As US audiences tire of big budget spectacle, Hollywood designs its blockbuster product for the ever-expanding Chinese market
It matters that Superman is a white man, even though he’s not human but an alien from the planet Krypton. It matters that Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man, Wolverine, Thor, and Captain America are all white men—even though most of them are only kind of human. It matters that when we sit silently in a movie theater, reverently observing the glowing screen with our thirteen dollar tickets and buckets of popcorn in hand, we watch white men saving the world again and again.
It matters too, then, that quietly, without fanfare, the race of one of the mutants in X-Men: Days of Future Past was changed. Blink is white in the original comic books. In the movie, she’s Asian, played by Chinese actress Fan Bingbing.
Twentieth Century Fox made a calculated decision when they cast Fan. Although unknown to Western audiences, Fan is the most famous working actress in China. She has topped the Forbes China Celebrity 100 list for the past two years. Her movies have broken China’s domestic box office records and she serves as the face of L’Oreal and Louis Vuitton in China.
In the movie, Fan’s character Blink camps out with a group of other mutants in a dilapidated temple waiting for the robotic Sentinels to attack. This is how we see her: with purple hair, green pupil-less eyes, and skin that’s vaguely the color of lilac. Her perfect body is displayed in tight leather. With a wave of her hands, she opens up portals with which the mutants teleport around, jumping instantly from one point to another.
Blink’s visually arresting superpower guarantees her plenty of screen time, but she doesn’t have any speaking lines. In a movie packed with A-list actors and chaotic fight scenes, we hardly miss the dialogue. Does race matter when, behind her silence, underneath her purple wig and green contact lenses, Fan’s Asianness is barely perceivable?
It mattered to the Chinese box office. Days of Future Past earned more than $80 million dollars in its first week in China—almost a quarter of the movie’s total earnings up to that point. And when, weeks earlier, Fan stepped out at the movie’s New York premier, she walked the red carpet like she was the true star of X-Men. She wore a George Chakras couture gown, a white formfitting column with flowing sleeves that draped to the floor. Dark blue feathers grew across her back, her shoulders, down her arms—as if the actress herself was a mutant caught mid-transformation.
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Despite the promise of the Internet to revolutionize the entertainment industry, movies are still released according to a forty-year old financial model. Every year, Hollywood puts out a handful of “tentpole” movies, mega-blockbusters profitable enough to bolster and support the rest of the industry. But relying on individual tentpole movies is a high stakes game that sometimes fails. Last year was referred to as the “summer of doom” in Hollywood, when many tentpoles—Turbo, After Earth, White House Down, The Lone Ranger, and Elysium (does anyone recall these titles?)—were financial disappointments. Last year’s biggest flop, R.I.P.D., starring Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds, cost $130 million to produce and earned back only $30 million domestically.
And yet, Hollywood studios didn’t shutter their doors. In fact, 2013 was another record year for ticket sales. How did this happen? Enter China, which has become the second largest movie market in the world, after the United States. China’s pull on Hollywood is a recent development. Between 2009 and 2012, the number of cinemas in China quadrupled. According to the MPAA, there are currently 13 new movie theaters being built everyday in China.
Hollywood producers are keen to capitalize on this new market by making their movies slightly more China-centric. Iron Man 3 broke opening day box office records in China, and went on to make $1 billion dollars worldwide. More than two-thirds of the movie’s earnings came from outside the US.
The movie’s villain, named the Mandarin, was indisputably Chinese in the Marvel comic books. Stan Lee gave the Mandarin an origin story dating back to pre-revolutionary China and marked him as a descendant of Genghis Khan. But the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, played by Ben Kingsley, is decidedly ambiguously brown.
“It’s less about his specific ethnicity than the symbolism of various cultures and iconography that he perverts for his own end. From his samurai hair, to his royal robe, to his bin Laden-esque beard, and the AK-47 he keeps at his side, Kingsley’s interpretation is a hodgepodge of various warrior motifs,” said Kevin Feig, president of Marvel Studios, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly.
