China Power

Hollywood, Video Games, and the China Conundrum

Recent Features

China Power

Hollywood, Video Games, and the China Conundrum

The U.S. entertainment industry is doing a clumsy job of embracing the vast Chinese market.

Earlier this month, South China Morning Post reported that Chinese state media are protesting the plot of the highly anticipated video game Battlefield 4. The plot of the single-player narrative involves a futuristic U.S. military team fighting to defeat a rogue Chinese general. A military newspaper accused the game of “discrediting China’s image abroad and distorting the truth in an effort to mislead young people.” Such actions, the editorial said, are a “new form of cultural penetration and aggression.”

The backlash emphasizes the interesting conundrum faced by entertainment companies. In military and spy-based action narratives, there’s a tendency to latch onto a specific country as the “Big Bad.” During the heyday of the Soviet Union, the choice was obvious. Today, China is a tempting source of villainy for this niche of action entertainment. The looming idea of the “China threat” makes it all too tempting for producers to simply replace the USSR with China — sometimes literally, as in the 2012 remake of the 1984 film “Red Dawn.”

Still, this temptation is muted by the fact that, unlike the USSR, China is a huge source of income for the U.S. entertainment industry, especially films. “Red Dawn” is a case in point. Though the film was originally planned to have Chinese troops substituting for Soviets in their invasion of the U.S., someone eventually realized this would make it impossible for the film to gain any traction in the lucrative Chinese market. So the producers famously edited out all references to China, and cast the villains as North Koreans instead.

Hollywood producers don’t seem to know what to do with China. They recognize the potential profit to be had by making films that cater to Chinese appetites, but they’re not quite sure how to pull it off. Usually, their solution is to shoehorn one or two famous Chinese actors or actresses into the story and call it a day. Film-makers also like filming a token set of scenes in China in the hopes that the movie will be able to be skirt China’s quotas on foreign films. 2012’s “Looper” and 2013’s “Iron Man 3” both took this approach.

The producers of “Looper” tried to attract Chinese audiences by changing the setting for part of the sci-fi story from Paris to Shanghai. They also brought Chinese actress Xing Qu in to play the main character’s love interest (though she didn’t utter a single line in the U.S. version of the film). For Western audiences, however, much of the footage shot in China was cut — it was considered unnecessary to the plot. The scenes were included instead in a special Chinese version of the film. “The Chinese didn’t care about pacing, and they wanted the [China-set] scenes in, so we said OK,” a source from the film told the Los Angeles Times.

The assumption that Chinese don’t “care about pacing” as long as they’re seeing Chinese actors and location is far too simplistic.  The 2013 blockbuster Iron Man 3 tried a similar strategy — the film brought on actors Wang Xueqi and Fan Bingbing, but gave them little relevance to the actual plot. There were also additional China-centric scenes specifically for the Chinese release, which (like in “Looper”) added nothing to the plot. As Kotaku’s round-up shows, China’s reaction to these extra scenes was negative. The film did extremely well in China, grossing almost $125 million — but this may have more to do with the spectacle of a popular Hollywood action franchise rather than any special Chinese content. “The Avengers” also did extremely well in China, for example, and James Cameron’s film “Avatar” was the biggest box-office hit of all time in China.

Meanwhile, some entertainment products have more general difficulties translating a nationalistic trope for external audiences. Call of Duty, another popular, U.S.-developed first person shooter game, plans to debut a Chinese version next year, but the game’s use of Russians as villains might not resonate with Chinese players. There is already speculation that the villains in this game will be changed for Chinese audiences to be non-state actors like pirates or terrorists.  If so, the developers will have to either entirely change the storyline for the game, or (more likely) make superficial changes just for the Chinese version that leave players underwhelmed.

Entertainment companies, video games and movies alike, have seemed to embrace either the path of Battlefield 4 or that of Iron Man 3. But if entertainment companies want to break into the Chinese market, they need to stop pushing out sub-par “China-only” versions of their products. On the other hand, however, they also need to avoid pandering to nationalism by casting Chinese as Cold War-esque villains. When it comes to nationalistic video games, the PLA already has the Chinese market cornered.