Saturday, June 25, 2011

Movies on the old and new China - New York Times

People, You Will See This Film. Right Now.
Shiho Fukada
The New York Times, June 24, 2011
A movie theater in Beijing.

BEIJING — This month China’s great masses are being mobilized by their leaders for an unusual purpose. Employees at state-owned companies and at all levels of government are joining students from grade school to universities as they leave their homes, head out into the heat and do their duty: ensure the financial success of the government’s latest propaganda film, “Beginning of the Great Revival.”

The movie, which opened on Wednesday on almost all of the country’s 6,200 screens, is part of a campaign to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party next Friday. It is also playing in 29 American theaters, including ones in New York and Los Angeles.

The movie, along with its sister film, “The Founding of a Republic,” which was made for the 60th anniversary of the birth of the People’s Republic of China, in 1949, is an attempt to update the state-sponsored propaganda movie to appeal to younger audiences, by adding screen stars, a subplot and modern production methods. The government has stacked the deck, so success is virtually guaranteed. Government offices and schools are buying tickets in bulk and organizing viewing trips in the middle of the workday, and there are officially sanctioned movie review contests, presentations of paintings inspired by the film and group singing of classic Communist songs at cinemas.

The film claims to have a cast of 178 of the most well-known Chinese-language actors, including Chow Yun-fat and Andy Lau. It borrows stylistic cues from popular Korean soap operas and makes Mao Zedong, the Communist Party leader who died in 1976, both a romancer and a revolutionary, playing up the love story between him and his second wife. It cost $12 million to make. By contrast, just over 10 percent of movies made in China last year had a budget of more than $1.5 million.

Newspapers and television are barred from being critical of the movie, and caustic online reviews have been erased by censors. (Unfortunately for the filmmakers and the government, that edict does not cross borders; in a review in The New York Times, Andy Webster said the movie “demonstrates that mainstream Chinese cinema can be as guilty of self-indulgent overstatement as anything out of the West.)

Both “Beginning of the Great Revival” and “The Founding of a Republic” are attempts by the party to wrest the attention of a new generation away from the Internet, where opinions often deviate from the official line, said Paul Clark, a professor of Chinese culture and film at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, who is a visiting scholar at Peking University.

“Movies have always been the most effective, consistent form of mass-media propaganda in presenting a party-blessed version of history,” Mr. Clark said.

The two-hour movie begins with the 1911 revolution that toppled the Qing dynasty. Historical characters flash across the screen so briefly that their names appear beside them as explanations. Mao is portrayed in soft-focus lighting as a trim, dewy-eyed and idealistic young man prone to slow-motion frolicking with his beloved in the snow.

But politics take precedence. In the movie’s last scene, the theme is spelled out on the screen: “Under the leadership of the Communist Party, China has been on a glorious path of ethnic independence, liberation, national wealth and strength.” The text is superimposed on a Tiananmen Square flooded with computer-generated fans of Communism, waving red flags.

Yu Yi, 21, who was on summer break from the University of Bedfordshire, in England, and had recently joined the Communist Party, said the scenes of student protests brought tears to his eyes.

“It really made me more patriotic,” he said. “It made me glad I joined the Communist Party.”

Internet reviews have been scathing, but the censors have responded quickly and deleted or changed most of the negative responses.

Other Netizens have commented about the absurdity of the authoritarian Communist government lionizing a period of revolutions against authoritarianism (in this case, the oppressive Beiyang government).

And there is resentment among some Chinese that the film is standing in the way of summer blockbusters. Variety reported that the premieres of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” will be delayed in China.

Before “Revival” earns a certain amount in ticket sales, for example, 800 million yuan (about $124 million), “other imported films will not be shown,” Gao Jun, a Chinese movie distributor, said at a news conference at the end of May, Southern Metropolis, a Chinese newspaper, reported.

Hitting that box office figure will most likely not be difficult, given all the official help. “The Founding of a Republic” earned $65 million at the box office, the fourth-highest-grossing domestic movie of all time.

As of June 19, “Beginning of the Great Revival” has earned $18 million, and with the state buying up so many tickets, it is likely to surpass the revenue for “The Founding of a Republic.”

But whether all those purchased tickets translate into actual viewers is another matter. On the north side of Beijing, tickets were nearly sold out for a recent afternoon showing, but the theater itself was less than half full.

Most of the audience was sent there by a nearby company, which bought the tickets and gave employees half a day off to watch the film.

Chen Gang, a taxi driver waiting outside the movie theater, said he had no plans to watch the movie.

“It’s a political homework assignment,” he said. “It has nothing to do with reality.”

Adam Century and Edward Wong contributed reporting.
A version of this article appeared in print on June 25, 2011, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: People, You Will See This Film. Right Now..

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