaogang, one of China’s most successful commercial directors, is being hailed as an emotional tour de force—or, depending on how you feel about it, a tearjerker of the first order.’

I haven’t seen Aftershock, nor have I any intention of seeing it since it just seems like a bigger budget version of the kind of thing they show so often on Chinese TV in which earthquake/flood/typhoon (take your pick) demolishes a happy Chinese town (which seems a bit of an oxymoron in these days), after which the People's Liberation Army marches in and picks up the pieces (literally). Actually, I only have to turn on the nightly news here to see the PLA march in to save the day after a flood/mudslide/drought/typhoon/earthquake has decimated a region.

Still, Chinese blockbusters carry a great deal of ideological baggage, as Aftershock's own director discusses in the NYT article: ‘…we face too many danger points,’ Feng said. ‘You can’t get too close to these danger points. You can’t just casually cross the stream. You have to jump from this rock to that rock and carefully try to move forward. But sometimes there is no rock, and then you have to make a detour, because, if you just jump into the water, you might drown.’

In which case, the PLA just ignores you.