Why Hollywood kowtows to China|
Films set in Shanghai, Chinese scientists saving the day, Beijing portrayed as the promised land … US film-makers are flattering their way into the world's fastest-growing movie market
Censors and sensibility … MGM's soon-to-be-released Red Dawn has changed its axis of evil from China to North Korea. Photograph: Allstar/MGM/Sportsphoto Ltd
Last week North Korea threatened America with a nuclear strike. This week sees the UK release of Red Dawn, which features a North Korean invasion of the US. An impressive instance of Hollywood's far-sightedness? Not quite.
- Red Dawn
- Production year: 2012
- Country: USA
- Cert (UK): 15
- Runtime: 93 mins
- Directors: Dan Bradley
- Cast: Adrianne Palicki, Chris Hemsworth, Connor Cruise, Isabel Lucas, Josh Hutcherson, Josh Peck, Will Yun Lee, josh hutcherson
- More on this film
Red Dawn is the reboot of a cold war thriller that's much cherished in some quarters. Back in 1984, when the original appeared, the aggressor could only have been the Soviet Union. With the new film comes a new commie bogeyman – but it was not supposed to be North Korea. These days, it's not so much Kim Jong-un's eccentric dictatorship that makes Americans tremble, it's their newfound rival for superpower status, China.
So, MGM's re-imaginers decided to reallocate Russia's role to the Chinese People's Republic. Fancifully enough, they envisaged Beijing "repossessing" an America that had defaulted on its huge Sino debt. However, this storyline didn't go down well in China. When excerpts of the script leaked out in 2010, they prompted the headline "US reshoots cold war movie to demonise China" in the Beijing-based, 1.5m-circulation Global Times. Buyers told MGM that distributing Red Dawn in China would prove problematic. So the studio decided on a change of tack.
Unfortunately, the film had already been shot. No matter. During post-production, $1m was spent on digitally erasing Chinese flags and symbols and changing sequences and dialogue to turn the invaders into North Koreans. Of course, Hollywood would never have dreamed of bowing like this to Soviet displeasure, but China is different.
The world's most populous nation has become the second-largest overseas market for American films. Its increasingly avid cinemagoers can easily add $50m to a Hollywood movie's gross. The number of screens in the country, already more than 11,000, is expected to double by 2015. In a recent report, Ernst & Young predicted that China's box office would overtake America's by 2020.
Sadly for movie-makers, this burgeoning treasure trove is guarded by a censorious state. China's government imposes a quota on film imports and keeps a careful eye on the content of those it allows through. Back in the 90s, Disney, Sony and MGM all had their Chinese business blocked after releasing the movies Kundun, Seven Years in Tibet and Red Corner, all of which were deemed critical of the regime.
Nowadays, any such potential transgressions are usually nipped in the bud. When censors objected to a bald Chinese pirate in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, he was edited out of the film's Chinese version. Footage was similarly removed from Men in Black 3 because unpleasant aliens had dared disguise themselves as Chinese restaurant workers. In the Chinese version of Skyfall, references to prostitution and corruption in China were removed or obscured in opaque subtitles. All mention of the torture inflicted on Javier Bardem's villain when he was an MI6 agent in Hong Kong was carefully expunged.
Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith in The Karate Kid
Accommodations like these are not enough for some film-makers, who opt instead for proactive ingratiation. The setting of large sections of Looper was transferred from Paris to Shanghai. In Battleship, it's Hong Kong that is credited by Washington with divining the alien origins of the earth's attackers. The 2010 remake of The Karate Kid saw the young hero's family turned into importunate migrants leaving decaying Detroit to seek a better future in thriving Beijing. In spite of the film's title, the all-conquering martial art becomes kung fu instead of karate, and the fount of all skill, wisdom and fortitude is an altogether Chinese kung fu master.
It seems to pay off. Looper, like The Karate Kid a co-production with a Chinese partner, was gifted a much sought-after Golden Week holiday release; all-American blockbusters such as The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises are often forced to play against each other to stop them squeezing out indigenous productions. Audiences, as well as the authorities, seem to appreciate a Hollywood kowtow. In disaster epic 2012, a White House staffer lavishes praise on Chinese scientists when an ark they've designed saves civilisation. At this point in the proceedings, filmgoers sometimes rose to deliver a spontaneous standing ovation.
Among Hollywood's old guard, all this has provoked a certain amount of disquiet. A producer, anonymous for fear of offending his industry's new masters, was quoted by the Los Angeles Times as complaining: "It's a clear-cut case – maybe the first I can think of in the history of Hollywood – where a foreign country's censorship board deeply affects what we produce."There have been complaints that both America and the rest of the world are being given an unduly rosy portrait of a repressive behemoth. China's social injustices, human rights abuses and imperial aspirations are, it's suggested, being discreetly veiled from view.
Still, what's happened with Red Dawn isn't exactly unprecedented. During the first world war, Cecil B DeMille made a film called The Cheat with a Japanese villain. In 1923 the film was reissued, but by then Japan had become an American ally. Without benefit of digital technology, the wily oriental was quickly turned into a Burmese ivory king.
If Hollywood now finds itself cheerleading for an assertive superpower, that isn't new either. For almost a century, Tinseltown buttressed America's own hegemony by puffing up the American way to sell more movie tickets on the home front. If economic success is winning communist China a piece of that pie, well, put that down to capitalism's market forces.