China plot twists behind the big screen

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 December, 2012, 3:20am

Movies say a lot about politics and the state of the world, though often not in ways the filmmakers have intended. Consider two new films: Red Dawn and 1942.

Both movies say something about China and the world today, though perhaps inadvertently.

Red Dawn is a remake of the 1984 cult film of the same name. The original was a highly enjoyable red-neck paranoid vision of hell in the United States after it was invaded by evil Soviet troops. The cold war was still on then and the world was bipolar, with two superpowers armed to the teeth with thermonuclear missiles aimed at each other. The movie was an instant hit.

Fast-forward 28 years. This time in the new movie, the US is invaded by evil Chinese troops. Or at least that was how the movie was made. But some suits in a US studio suddenly wised up during post-production. China, by this time, is Hollywood's fastest growing market. Its audiences may not take too kindly to their portrayal and the censors will almost certainly ban the movie. So voila, the Chinese villains have been digitally transformed into North Korean troops. This shouldn't be too difficult as many Americans probably can't tell a Chinese from a Korean.

To many Americans, China may be evil like the Soviet Union, but they realise it owns most of their national debt and produces their beloved Apple products. The Soviet collapse meant new markets for American capitalists; a China collapse would spell the end of the world, or at least the world economy.

Meanwhile, after spending 18 years fighting bureaucrats and censors, mainland director Feng Xiaogang has finally brought 1942 to the screen - about the famine that killed three million Chinese due to a drought and neglect by the nationalist government and the invading Japanese troops.

Why did officials discourage the making of a movie that would make the Japanese and the Nationalists look bad? Well, they may be dogmatic but they are not stupid. If you allow people to watch a movie about the famine in 1942, they will inevitably ask about what happened with the far worse famine from 1958 to 1961 when the death toll is estimated to be 10 times that in 1942.

I wonder if we will ever see a movie about Mao's great famine.