How China Hasn’t Taken Over Pop Culture Yet
American moviegoers scratched their heads in early 2017 when a trailer appeared out of nowhere for an epic movie about rival warlords in medieval China. It was big and vast, with special effects on a grand scale. But the overall footage was grainy and the effects cheesy. The whole thing looked for all the world like a mammoth project from 20 years ago that had gone bad and been shipped straight to video. A minute or so in, an actor dropped a hood – and there was Matt Damon. Matt Damon is one of the biggest stars in the world, particularly when it comes to action movies. Damon was sporting a pony tail. Damon looked to be grimacing. Not since Kirk Douglas played Odysseus in an Italian movie in the mid-1950s – in which Douglas was the only person whose voice was not dubbed into English – had there been such a bizarre cultural juxtaposition.
The Damon movie was called The Great Wall. In this telling, the Great Wall of China was built not to stymie invaders but dragons. Now, how a wall could keep out flying fire-breathing creatures is far from clear, and later in the year the HBO series Game of Thrones would literally show the world how a dragon could take down a wall about 650 feet taller in a couple of minutes. But here it was. The Great Wall. An epic about dragons and the Seventh Wonder of the World. Starring a scowling ponytailed Matt Damon. And it cost $150 million.
What on earth was Damon doing in this thing? I’d wager what he was doing was taking much of that $150 million and depositing it in his bank account. Surely he earned considerably more than his asking price of $25 million to have taken a step backward off the A-list into what was at best a B-plus movie. But to be fair, it’s also true that Damon does like to work with prestigious directors. The Great Wall’s Zhang Yimou has not only made famous art films like Raise the Red Lantern, and successful action films like Hero, but was also the creator of the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. (That one came with a $100 million price tag for a single three-hour show.)
The Great Wall was filmed entirely in China, making it the most expensive movie ever produced there by a factor of five. And The Great Wall was a huge flop in the United States, grossing a paltry $45 million and resulting in a loss of some $75 million to its distributor, Universal Pictures. The fact that the movie underperformed shouldn’t be surprising. Most do. But one gets the sense that this movie was more than just a moneymaking creative project gone wrong. It was designed as an annunciation – the cultural declaration that after nearly four decades of economic transformation, China was ready to serve as the “Next Great Pop-Culture Cash Cow” that would save the movie business.
In the 1970s, cable television opened up a new ancillary market for the motion picture. In the 1980s, the videocassette and the advent of video-rental stores came along. In the late 1990s, the VCR was superseded by the DVD. All of these innovations provided new revenue streams for the industry, especially with trick packaging that turned movies into gifts and collectibles. But then came streaming, the ability just to rent a movie with the push of a button. It meant an immediate end to the repackaging profits. (When you hear stories about the crisis in the entertainment industry due to the rise of digital production, that’s what you’re hearing about – the death of the package. Record albums and CDs were packages, too.) What on earth could be done?
China could be done.
Reportedly, 22 movie screens open on mainland China every week. Americans spend more on movies than any other country in the world. China has more moviegoers than any other country in the world, if only by default. Put them together and you should have box-office dynamite. As the comedian Albert Brooks, playing an agent, says to his pianist client Dudley Moore in the 1984 movie Unfaithfully Yours, “It’s China. If nobody comes, 200 million people show up.” Consider this: A movie version of the video game Warcraft tanked in the United States but made $200 million in China, thus turning what could have been a world-historical disaster into a mild flop. Transformers 4 made more in China than in the United States.
I am sure China is becoming more like us, but we are not becoming more like China – at least not yet – and that is going to limit the amount of cross-cultural ferment.
It’s no exaggeration, therefore, to say China (and to a lesser extent India) appear to Hollywood and the American movie business in general as a beacon of salvation in a changing world. The Chinese share of the global box office rose from around 1% in 1995 to nearly 18% in 2015. But the expectation of never-ending growth smacks of desperation, just like the making of The Great Wall does. Will China spend three times as much on movie tickets as it does now and overtake America’s box-office dominance? I suppose it’s possible. It’s also possible that it’s reached its limit and that the same forces limiting American box office will be at work there – i.e., streaming services.
There’s also an element at work that globalizers miss. I’m saying something blindingly obvious when I say that the cultural, religious, and social assumptions that govern American films are not the same as the ones that animate Eastern popular culture. There are the entirely superficial differences – Chinese vampires hop, for example. Then there are deeper differences, which are best discerned by an examination of the hundreds of Chinese movies (mostly made in Hong Kong) that remake (often to the point of plagiarism) American hits. In 2016, the most successful Chinese writer-director, Stephen Chow, came out with The Mermaid, which owes its existence to the 1984 Tom Hanks hit, Splash.
Only Chow transmutes that mild comic love story between a man who falls into the water in Nantucket and is saved by a mermaid who follows him to New York into the story of a mermaid sent to kill a polluting businessman, but keeps trying and failing and eventually falls for him – whereupon her family starts trying to kill him and fails.
The Mermaid is all but unwatchable, at least to these Western eyes. The attempted murders are slapstick of a kind that wouldn’t pass muster on a Disney Channel show. When it was released in America, it made $3.2 million. In its first week in China, The Mermaid grossed… $275 million. (Not a typo.)
That’s an extreme example, but as I say, there are hundreds of similar stories. The same is true of Indian movies, and Thai movies, and Malaysian movies, and Korean movies. These cultures adopt Western plots and Western tropes for their pop cultures but revise them to make sure they harmonize with their own indigenous styles. What results is an often hilarious mishmash entertaining (to us) only because the civilizational clashes are so startling.
I am sure China is becoming more like us, but we are not becoming more like China – at least not yet – and that is going to limit the amount of cross-cultural ferment. The other force that limits the “Great International Hope” is the Chinese regime, which remains committed to the voicing of Marxist-Leninist ideology even as its day-to-day behavior violates every tenet in Das Kapital.
The government chooses which movies it allows in and which it bans, and Hollywood has already become expert in self-censorship in this regard. Gone are the days when an international thriller might have a Chinese villain. The reverse is more likely. The Martian and Arrival, two science-fiction films from 2016, feature impressively dignified officials from Beijing playing crucial roles in helping otherwise hapless and clueless Americans. Thus, in its own creative work, the American movie industry has embraced the idea that this vast and remarkable and infinitely complex country can be the savior it desperately hopes China will be if Hollywood is to survive in anything remotely like the configuration that began to take shape in Los Angeles a century ago.