In the 1997 international political thriller Red Corner, Chinese officials in Beijing entrap an American lawyer for murder. Richard Gere, a noted disciple of the Dalai Lama, China’s public enemy No. 1, plays the lawyer fighting for justice in the benighted Chinese legal system, aided by a Chinese female lawyer willing to risk her life for American-style justice and freedoms. But by 2013, another American lawyer was finding love and humor in Shanghai — the premise of the just-released romantic comedy Shanghai Calling, which the New York Times calls “a plug” for China. These days, “Why would you make a movie that demonizes China?” asks Daniel Hsia, who wrote and directed the film.
Why indeed? Over the past two decades, Hollywood’s perception of China has evolved, from a totalitarian state to a major growth opportunity. And as the American movie industry increasingly needs China, its films have begun to alter content accordingly. Life of Pi, which has no connection to China besides the Taiwanese ethnicity of its director Ang Lee, has received 11 nominations for Sunday’s Oscars, and box-office receipts of more than $90 million on the mainland. The uncontroversial film is the only one of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture to have been shown in movie theaters in China. In all likelihood, that’s for good reason: In the American version, a character declares that “religion is darkness”; in the Chinese it was changed.
An offspring of a co-production with China Film Group, the largest state film conglomerate, Shanghai Calling underscores Hollywood’s shifting strategy toward China and the overt or self-censorship it brings. A decade after China entered the World Trade Organization, Hollywood is only allowed to export about 20 films a year to the China market, where box office sales climbed to more than $2 billion in 2012.
One way around the quota restriction, explains Hsia, is to get approval for co-productions. Under this arrangement, a Hollywood studio partners with a Chinese entity in order to have the final product considered a domestic film, exempting it from the import quota. It also allows for risk-sharing, because the Chinese partner puts up part of the money. The potential for Chinese money and market access is highly attractive to a Hollywood that faces dwindling domestic ticket sales and saw declining profits in five out of six of its major studios in 2012.
Although China has made it much easier for Americans to invest, getting a co-production approved is still a difficult process. Ideologues in the Communist Party have long considered Western culture “spiritual pollution” and viewed Hollywood suspiciously as an instrument of American statecraft packaged into nebulous “soft power.” Scripts for co-productions are submitted for approval to the State Administration for Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT), which oversees the film and entertainment industry. “Like in any business negotiation, the person who has the power to say no has the leverage,” says Hsia.
Here’s where censorship comes in: SARFT even meddled with the making of a rather innocuous and apolitical comedy like Shanghai Calling. But beyond what foreign filmmakers must do to get a co-production approved, the effort to avoid offending the Chinese has had an impact on film content in the U.S. market. Subtle but noticeable changes have also seeped into on-screen portrayals of China.
In Hollywood in the 1990s, China was an oppressive place. Red Corner opens with Gere gazing up at security cameras in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, ground zero of the infamous bloodshed of early June, 1989, seared into many Americans’ memories. Brad Pitt, too, had been blacklisted from China, ostensibly for starring in the 1997 feature Seven Years in Tibet, in which his character becomes friends with the young Dalai Lama.
Hollywood has also tended to churn out political activist A-listers, some of whom have had uneasy relationships with the Chinese government. Actress Mia Farrow contributed to director Steven Spielberg’s defection in early 2008 from the Beijing Olympics advisory committee over China’s involvement in Sudan; Christian Bale, while filming in China in 2011, tried to visit then imprisoned Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. As an industry whose craft is telling stories, however woeful and inadequate at times, Hollywood stands squarely within the proud tradition of American idealism that revolts against oppression and celebrates individual freedoms.
But things are changing. The apocalyptic 2012, released at the height of the financial crisis in 2009, depicts the Chinese as ingenious saviors who assembled massive arks to house the few humans selected to carry on the human race. Oliver Platt, playing a White House staffer, even slips in the line “Leave it to the Chinese. I didn’t think it was possible. Not in the time we had.” Men in Black 3digitally cropped scenes of New York’s Chinatown that were considered unflattering, and the highly anticipated Iron Man 3 is also expected to include positive references to China.
The kowtowing occasionally descends into farce, as with the November 2012 release of the remake of Red Dawn, a Cold War-era cult classic, in which a band of American teens defeats an invading army of North Koreans. Except the enemies weren’t supposed to be North Koreans, but rather Chinese; the producers changed the nationality of the invaders mid-filming, and digitally erased Chinese flags. As implausible as a Chinese invasion of the American Midwest sounds, it is far more realistic than one from North Koreans.
Beyond content adjustments, casting choices and shooting locations are being sinified. The Expendables sequel traded Jet Li for a Chinese vixen, Nan Yu, who is not Lucy Liu; Taiwanese pop sensation Jay Chou (who is not Jackie Chan) played alongside Seth Rogen in the reincarnation of Green Hornet, and Chinese starlet Zhou Xun has popped up in Cloud Atlas.
What was once Hong Kong’s quintessential role as the establishing shot — alerting theater audiences that they’re now in China — has now been overtaken by glitzy mainland metropolises. Tom Cruise’s 2006 Mission Impossible 3 was perhaps the first major blockbuster to set a lengthy scene in contemporary Shanghai, portrayed as developed and futuristic. Since then, Will Smith has taken the Karate Kid 2 to Beijing, Transformers had sets designed to evoke Shanghai, and the newest James Bond and the dystopian future adventure flick Looper also threw down in Shanghai.
The era in which China could still be a menacing villain and stir political passions from the Spielbergs and the Geres appears to be ending. Even Brangelina are reportedly studying Mandarin. And the political drama surrounding disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai, ripe for Hollywoodification, will never see the light of day. Too bad, because the Bo Ultimatum is the Chinese Godfather waiting to be made. As Hollywood gathers for its biggest awards night Sunday, the industry seems to be biting its tongue. After all, the future, as Jeff Daniels quips in Looper, is in China.
Damien Ma is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly online and is currently working on a book about China.
© 2013. Foreign Policy.