Hollywood movies

Reviews | How China Influences Hollywood Movies Like Looper

Sometimes these stories have happy endings, like when Quentin Tarantino refused to sanitize “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.” Generally speaking, however, the Communist Party gets what it wants. But James Tager, author of PEN America’s new report on China’s cultural power, recently noted in a podcast that Americans tend to get a little riled up over these stories and quickly forget about them. It’s high time to stop this goldfish number. We should label films made with Chinese investment and influenced by Chinese censorship so that Americans know the propaganda when they see it.

As Tager noted in our conversation and in his report, censorship is more sophisticated than simply the state taking scissors from reels of film—or removing digital images from large files—once a film has already been shot and edited. Massive efforts such as MGM’s decision to digitally transform the villains in the 2012 remake of Red Dawn in North Korean rather than Chinese are rare. It’s what never gets done in the first place – and the notions that are inserted into the films during pre-production – that are even more troubling.

“Over time, writers and creators don’t even come up with ideas, stories, or characters that would break the rules, because there’s no point in it,” Tager wrote. “Orthodoxies sink imperceptibly and the parameters of the imagination are permanently circumscribed.

As Tager explains, making and releasing a movie in Hollywood isn’t easy, even without considering foreign markets. But even before the pandemic left American movie theaters in endless limbo, Chinese audiences had become increasingly important to American studios.

The Chinese government has a quota of foreign films that can be released each year, and competition for those slots is so fierce that studios are avoiding any potential missteps for fear of losing. A great studio movie such as “Red Corner,” Richard Gere’s 1997 thriller about a businessman accused of murder by the Communist Party, is unimaginable today, let alone a movie that touts pro-democracy activists. in Hong Kong or highlights the evils of the Chinese opposition. -Uyghur concentration camps. No studio would dare risk losing the ability of its entire roster to cater to 1.4 billion Chinese customers. That would be commercial suicide.

This dynamic does more than drive new ideas away from Chinese consumers. It allowed an authoritarian nation-state to insert its own propaganda into American films.

Consider Rian Johnson’s “Looper,” which Chris Fenton discusses in “Feeding the Dragon,” his new book on China and American culture.

Fenton spent years pioneering co-production efforts that paired Chinese and American companies to help studios circumvent the quota system and retain a bigger share of the Chinese box office. But those deals came with all sorts of additional requirements: Chinese actors, filming on Chinese locations, and efforts to appease Chinese censors.

For “Looper” — about a hitman who travels back in time to prevent the birth of a crime boss — Fenton and his team persuaded director Johnson to alter his script quite substantially, moving the action of the United States and France towards the United States. and Shanghai. A number of scenes were shot specifically for a Chinese cut of the film. But the trickiest thing was working around a ban on time travel plots in movies, which Chinese officials say “does not respect history.” In reality, Chinese authorities fear the use of time travel as a way to comment on current affairs. How Fenton and Johnson avoid this pothole?

By flattering the Chinese, of course.

“They presented a China of the future powerfully in the film,” Fenton told a movie director, trying to sell him the idea of ​​working with the Chinese. “It was music to the ears of the Politburo and a delight to municipal Communist Party officials in Shanghai. … China was powerful and the center of the world in ‘Looper.’ ”

I saw “Looper” again after reading this passage in Fenton’s book. It remains a solidly entertaining and visually elegant film that brings together some of the best things from “The Terminator,” “Back to the Future,” and “Akira” while still managing to feel original.

Yet Johnson’s filmmaking talent and Jeff Daniels’ acting talent make the insertions even more insidious because they don’t stand out. When Abe, a crime boss from the future played by Daniels, says to a young hitman, “I’m from the future: you should go to China,” the average viewer doesn’t realize he’s being targeted. propaganda. He does not realize that this sentence is a great victory for the Chinese government, an effort to raise the status of an authoritarian regime at home and abroad.

Fenton writes that he is acting in the interests of both countries as a cultural ambassador, trying to avert a dangerous Cold War. He gives the game away in the epilogue, however, when he acknowledges the billions of dollars to be won by playing the game by China’s rules. No wonder cultural figures such as NBA star and future movie mogul LeBron James keep quiet and dribble as atrocities continue to happen in China, even as they talk politics in the United States. The calculations are different. The financial rewards are the same.

More chilling and cynical is a point that Fenton raises a little later: “Worse still, the price of crossing the cultural divide in the wrong direction can be catastrophic – think of the Islamist gunmen who kill the editors of Charlie Hebdo , or the riots that followed a Danish cartoon of Muhammad. with a bomb in his turban. Navigating these divisions requires careful thought and guidance.

I underlined this passage in his book and angrily added an expletive. This demonstrates what Fenton and those who advocate for greater “openness” with China and similar regimes in fact are ready to tolerate in exchange for the money they earn there. They will take the censorship. They want artists to avoid criticizing certain powerful groups or nations. They are willing to treat deadly violence and economic warfare as a business opportunity

More importantly, these artists cost caring people like Fenton and the companies he works for “billions”. If these executives are willing to sell off the arts and our artists to appease foreign censors, there’s not much we can do about it. During our conversation, Tager suggested that it might be time to counteract the goldfish effect by attaching a permanent tag to the beginning of any film that accepts Chinese investment – ​​and, therefore, Chinese censorship – to serve as a kind of warning. The Motion Picture Association already has a mechanism in place to issue such warnings: Virtually every movie theatrically released comes with an MPA rating, which alerts audiences to ailments such as “sexual content” and “historical smoking.” “.

Would it be too difficult to warn the American public that their entertainment is becoming Chinese agitprop?

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