But by “warrior motif,” Feig means Other. A Chinese character had been the Other to the Iron Man of the comics, but the Iron Man movie was made with a Chinese audience in mind. Kingsley’s Mandarin was toned down and turned into an equal opportunity borrower of tropes from non-White cultures, a globalized villain designed to sell tickets in a globalized movie marketplace.
To further ensure the movie’s success, Marvel Studios and Paramount Pictures partnered with a Chinese company, DMG Entertainment. DMG co-produced the film and distributed Iron Man 3 in China. In 2013, Variety reported the company had “strong connections with government officials,” which helped navigate Iron Man 3 through China’s “sometimes choppy regulatory waters.”
DMG is responsible for a special version of Iron Man 3 that screened only in China. The movie was reedited to include four additional minutes of footage starring Chinese actors. This version managed to squeeze in an appearance by Fan Bingbing as well as a product placement for a beverage sold in mainland China. In the Chinese version, this additional footage was pasted in and functions as a break from the main action. The bonus footage didn’t make it into the US or general international releases.
But nothing quite epitomizes China’s box office power like the greenlighting of Pacific Rim 2, which Universal announced at the end of June. By traditional industry standards, Pacific Rim was one of last year’s flops, costing $190 to produce and earning back just a paltry $101 million in the United States. But then Pacific Rim opened in China. The Hollywood Reporter announced that Pacific Rim “crushed” the Chinese box office, “smash[ing] everything in its path” for week upon week. The movie went on to gross $411 million worldwide, about $111 million in China alone. Without the global box office, Pacific Rim would have lost money for its investors. But with the announcement of Pacific Rim 2, the Chinese audience proved powerful enough to command the production of a sequel from an American studio.
It’s difficult for me to offer insight into Pacific Rim’s appeal in China, as I can’t understand why anyone of any nationality would enjoy it. Giant robots fighting giant monsters, however tenderly rendered, could not redeem the paper thin plot and inane dialogue (my favorite line: “Elbow rocket now!”).
But it’s worth briefly considering Pacific Rim’s treatment of Asian characters: after all, the film was a massive hit in China, while its title Pacific Rim references the countries bordering the Pacific Ocean, mostly Asian Pacific and island nations. Yet there is only one Asian character in the movie. She is, of course, a hot Asian woman who practices martial arts, played by the Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi.
Kikuchi’s character Mako is a masterpiece of contradiction, fulfilling as many Asian female stereotypes as the screenwriters could muster. She is a beauty, a fighter, a submissive, a child. She speaks exclusively in sexy baby voice, that girlish squeak that barely registers above a whisper. She obeys the other characters to a fault, but teeters on the brink of tears when she doesn’t get her way. The movie infantilizes her literally, as she flashes back to a childhood memory of crying as she runs through the streets of a demolished city. Mako scores top marks in fighting and operating giant robots, but she’s all aptitude. In the heat of battle, twice she collapses into the hero’s arms and from time to time falls unconscious.
For a movie set in Hong Kong, there is a remarkable lack of Chinese characters in Pacific Rim. (Kikuchi is Japanese and the only Asian major character in the movie.) The first Chinese characters we see come 40 minutes in, when the white protagonist Charlie Hunnam defeats three Chinese men in fighting practice. Even the proprietor of the Chinese herbal medicine store is a white guy. His Chinese employee works silently, head down, next to him.
When Chinese people do appear in Pacific Rim, they are mostly scenery. You can see the backs of their heads bobbing up and down as they eat in the background of a cafeteria. In the rain, they run, holding umbrellas and briefcases over their heads. They huddle whimpering in a bunker when they fear a monster is close by.
Despite portraying Chinese people as out-of-focus, background details on screen, Hollywood’s understanding of a film’s audience can be incredibly nuanced, with focus-group tested and niche-marketed release strategies. One humorously specific example: according to the Los Angeles Times, Dreamworks wasn’t concerned that 2011 period picture War Horse lacked wide appeal, because they targeted: “a sophisticated, older, white moviegoer who lived in the middle of the country, enjoyed Broadway plays and shopped at Target, not Sears.” While no one wants to be reduced to where they shop or where they live, studio targeting for Chinese audiences seems much more reductive. Producers making movies meant to sell in China assume that by simply having a Chinese actor on screen for a matter of minutes, Chinese audiences will come. And regardless of whether it’s correlational or causational, it seems to be working.
