Hollywood films enjoy hegemony in the world of film, at once state of the art in terms of technique and effects, artistry and acting, while at the same time a reflection of prevailing values in America; a box office statement about what sells in the world’s richest country.
Because of Hollywood’s fabled history and America’s role as the sole superpower, the films that play on Main Street USA carry a symbolic weight and have real-world consequences. That’s why controversy over unthinkingly violent films such as The Interview (2014) and American Sniper (2014) goes beyond film criticism (the former a second-rate stoner comedy, the latter a consummately-produced war film.
China is the world’s second most important film market, with no shortage of homegrown talent, but in aggregate it still has a tough time keeping up with Hollywood which is one reason why import quotas linger in this day and age of free trade. There are structural impediments in China’s top-down regulated film industry that contribute to the discrepancy, but that is not to say that government involvement is entirely unwelcome or that “anything goes” is a model worth emulating.
As an American who has worked on films in China and spent some time navigating the tightly-guarded realm of Chinese TV talk shows, I often find myself wondering why China can’t open up more, if only to better reflect its own diversity and talent.
While American governmental influence in Hollywood is not negligible (Sony corporate staff consulted with the U.S. State Department and intelligence officials on its North Korea farce The Interview) it still pales in comparison to Chinese governmental influence in the film business, which is straightforward, overt, and sometimes a bit clumsy. But there are interest groups in both countries who would like film to serve the interests of state, just as there are stubbornly independent filmmakers in both countries as well. Taking the long view over popular cinema’s century-long history, there are not dissimilar traditions of film regulation and propaganda production on both sides of the Pacific.
Politicians—capitalist and communist alike—have exhorted national cinema to produce edifying works or otherwise maintain common standards of morality and political line.
Hollywood has certainly had its share of rules and regulations, most notably the Hays Code, which remained on the books from 1930 to 1968. Code restrictions touched on profanity, nudity, rape, perversion and even mainstream sexuality –best epitomized by the mandatory separate beds for married couples. Hollywood was fairly racy and unregulated in the early days, then in the 1930’s it became overly burdened and buttoned down. Since WWII, which also saw a spate of U.S. propaganda films, there was a gradual relaxation, followed by the Red Scare of the mid 1950’, followed by further loosening up, and finally the “let it all hang out” cultural liberalism that exploded on the scene during America’s “cultural revolution” of the 1960’s.
Although sexual prudishness fell by the wayside, some remnants of the Hays code thinking remain strong in America today, a testament to the value of regulation. Traces of Hays code thinking persist in broadcast TV (cable TV and streaming TV are not so shy) and nearly all media formats subscribe to Code notions that cultural production should avoid offense to people of different religions and races.
Then there is the question of expediency. It is well known that a film that portrays the U.S. military in a positive light is going to get Pentagon permission for the kind of access to real life military locations, equipment, weapons and shooting permits that add to the verisimilitude of a good war story, and over his career of making blatantly pro-military films, Clint Eastwood has enjoyed a great deal of access. Even when it came to shooting his two Iwo Jima pics, Letter from Iwo Jima (2006) and Flags of our Fathers (2006), Eastwood made a point of courting Tokyo’s notoriously militant mayor Ishihara Shintaro to secure cooperation for filming on actual sites in Japan and ensuring the films would get widely screened in Japan.
In America, the political proclivities of financiers and shifting political winds also color the content of films that get made. Eastwood himself helped spearhead the trend to get over the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ represented by anti-war films such as Apocalypse Now (1979), Coming Home (1978), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Platoon (1986), by directing a technically competent, but politically ludicrous story showing the bravery of the world’s most powerful military taking over the tiny Caribbean Island of Grenada in Heartbreak Ridge (1986). It was a truly Reaganesque production: showy but empty, wrapped in red, white and blue.
