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How Capitalism Creates Chinese Heroes in Hollywood

Updated: Mar 14, 2018

How many movies have you seen in the last couple of years? Have you noticed some recurring themes throughout these movies? As I travel back to the United State around two to three times a year (a seventeen-hour ordeal one-way), I must admit, I have seen my fair share of in-flight movies. As I was watching these movies, I began to notice that there were more and more Chinese in them. Moreover, these movies never had Chinese antagonists; the Chinese were either the heroes or the people who help the heroes.

At first, I wondered if I was just overly sensitive because I was living in China. But, as kung fu movie legend Jackie Chan noted, "When China was not the market, you just followed the American way. But these days, they ask me, 'Do you think the China audience will like it?' All the writers, producers — they think about China. Now China is the center of everything."

Why is this? First of all, China has seen a 144% growth in box-office revenue since 2012. In contrast, North American growth was just 6% in the same period. As China is projected to become the largest market for moviegoers this year, Hollywood has begun adapting its movies to have China-positive themes. Some industry professionals have noted that Russian spies and Middle East terrorists remain the primary villains in United States movies – because portraying a Chinese as a villain within a movie would ensure that the movie would never be able to tap into the Chinese marketplace.

Currently, there is a quota of 38 foreign films allowed to enter Chinese theaters in one year. (During the recent trade talks between Xi and Trump, Trump sought for more American movies to be allowed into China, however, the number has not yet been negotiated.) This quota doubtlessly has a profound impact on studios, which do not want their movies to be banned from China.

While Hollywood is incorporating elements that are inherently created for a Chinese audience, these elements also have an unintended impact on their American audience. How can movies impact public opinion of China among United States young people? I would argue that it already has. From a personal standpoint, I have noted that nearly every United States female studying or living in China was greatly drawn to Chinese culture through Disney’s animated movie Mulan, which was released in 1998. Rather than political imagery, these women’s first exposures to Chinese culture was in the form of a heroine based on Chinese legend. The Kung Fu Panda trilogy, a series of animated movies from DreamWorks Animation has provided the next generation of young people with positive associations of China and Chinese culture.

However, even more influential toward creating positive associations of China are the very subtle influences which have started to pervade Hollywood movies. I will discuss two categories of recent Hollywood movies that feature China: movies which strengthen China’s soft power and images abroad; and movies which actively project positive images of China government agencies.

One movie that presented Chinese government agencies in a positive light was The Martian, which stars Matt Damon and was released in 2015. A major component of the plot was based on the Chinese government providing its classified booster rocket to the Americans, in order to save an American astronaut stranded on Mars. In these scenes, the Chinese language was spoken and the scenes clearly showed government officials, dressed in business suits and in nice offices. Other images included a group of Chinese smiling for the media in front of the rocket, with two flags (one of China and another of the United States) painted onto the rocket. At the end of the movie, following the successful mission, there is a scene of the command room in Beijing erupting into cheers. The film was so popular in China that it actually prompted a response from Xu Dazhe, the chief of the China National Space Administration, who said “When I saw the U.S. film 'The Martian', which envisages China-U.S. cooperation on a Mars rescue mission under emergency circumstances, it shows that our U.S. counterparts very much hope to cooperate with us.” During the opening weekend, The Martian got over $50.1 million in the Chinese box office, eventually rising to almost $95 million.

Another movie which featured the Chinese military in a positive way was Arrival, which stars Amy Adams and was released in 2016. The movie is about a group of aliens which land at different locations throughout the world. A famous linguist learns their language (represented through circular shapes) and, in turn, is given the opportunity to time travel. When world governments are considering shooting the peaceful aliens because of a miscommunication, the linguist travels in time to talk to a Chinese general. Back in the present, she calls the general, speaks to him in Mandarin, and convinces him to not kill the aliens by reminding him of his wife’s dying words in Mandarin (“wars only create widows, not winners.”) After the Chinese decide not to kill the aliens, the rest of the world governments join the Chinese in solidarity. In this movie, the Chinese general is presented as stoic and refined, but also empathetic. The Chinese government is also presented in a position of power: they were able to call off the international attacks on the aliens, when the United States government was not able to do so. Arrival was also released in China, where the box office reached nearly $16 million.

Other recent releases present aspects of Chinese in a positive light and contribute to China’s soft power, even if they do not present Chinese government agencies positively. One example was Now You See Me 2, released in June 2016. This film made more money at the box office in China ($97,115,220) than in the United States ($64,600,802). During the plot of the film, a group of magicians traveled to Macau to steal a computer chip with the potential to create incredible damage. While in Macau, they befriended Chinese magicians who owned a magic shop. Many scenes focused on the sights of Macau, including a chase scene through a street of vendors. Marvel’s Doctor Strange, which was also released in 2016, had a box office of over $109 million in China. The movie featured a man who studied under spiritual Tibetan masters to gain superhuman abilities.

Pacific Rim, released in 2013, featured a coalition of countries on the Pacific Ocean which built robots to save their countries from attacks from aliens. The United States, China, Russia, and Australia all created major robots. The Chinese robot, Crimson Typhoon, was operated by a group of three Chinese brothers and gained large scale popularity in China. The Chinese box office garnered almost $112 million for this movie. The United States box office was only at $101 million. Subsequently, the decision to create a sequel (which will be released in 2018) is primarily for Chinese audiences, rather than American audiences.

The fusion of China and Hollywood represents the fusion of the largest consumer market of the world with a most advanced film industry in the world. Not only has China been the recipient of America’s film, China has also been directly investing into these film productions. This has manifested itself with many more Chinese actors being cast in American movies – from Star Wars Rogue One to Independence Day: Resurgence. Legendary Entertainment was recently purchased by Dalian Wanda Group (the world's largest private property developer) for $3.5 billion, creating new possibilities for collaboration. This was certainly the case for The Great Wall, which was released earlier this year and starred Matt Damon. Although it was popular in Chinese cinemas, it met an overall backlash in the United States, due to the fact that a Caucasian man was given a leading role in a Chinese medieval drama. Many people boycotted the film due to “white-washing” of Asian actors.

China’s direct influence on Hollywood has not gone unnoticed. In late 2016, CFIUS (Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, an inter-agency committee that includes representatives from 16 different agencies in the federal government) agreed to review Dalian Wanda Group’s investments in the United States due to “growing concerns about China’s efforts to censor topics and exert propaganda controls on American media.” Wanda, which owns AMC Entertainment and Legendary Entertainment was interested in expanding and its current expansions have been blocked. In the 2016 US-China Public Perceptions Snapshot Survey, several questions were asked about Hollywood’s direct engagement with China. Although 69% of Americans believe that the United States government should actively encourage Chinese investment in the United States, only 58% said that they were positive about China’s recent investments in Hollywood. Those who expressed fears said that they felt that way due to the potential for China to control content.

The reality is that because movie studios can make large amounts of money in the Chinese box office, they are already incorporating new, positive images of Chinese into their movies. From everyday people to government entities, these Chinese are always associated with the heroes of the movie and actively help save the day. Even more, these movie studios have a disincentive to ever cast Chinese as the antagonist – for fear that the studio’s movies may be barred in the future from entering into the Chinese box office as per the strict quota. Looking ahead to the future, we can bet on one thing: while many children and adults that grew up during the in 1960s and 1970s found communism and Russians to be the villains of their favorite television shows and movies, we will not experience anything similar to that today with the Chinese. The Chinese box office is too powerful – and the allure of money for studios is too strong.