Hollywood actress Meryl Streep recently hitched a ride on a Chinese businessman’s private jet to Beijing. Once there, she met up with idiosyncratic writer-director Joel Coen and Raise the Red Lantern director Zhang Yimou to promote “China’s exploding film industry.”
Zhang, who served as the artistic director for both the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the lavish 60th anniversary celebrations of the Chinese Communist Party, also unveiled his remake of Coen’s influential first film – Blood Simple.
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But for some industry insiders, the trio personify a growing partnership between Beijing’s aspirations to export what it calls “soft power” – a sugarcoated version of China and its myriad social problems – to the West and Hollywood producers, who are bending over backwards to get a piece of the world’s fastest growing film market.
“It’s obvious why media is controlled in Communist societies. But what makes China unique is that for the first time, it has the money and market to shift control of media for a local audience to control of external representations of the country,” says Liu Lee-shin, a China film expert at Taipei’s National Taiwan University of Arts.
“Chinese-Hollywood co-productions are vehicles for Beijing to dictate the China narrative outside its borders.”
Liu says that Beijing has made no secret of its eagerness to build that narrative through movies, and points to a recent plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party endorsing guidelines to boost what it calls “cultural security,” by “propelling Chinese culture overseas.”
Critics claim that studios will be pressured to produce works that depict China in a sympathetic light, a fear prompted by China’s strict controls over film importation, distribution and production, along with the rebuffing of recent WTO rulings to allow foreign distribution and expand a 20-a-year cap on foreign movies.
“They made it very clear in their last congress meeting that the overriding theme would be projecting an image overseas that they want projected, while Hollywood’s No.1 concern has always been the bottom line,” says Michael Berry, a lecturer of East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara.
“U.S. producers are taking an ultra-conservative route, and self-censorship is happening at a very early stage. In concept development there’s already an understanding of what will fly in China, and that gets concentrated by the time it gets to a screenplay.”
And what flies in China today isn’t very much.
Beijing’s thumbscrew restrictions include: No sex, religion, time travel, the occult, or “anything that could threaten public morality or portray criminal behavior.”
All film scripts have to be signed off by a government censor and anything that depicts Tibet, Tiananmen Square, the Dalai Lama, Falun Gong, Uyghur separatists or Taiwan favorably is typically banned.
For Hollywood, however, the proof is still in the numbers. Turnstile revenues in China skyrocketed by 64 percent to $1.5 billion, and have surged nearly tenfold since 2003.
While China has been heavily criticized for its foreign film cap, Western producers are bypassing those restrictions by aligning with local partners, most of which are state-run, and all of which have strong ties to the party and state.