The Chinese film industry is undeniably political, so how does this shape the way journalists in the UK think and write about China?
Film journalists are, of course, passionate about film and often want to give films a fair chance at being appreciated for their artistic merits, but Chinese productions are frequently ignored and dismissed.
Several Chinese arthouse films like ‘In the Mood for Love’ are rightly recognised as masterpieces, because they are exceptional films. The writing and acting is high quality and the aesthetics are impressive. Films also benefit when they feature actors who are already known to international audiences. Perhaps ‘In the Mood for Love’ is so successful because Tony Leung is a widely respected actor with a devoted, global following.
But why don’t we hear about the other films- the ones that are made to be money-making hits at the box-office, and the films that, unfortunately, don’t star Tony Leung?
Part of the problem may be that many Chinese language films are the equivalent of cliched American blockbusters that generally lack substance. This problem is not helped by the fact that Chinese films are often politically driven. For example, ‘The Battle of Changjing’, although relatively widely released in the UK, is unlikely to have a positive reception due to its unapologetically political message.
Some moviegoers, among which are the journalists, may be more critical of Chinese films than other films because they feel that their political nature renders them unrealistic, and therefore detracts from their overall impact.
Many film journalists often refer to Chinese films as propaganda. It seems that only Chinese films get this treatment, which seems especially biassed when films like ‘Top Gun’, and even the ubiquitous Marvel films, receive funding from the American military, yet are not referred to as propaganda.
Governments are involved in films all over the world, not just in China. However, some argue there is a difference between the government involvement in Western films, versus the governmental influence in China. For films such as ‘Top Gun’ or ‘Zero Dark 30’, the government and military may provide funding and equipment, but they do not have the same editorial influence that the Chinese military has in China. Where American films may glamorise the army or airforce, the final cut of Chinese films can be decided by the military. Is there a distinction between propagandistic media, and just propaganda? What are the criteria for labelling a piece of media propaganda? This is of course a huge and academic discussion. My reason for asking these questions is to raise the point that there is not necessarily a clear cut between the “good” Hollywood films and the “bad” Other of Chinese cinema.
According to my discussion with journalists, a reason for using the term “propaganda” is to correspond to the Chinese phrase 主旋律 （zhǔxuánlǜ). The translation ‘main melody’, may not mean much to an English speaker. It is a genre of film that arguably exists exclusively in China, that prioritises the voice of the Party, and embodies typical communist ideals. ‘Main melody’ films are made to praise the Party, or to mark an anniversary, like ‘1921’ which was made to celebrate the centenary of the CCP’s founding. ‘Chinese Doctors’ , a film presenting scenes from the COVID-19 pandemic, is highly dramatic in its tone. While a presentation of the struggles that doctors face during a pandemic, it is also a celebration of the healthcare system and its heroic staff. Although we see this sort of dramatisation in British films it may not be taken to such an extreme.
In English, “propaganda” has negative connotations, and is an inherently political term, whereas ‘main melody’, for Chinese audiences at least, just refers to a genre. For the time being, ‘main melody films’ is not a well enough known term, or a popular enough genre, for it to be understood by most Western consumers of journalism. However, perhaps it is the role of journalists to explain culture specific terms like this to their readership. If a consumer of media is unable to understand or appreciate the cultural context of a product, they are surely more likely to dismiss it. It is also important for a journalist to consider the emotional weight that words like “propaganda” carry. Even if it seems like an appropriate term in the context of Chinese film, it may be doing an injustice to the film by undermining its other valuable assets.
Despite the power of main melody films, it would be a misconception to assume that China is only interested in this genre. For all the political tensions between America and China, Hollywood franchises are historically successful in China.
Marvel exemplifies the success of exporting American films to China. In 2019, ‘Avengers: Endgame’ was the third highest grossing film at the Chinese box office. This is largely because the Avengers films have been released in China in tandem with the United States. In contrast, the ‘Star Wars’ films are not so popular in China, as they weren’t initially released in China like they were elsewhere. This has meant that the audience for ‘Star Wars’ has not grown with the release of the newer films, as there is no established fanbase or nostalgia for the original series.
Although foreign films are still subject to bans and censorship in China, there are even films that do better in China than in America, like ‘Warcraft’ and ‘Venom’. At the end of the day, Chinese cinemas need to make money and know that Hollywood films sell tickets. Despite the political tensions between the two nations, there is certainly an individual-level enjoyment in American films. This interest in American films is reflected in Chinese journalism. Even films that aren’t released in China are discussed and readers will be aware of them. Some British journalists hope that their writing can make people aware of Chinese films that, even if not released in the UK, are economically and culturally significant. What is clear though, is that it should not be a film journalist’s role to take a position about the politics of a film.
It is my hope that journalism can be used as a tool for understanding and learning, to help develop ongoing relations between China and the rest of the world. If Chinese journalism continues to cover Western films, and Western journalism continues to open its eyes to China’s film industry, we might find pathways to new relationships.