Why ditching the China film market won’t hurt Asian representation

Pixar’s love letter to second-generation Chinese immigrant families, Turning Red, marks a milestone for Hollywood, seemingly signalling the end of its predictably doomed love affair with China. We are now two years on from the backlash against Disney’s live action Mulan remake, a film mired in controversy from its shooting on location near Xinjiang internment camps and thanking members of the Chinese Communist party’s propaganda department, to its title star supporting police violence during protests in Hong Kong in 2019.

Subsequent Hollywood-China coproductions saw a similar blowback for this form of kowtowing to China. Dreamworks’ Abominable (2019) was boycotted by Vietnamese and Malaysian audiences for its blatant support of China’s geopolitical ambitions. Netflix’s Over the Moon (2020) was praised for its attempt to represent Chinese culture, but failed at the Chinese box office. Disney’s messy Raya and the Last Dragon (2021), which also performed badly in China, left a sour taste regarding its narrative involving the pursuit of uniting various “warring” kingdoms – a strange though clear nod to Xi Jinping’s centralisation strategy.

We are seemingly entering the end of the Hollywood-China relationship, indicative of the ways China has been steadily “decoupling” from the west. Under the guise of its aggressive zero-Covid policy, China has turned inward, leading to the mass exodus of foreigners and foreign partnerships as well placing its future sights on Hong Kong as a place to rebuild a “civil society according to CCP standards”. Taiwan is undoubtedly part of that strategy too.

As the box office for American films declines, they are being replaced by bigger budget Chinese films, which model themselves on the Hollywood blockbuster formula. The mood can change quickly: one notable incident involved Academy Award winner Chloé Zhao, who was initially hailed by Chinese state media after the Oscar wins for Nomadland, but the film’s Chinese release was cancelled and social media scrubbed after interview comments about China’s surveillance state resurfaced.

Therefore, we now find ourselves in an exciting moment for Hollywood films telling Chinese stories. Turning Red, directed by Domee Shi (who won an Oscar for the beautiful short Bao), is a coming-of-age story following Mei Lee, a precocious Chinese-Canadian teenager as she grapples with the challenges of adolescence and her mother’s overbearing expectations; these manifest as a transformation into a red panda. Throw in a longstanding family curse, 2000s nostalgia and you have an uplifting, universal film which doesn’t pander to any one specific audience.

A year ago, Marvel’s Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings was a film I watched with extremely low expectations. But I was elated to find it was not only superbly made, but was also littered with Easter eggs alluding to China’s whitewashing of its own past (including a bus driver’s badge number being the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre). When its Canadian star Simu Liu spoke about the realities of his family’s struggle in communist China – as well as his love of Hong Kong’s lemon tea brand Vitasoy, which was boycotted in China over the stabbing of a Hong Kong police officer – it led to a backlash.

Turning Red goes a step further. Its primary Chinese language is Cantonese, the co-official language of Hong Kong which the CCP is attempting to suppress – as it did with limiting the use of the Mongolian language in 2020 – as another strategy to control Chinese identity. These moves have not gone unnoticed: Shang Chi was refused a Chinese release, and Turning Red has gone straight on to the Disney+ streaming service which is unavailable in China.

So as China continues its unrelenting pursuit of isolating itself from the rest of world, we are now seeing a blossoming of Asian-American cinema. The end of the affair for Hollywood and China may well lead to a promising new future, free from the shackles of kowtowing to an authoritarian regime for money.


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