The Chinese Communist Party should have more faith in its propaganda. Internet reports earlier this month claimed mainland box office returns for Beginning of the Great Revival, the sweeping historical drama about the founding of the party, were artificially inflated. Patrons seeing commercial releases such as Kung Fu Panda 2 were allegedly issued machine-printed tickets for Beginning, with the theatre staff then hand-writing on the ticket the name of the film the purchasers actually wanted to see. A microblogger on Sina Weibo posted photographs of altered tickets from several theatres.
Other measures were taken to stuff the goose, according to international news organisations. The New York Times stated that government workers and students were being pushed to see the film. Companies with state interests were reportedly buying blocks of tickets that went unused. And word trickled out that screens would not be made available for anticipated summer hits like the Harry Potter and Transformers sequels until Beginning had earned hearty numbers, at least on paper.
If true, this manipulation is counterproductive and unnecessary. It's counterproductive because, as soon as evidence surfaces that the grosses don't reflect genuine fan interest, everything about the film becomes tainted. It's unnecessary because the film isn't half bad.
Beginning of the Great Revival is reminiscent of the historical dramas that used to dominate the Academy Awards - richly costumed, well-cast epics produced by craftsmen like Saul Zaentz (The English Patient) and the Merchant Ivory team (Howards End). It is a better film than - and as jingoistic as - many airless American features and miniseries about the revolutionary war or the second world war.
Had it been treated like any other entertainment, Beginning might have shown surprising life. People with an interest in modern Chinese history would want to see the film, if only to understand the party's mindset, and Chow Yun-fat and Andy Lau Tak-wah have significant overseas appeal.
Yet little effort seems to have been made to promote the film outside its home territories. In North America, the film has grossed a mere US$151,305 as of last Sunday, according to the Box Office Mojo tracking site. In New Zealand, Beginning was booked for a paltry three screens. Here in Hong Kong, the local distributor was not provided with English-language press kits. And someone should have written a catchier title, one that captured the romance and danger of revolution.
As a result of these missteps, the film seems phony, and its genuine artistic and technical achievements are overshadowed.
China's soft power is tremendous, but the successful use of that power requires a cultural confidence that the party seems to lack. It shouldn't. Chinese films can be good, and they're getting better. One way to sell China is to allow local filmmakers to realise their visions and then promote their products globally like any other release. Most Chinese films will fail. Some will break even. A few will become breakout hits that increase the stature of China in the world. But, to find those bona fide success stories, the party needs to stop creating fake popularity contests in which it is the only entrant.
Paul Karl Lukacs writes about law and media. firstname.lastname@example.org