Are Chinese audiences so desperate to be recognized by American movies? Or does it have more to do with newfound disposable income, the proliferation of movie theaters, and decades of American marketing?
In China, there’s a deeply aspirational sentiment towards the Western world in general, and particularly towards America. This feeling has become complicated in recent years, just as US-Chinese relations have become more complicated, but it is nonetheless palpably present. People spend money on expensive brands that they believe to be popular in the States. KFC and Pizza Hut are fine dining in China. English lyrics are sprinkled sporadically in Mandopop songs. Twenty years ago, bicycles and buses dominated Beijing, but now the city streets are an impasse of cars.
For a culture so obsessed with America, it gives them a thrill to see Americans acknowledge them back. This phenomenon was famously documented on an episode of This American Life, which describes random American ex-pats being hired to appear on Chinese television. Four different people described getting approached to appear on TV within months of moving to China. They went on talk shows, singing competitions and soap operas.
“When foreigners go on TV shows, the most common thing is, they like to dress them up in old Chinese garb, like the Tang Dynasty clothes, and make them sing some old Chinese song,” said Benji Schwartz, one of the episode’s exemplary American instant-celebrities. Schwartz says expats who hang out in areas foreigners frequent can get approached up to once a week by talent scouts. He concludes that the interest Chinese people have in watching foreigners on television comes from a place of condescension. “I've heard that in Chinese TV, the things that get the best ratings are children, animals, and foreigners, which just kind of says it all… ‘Yeah, oh look at that cute foreigner. He's trying to speak Chinese. It's so adorable.’”
But Schwartz’ appearance on the 2011 Taiwanese soap opera “My Fair Princess”—in which he plays a court artist in the Qing dynasty who falls in love with a Chinese princess—reveals that his Mandarin is impeccable and he has a great singing voice. Producers aren’t putting Schwartz on television because he’s bad at speaking Mandarin, cute, and American. He’s on TV because he’s good at speaking Mandarin, cute, and American.
English is standard curriculum for Chinese students. But there’s still a sense of incredulity to see the inverse—to see an American take interest in learning Chinese. Chinese people are used to aspiring to be like Americans, not the other way around. Thus, an American speaking Mandarin is both slightly unbelievable and a huge compliment. And if he speaks it really well? Then he might land a major role in a historically inaccurate Taiwanese period drama.
It’s worth noting here that it’s hopeless to write about a monolithic Chinese people. China is a nation with 56 recognized ethnic groups and 292 living languages. Rural China is culturally and financially distinct from urban China. My thoughts about “the Chinese people” and “Chinese audiences” are speculation related to the remarkable rise in Chinese demand for Hollywood movies.
In China, American culture has been consumed in various forms for decades. Michael Jackson, Home Alone, and The Lion King all made their way to China in their respective heydays. Yes, these cultural artifacts had to pass through Chinese censors (just as they had to pass through American censors—hello MPAA, FCC), but nonetheless, they have been a part of Chinese popular culture for a long time. Now, for the first time, Chinese audiences in turn influence the creation of these American cultural objects–even if it manifests as one paltry Japanese character and zero Chinese characters in a movie that’s set in Hong Kong.
In the end, it doesn’t matter to producers whether Chinese filmgoers enjoy their portrayal in American movies as long as they buy tickets. It hasn’t mattered to Hollywood studios that women and minorities have long protested their standard portrayal in movies. It hasn’t changed movie productions because it hasn’t slowed ticket sales. The international market now represents 70% of the global box office, and China is the biggest piece of that pie. Even if American audiences tire of giant blockbusters with minimal dialogue, it seems these action movies aren’t going anywhere soon, as they find their audiences on the other side of the world.
Of all the Western trends, consumerism may be the most American thing that the Chinese middle class has embraced. And marketing to this emergent middle class, even a Chinese one, may be the most deeply-entrenched and American of Hollywood traditions.