China's portrayal in Hollywood is far removed from negative stereotypes of old
The mainland's economic clout has bought China and its people a more positive portrayal in films made in the West, writesClarence Tsui
To properly understand China's standing in the new world order of the 21st century, just look at upcoming sci-fi thriller
Looper: Rian Johnson's time-travelling hitman film will be released in a longer version on the mainland after its Chinese investors demanded more Shanghai-set scenes (which the director had cut to maintain the film's pacing).
It is the latest in a long line of Hollywood productions reworked for the mainland market. Another high-profile example being
Men in Black III, whose segments featuring Chinese Americans as grotesque aliens were edited out to placate the country's stringent censors -
That Hollywood producers have conceded to such creative compromises speaks volumes about China's ever-growing significance and influence in both geo-politics and global commerce.
Last year, MGM reportedly retooled its remake of 1984 war film
Red Dawn by transforming the Chinese soldiers invading a small town in the US into North Koreans. Then last month, industry trade journal
The Hollywood Reporter revealed that the makers of a new version of
Total Recall altered the original setting of a sleazy Chinese workers' colony so as not to draw the ire of China Film Group, the institution that dictates which foreign films can be shown on the mainland. (The commune is now reportedly located in Australia.)
As variations of Fu Manchu and dragon ladies disappear from mainstream Western films, in come some very different Chinese. Themenacing, monosyllabic villain and svelte seductress have been supplanted by responsible Chinese individuals keen to contribute to the well-being of the world.
In Roland Emmerich's Armageddon blockbuster
2012, they are the builders of the ark that will save humankind from extinction. Lasse Hallstrom's adaptation of the Paul Torday novel
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen features four hydroelectric engineers passing on their Three Gorges Dam expertise to the construction of a dam that will help bring the titular premise to fruition.
In fact, mentions of China are commonplace today in films of all genres and stripes. In David Cronenberg's adaptation of Don DeLillo's 2003 novel
Cosmopolis, which is released here on Thursday, Robert Pattinson's financial whiz-kid protagonist talks about his on-going (and losing) manoeuvres as he speculates against the yuan, rather than the yen as in the book.
In Woody Allen's
From Rome with Love, which is now screening, office workers (including Roberto Benigni) gather around the water cooler to chat, including a short (but superficial) discussion on China's economic might.
Even European films are coming to grips with the emergence of China as a dominant political and economic power. Showing on September 21 as the Cine Italiano! Festival's opening film,
Shun Li and the Poet has at its centre a Chinese émigré (played by Zhao Tao) trying to come to terms with life in a small Italian town. Andrea Segre's award-winning film is a warmer and more melodramatic take on the migrant worker issue first broached by Matteo Garrone's
Gomorrah in 2008. The protagonist fits, in part, the perception of the Chinese as helpless drifters struggling to survive, but at least they are fully formed characters with credible back stories and real predicaments.
That Zhao won a best-actress award at the David di Donatello awards - the Italian equivalent of the Oscars - tells of a growing desire for such stories.
Other non-Hollywood films have sought in recent years to investigate the downside of the so-called Chinese century. The Chinese businessman as single-minded money-raker features in
Biutiful, but its director, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, offers a nuanced examination of a Barcelona-based Chinese sweat-shop owner (played by mainland actor Cheng Taisheng) who is split between his ruthless business methods - which eventually leads to death and destruction - and his clandestine relationship with a young man (Luo Jin).
Also premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, Mahamat Saleh Haroun's
A Screaming Man - about an angst-ridden lifeguard working at a hotel in the Chadian capital, N'Djamena - shines a light on the negative side of Chinese investment in Africa.
Ironically, to find the old-school Chinese baddies, audiences have to return to Asia - to South Korea where filmmakers continue to offer the Chinese crooks and thugs of the 1980s and 90s. Although North Koreans remain easy targets for caricature, the South's directors and screenwriters draw on the general fear and anxiety about the presence of the Chinese underworld and the
chosunjok, the much discriminated-against Korean-Chinese community which makes up one per cent of the population.
The title of Na Hong-jin's 2011 action thriller
The Yellow Sea is telling about its central premise. Born and bred in Yanbian - a Korean autonomous prefecture in the northeastern Chinese province of Jilin - debt-ridden cabbie Gu-nam is offered a deal whereby gangster Myun Jung-hak (Kim Yoon-seok) will pay off his debts if he crosses the water into South Korea to kill a businessman. The two characters are rough and unsavoury, and their hometown a gritty hell where people are as desperate as the animals kept in cages before they are eaten. (Speaking to this writer at Cannes two years ago, Na said his plans to shoot the film in a Chinese city, Yanji in Yanbian prefecture, were vetoed by the authorities at the last minute, forcing him to relocate his crew to Qiqihar in Heilongjiang province.)
While not as heavy as
he Yellow Sea,
The Thieves - now showing here - also plays on the formula of Chinese as antagonists. An
heist caper featuring a team of Korean and Chinese master criminals led by Macau Park (Kim Yoon-seok again), the film follows the characters' plot to steal an invaluable diamond from a casino in Macau. While all of them are flawed individuals, the über-villain is utterly evil - and Chinese: Wei Hong (played by Korean actor Ki Gook-seo) is a brutal mobster from the Chinese northeast.
The embodiment of a collective fear of the horrifying Other, Wei Hong (and the many other Chinese villains in South Korean crime films) is an interesting, unreconstructed throwback to an era where China is seen as merely an exporter of violence and illegality. Like the stock Chinese baddies in American movies, there's a form of orientalism at work.
Let's wait and see how this old-fashioned view will compare with the new, positive image of China and Chinese in terms of influencing filmgoers around the world.