Similarly, in contrast to an early slew of films critical of the misguided war in Iraq, Eastwood has made the world safe for U.S. solider nostalgia in his film which focuses on the “narrative arc” of an individual, completing ignoring the question of what right America had to be in Iraq killing Iraqis in the streets of Iraqi cities as revenge for the unrelated attacks of 9/11 as portrayed in his Chris Kyle biopic American Sniper (2014).
The Chinese film industry has been rightly mocked and criticized for its over-production of anti-Japan war dramas in recent years, though it might be said that gratuitous thrills, overkill and turgid plots notwithstanding, the “kang-ri pian” genre is at least on solid ground historically.
China was the victim of a violent Japanese invasion and there are no two ways about it. Chinese filmmakers have excelled at and reveled in war films at least since “Tunnel Warfare” (1965) which was the box office champ of the Cultural Revolution and remains very watchable even today), but it can’t begin to compare with Hollywood in exploring themes with sexual content.
The Cultural Revolution reified values of modesty and sexual prudishness that continue to hold water in China today. There were clear pressures on two Hollywood/China productions I worked on in the 1980’s to avoid overt sexuality. Bernardo Bertolucci had to tone down any reference to homosexuality in the Last Emperor (1986) although he managed an end run around the censors by employing abstract Freudian imagery of sexual desire and perversion. Likewise, it was not permissible to portray prostitutes in war-torn Shanghai of The Empire of the Sun (1987), but Steven Spielberg’s costume and makeup staff were able to doll up sing-song girls sufficiently to get the point across.
But even as recently as last year, China’s dramatists found themselves battling the censors on topics related to sex and sexuality, even something as anodyne as a little bit of cleavage. The Hunan TV drama series Empress of China (2014) starring Fan Bingbing had to endure clumsy cuts for the sin of showing too much flesh, even though it could be argued that the portrayal of voluptuous women is in keeping with the aesthetics of Tang Dynasty art. Likewise, Jiang Wen’s, Gone with the Bullets (2014) was subjected to last-minute cuts for allegedly sexually suggestive dialogue.
Last December Netflix released Marco Polo (2014) a miniseries set in the time of Kublai Khan. Unrestrained by broadcast TV norms, the series went over the top in graphic nudity, showing perhaps just a touch of desperation and lack of faith that late Song, early Yuan dynasty intrigue would find a market in the West without titillation. Although China was first the choice for location shooting, as would befit a film set in China, it was ultimately made in far-flung Asian locales, with Malaysia as a stand in for the green south of the Song Dynasty and Kazahkistan as a stand-in for dry, desert Mongolia and north China plain.
Perhaps it was the cost of the lavish sets that prompted the producers to ink kungfu battles scenes fought entirely in the nude in defiance of probability and plot, but in any case it is a pity that such a series could not be made in China. Marco Polo clearly owes a debt of influence to The Last Emperor (1986) not just for its use of stylish palace sets, sumptuous costumes and imperial intrigue, but also for the wonderful continuity of actress Joan Chen, who played a young empress in the first film and was an empress again for the Netflix miniseries.
It would seem that Chinese culture has an easier time embracing cinematic violence than sex. While mainland productions, with the notable exception of anti-Japan war dramas, tend to be more subdued, Hong Kong has long celebrated gory works packed with gratuitous violence. Perhaps the most successful example is Andy Lau’s Infernal Affairs (2002) [無間道系列], which was adapted by Martin Scorcese into the Academy Award-winning The Departed (2006). Two more recent productions following the sniper theme include Sniper (2009) [神鎗手], an improbable Hong Kong police story directed by Dante Lam and Cold Steel (2011) [遍地狼烟], a sniper shooting drama set during the Sino-Japanese War directed by David Wu.
Unlike Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014), which purports to be a realistic portrayal of a real person in a real war that was a real extension of U.S. superpower politics, neither of Hong Kong sniper films even begin to remotely reflect on the state of affairs in Hong Kong or the foreign policy of China. Like most fantasy, they live and die as sheer fairy tales.