How a Blockbuster Can Be a Sure Thing in China: World View

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By Adam Minter

In Hollywood, few things are less certain than whether a summer movie will actually become a blockbuster and earn back its investment.

But in China, where summer movie season--normally starring American blockbusters--has become a fixture for the country’s small number of paying movie-goers, the spirit of central economic planning has brought a bit of predictability to the new Chinese film, “Beginning of a Great Revival” (also sometimes translated as “The Founding of a Party”).

The film is a star-studded epic that recounts the origins of the Chinese Communist Party and is part of a nationwide campaign to celebrate the CCP's 90th Anniversary. It is also the second installment in the ruling Party’s epic franchise about itself; episode one was 2009’s “The Founding of a Republic.”

Box office expectations in China, at least for this kind of film, aren’t a matter of prophecy--they’re pre-determined. The head of China’s State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television has demanded that “Great Revival” earn “no less than one billion yuan ($154.4 million),” a Chinese box office record.

How can its producers meet this goal? With a little help.

Journalist Wang Xing, of the independent Southern Metropolis Daily in Guangzhou, reports on the Sina Weibo microblog:

“… in Pi County of Chengdu, the ticket price for 'Kung Fu Panda 2' is 15 or 25 yuan, but the price of 'Beginning of a Great Revival' is at least 30 yuan, and the Bureau of Education requires 80 percent of the party members to watch the movie. The Bureau of Education in Kai County of Chongqing explicitly list students in primary and middle school as the target audience...Now you should believe that it will earn a one billion box office.”

Meanwhile, according to local and international news reports, state-owned corporations and local party units have bought up tickets for involuntary screenings across China for their employees and members, who are required to attend. To reduce competition for "Great Revival," foreign films –-such as the wildly popular "Kung Fu Panda 2," an American film that one influential Chinese commentator recently called “the greatest and noblest [cultural] invader in history”--have been pulled from Chinese screens.

If the push to ensure that “Great Revival” is an unrivaled success sounds a bit anachronistic for a country that embraced–-and still embraces, according to Shanghai’s pirate DVD salesmen--"Kung Fu Panda," well, it kind of is. The celebrations surrounding the 90th anniversary of the CCP are undeniably retro in many respects. Besides "Great Revival," they include a slew of television programming, news reporting, and speechifying, collectively designed to revive “red values”-–something in which most Chinese under the age of forty have a limited interest, at best. However, compared to some CCP 90th Anniversary machinations, the actual film is positively 21st century.

There are, according to Xinhua, 178 actors in "Great Revival," including a who’s who list of Chinese cinema stars (like director John Woo and Chow Yun-fat, also known to American audiences), all of whom agreed to do the film for a pittance. The mavens behind “Great Revival” have more media savvy than other Chinese opinion-makers. Take, for example, Zhang Hongyu from Party mouthpiece People’s Daily. In his editorial, “Why Red Books Sell,” he writes:

“Books about the CPC are not necessarily dull and uninteresting. People can…improve their own personality and broaden their knowledge by reading 'Li Lanqing's Seal Carving Art'… Furthermore, the comic strips about the battles against foreign invaders in the last century can remind numerous people of their childhood.”

But who wants to explore the charms of “Li Lanqing’s Seal Carving Art” and comic strips about yesteryear's wars when they can watch a star-studded cast in IMAX 3D?

That noted, initial reaction to “Great Revival” has been mixed. For example, tweeting on the Sina Weibo microblog, Hu Chenchen calls the film “corny,” suggests that its reception will be poor and--even more damning--notes “some parts of the story mis-read history and disrespect the Revolutionary Period.”

Other microbloggers, like Cai Jingxue, chairman of a real estate brokerage, use the film as an opportunity to contrast what they perceive as the Party’s contemporary failings with its heroic revolutionary beginnings. Cai tweets:

“In the evil old [pre-CCP] society, land is private, grains and vegetable are non-toxic and harmless ... [A]t that time, neighbors knew each other, children could have innocent playmates, and a man could marry a first-hand wife and their wedding night would be real… My thoughts after I watch 'Birth of a Great Revival.'”

And author Tan Biaoxi arrives at what the Party must believe is precisely the unequivocally, totally wrong message to take away from “Great Revival":

“It tells us that even though some things are illegal and adventurous at a certain time, so long as we persist, they will become great deeds. So it is more of an inspirational film than a documentary. It not only helps oppressed people understand that the way to throw off oppression is to form parties to achieve political power, but also gives a vivid description for how to achieve the goal.”

"Great Revival" has its prominent defenders. One of them is Hu Xijin, the hyper-nationalist editor-in-chief of the hyper-nationalist Global Times. In a single Sina tweet, he addresses the film's critics:

“Although there is some discontent on the web, the active and enthusiastic participation of the stars is real, and epitomizes the attitude of society towards the ruling party. This not only reflects the power of the Communist Party of China, but also reflects a general positive evaluation from Chinese society to the historical status of the Communist Party...”

Perhaps in response to Hu’s tweet, freelancer Fu Guoyang tweets about what might’ve been the true motivation for so many stars agreeing to appear in the film: “Now, perhaps someone is tasting the sweetness of power … power can make directors like Woo John, and actors like Chow Yun-fat bow their heads….”

The fervid microblogged rhetoric generated by “Great Revival” is nothing special in China these days, though it may seem so to foreigners. All day long, China’s netizens are busy tweeting similarly inflamed language on plenty of issues more consequential than a bloated epic film. Still, the unsettling question remains: just how much of this will the Chinese authorities tolerate?

Last week there were indications that some are losing patience with discontented microbloggers. This is definitely the case for Hu Xijin and his influential Global Times. In three unsigned editorials this week (“Criticism a Double-Edged Sword for Society,” “Hatemongers are Asking for Trouble,” and “Do Not Exaggerate Impact of Extreme Cases”) the paper explicitly calls out the nation’s microbloggers for fanning social discontent. One of them noted, “China is not a nation where public anger collectively seeks to topple the existing order. It is time to debunk this ludicrous lie.”

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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-0- Jun/27/2011 18:03 GMT