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China’s Blockbuster Propaganda

Beijing keeps its film industry on a tight leash. Blockbusters like Aftershock are fine—if they toe the party’s airbrushed line.

By Dan Edwards for

With a star system in place, multiplexes springing up all over the country and domestically-made blockbusters on the screens, you’d be forgiven for thinking China's contemporary film industry is an unambiguously commercial affair. But like so much else here, the hand of the state casts a shadow over the neon glare of conspicuous consumption.

Yet China's Communist Party finds itself in a bind. Although it still views cinema as an ideological tool and maintains a tight leash on local productions, it also wants the domestic film industry to develop into a global commercial player.

So how can filmmakers navigate the apparently contradictory pressures of commercial success and politics, especially when the ideological position they’re expected to reflect is far from clear? One good guide could be in China’s most recent blockbuster—a homegrown movie that smashed box office records.

In financing, release strategy and content, the tear-jerking family melodrama Aftershock offers a potential guide for how a movie can be popular and politically ‘correct’ at the same time. Directed by the mainland's most popular director, Feng Xiaogang, Aftershock traces the repercussions of the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake, which killed at least 242,000 people in northern China.

The movie opened simultaneously on thousands of screens on July 22 and in less than three weeks had smashed all box office records for a domestically-made movie, with takings of RMB 532 million (US $ 78.3 million). The Tangshan City government stumped up for half the movie’s costs, while IMAX Corp. demonstrated the United States’ growing interest in the Chinese market as the other major investor.

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And which movie did Aftershocksnatch the domestic box office record from? Another state-funded blockbuster, Founding of a Republic, which became the biggest domestically-produced hit in Chinese history when it was released just before the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic in September 2009. Produced by the state-owned China Film Group, the historical epic traces the final years of the Civil War that ended with the triumph of Communist forces over the Guomindang-led republican government. The film took around RMB 420 million (US $61.8 million) on the mainland.

On the surface, such figures imply a healthy domestic industry. But public popularity is only part of the reason for their success—local authorities also help to ensure healthy takings through massive levels of protectionism.

To make sure major local productions don’t have to compete directly with Hollywood, only 20 foreign titles are allowed to be released in mainland China each year under a revenue-sharing deal with state-owned distributors. Alternatively, films can be released outside this quota if they are sold to the distributors on a flat fee basis.

Either way, the arrangement guarantees only a handful of foreign titles make it to Chinese screens annually. Meanwhile, state-owned distributors have full control over their release, meaning popular Hollywood films are kept out of cinemas when key domestic works open, as well as during prime holiday periods.

Not content with these precautions, authorities are known to exert pressure on cinemas should foreign titles prove awkwardly popular. When Avatar smashed domestic box office records in the depths of winter earlier this year, the state-owned China Film Group instructed cinemas across the nation to pull non-3D prints of the film (reportedly around two-thirds of the copies in circulation), to make way for the locally-made Confucius.

Embarrassingly for authorities, Avatar still became China's biggest box office hit in history when it raked in a stunning RMB 1.38 billion (US $204 million) in the first half of 2010, according to statistics released by China's Film Bureau last month. In other words, Avatar's takings were considerably more than those of Aftershock and Founding combined, suggesting that even strong domestic performers would struggle against Hollywood on a more level playing field.

The United States hasn’t sat idly by while China has tried to fix the movie game in its favour. In 2007, it lodged a complaint with the World Trade Organization over China's barriers for books, film and music imports. In 2009, the WTO ruled in the United States’ favour and this summer, China agreed to a timetable of changes to comply with the WTO ruling.

So will this mean the end of protectionism for China’s movie industry? Not necessarily. As Iana Dreyer, a trade analyst at the European Centre for International Political Economy, has noted: ‘The audiovisual case touches upon China’s entire censorship/information-control system…Since the case is a very borderline case with important political ramifications, it is uncertain whether China would be diligent in changing its practices.’

Therein lies the rub—movies aren’t just big business, they’re big politics for Beijing too.

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Rewriting History

Modern Chinese blockbusters continue to propagate a vision of history that’s in line with the Communist Party's current outlook, even if this outlook has shifted radically since Mao’s time. A key part of these films’ function, in fact, is to airbrush Mao's ideology and its traumatic effects out of the picture.

Last year's Founding of a Republic, for example,unambiguously celebrated the birth of the People's Republic, but in contrast to Mao-era productions that demonised the Guomindang, ideological differences were noticeably absent from this Civil War portrait.

Instead, Guomindang leader Chiang Kai-shek was portrayed as a misguided, but basically kindly old man who, like Mao, had the best interests of his country at heart. This rehabilitation of Mao's nemesis is perfectly in line with the contemporary Communist Party’s attempts to depict itself as a ‘rational’ and non-ideological party (as well as its long-term goal of coaxing Taiwan back into the Greater China fold).

Mao is also transformed in Founding, from the red sun in China's heart to a coalition builder and proto-capitalist. When the People's Liberation Army takes Beijing, we see him stalking the streets trying to buy cigarettes, only to be told all the shops are closed because the owners are afraid of the Communists. When his comrades declare the shops should be nationalised, Mao, in his infinitely inclusive wisdom, calms his radical friends and explains the Communists should leave the workings of the economy to the capitalists. It's a breathtakingly brazen rewriting of history that remolds Mao as the ideological precursor of Deng Xiaoping and other post-1978 economic reformers—many of whom Mao imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution.

Aftershock is less explicit in its political pretensions, but like Founding works hard to airbrush ideological conflict out of China's recent past. The brief glimpse offered of pre-quake life in 1976 makes the period seem almost bucolic, and no reference is made to the fact that all international offers of help were refused when the quake struck, even though China had no trained rescue teams or specialisedrescue equipment at the time.

The reality is that as Mao's health began to fail (he died just months after the disaster), the leadership in Beijing was more focussed on factional infighting than relief efforts. Mao's wife and ‘Gang of Four’ member Jiang Qing reportedly said of Tangshan at the time, ‘There were merely several hundred thousand deaths. So what? Denouncing Deng Xiaopingconcerns 800 million people.’ Unsurprisingly, Aftershock skips this.

For all these films’ whitewashing of history though, it's important to remember that these days no-one is forcing Chinese audiences to watch. Confucius' disappointing box office demonstrates that no matter how much weight the state throws behind a local release, if the public doesn't like a film they simply won't buy tickets.

Aftershock and Founding, though, both proved hugely popular and had an emotional resonance with domestic audiences apparently lacking in Confucius. Aftershock in particular plays a cathartic role by finally acknowledging the undeniable suffering Chinese people have endured for decades. When I saw the film in Beijing, many viewers were openly weeping throughout.

Crucially, these movies don't ask anyone to take responsibility for the suffering we see on screen. Instead, they offer the chance for remembrance without critical reflection. And in this, they’re actually arguably not much different from many of their Hollywood cousins—the Vietnam War, for example, is often reduced by Hollywood to the personal agonies of US servicemen.

But what makes films like Aftershock and Founding unsettling is the lengths that the Communist Party still goes to to prevent locals from accessing more critical takes on the nation's history. Although numerous different kinds of movies are made in China, the state's control of distribution and broadcasting and extensive online censorship mean non-approved works are still rarely seen by the public.

Meanwhile, the expectations of politicians are not lost on those working in the film industry.

‘You can’t get too close to danger points,’ Aftershock director Feng Xiaogang said recently. ‘You have to jump from this rock to that rock and carefully try to move forward…if you just jump into the water, you might drown.’