Thursday, December 25, 2014


(this article was first published in CHINA-US FOCUS, October 25, 2014)

Last Emperor

Back in 1986, China was but a picturesque background for big Western films, not a market. The producers of blockbusters such as "The Last Emperor" and "Empire of the Sun" had no illusions about theatrical distribution in China apart from a few “friendship” showings at low cost or no cost.

The real ancillary market in those days was Japan, and both of these “China” films were tailored in little ways to please what was then the world’s second largest market. Bertolucci’s Emperor starred recognizable Japanese talent and had a superb score written by Sakamoto Ryuichi, who also acted in the film. Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” was so faithful to its source material — JG Ballard’s recollection of life in Shanghai under Japanese occupation as seen through eyes of an airplane-addled boy – that it gave an oddly endearing gloss to a brutal takeover. When it came to screening in Japan, the localized marketing campaigns emphasized the Japan elements; the glamour of the cast in the first instance, and the obsession with the Mitsubishi Zero and Rising Sun insignia in the second. Even so, the Japan distributor of “Emperor” pressured producer Jeremy Thomas into cutting scenes containing actual wartime newsreel footage that reflected poorly on Japan.

Empire of the Sun
Three decades later, big co-productions still venture ashore in China, but they have to submit to being tied up like Gulliver on the beach, freedom of movement denied until they are tamed to pass muster with prickly cultural commissars. It is hard to imagine either Emperor or Empire getting made in China today, not just because of the economics of fielding a cast of thousands, but due to onerous regulations and censorship.
China, not Japan, is the most coveted ancillary market for Hollywood today, and doing things right by Beijing is the price that must be paid to partake in the multibillion dollar theatrical stakes.
Hollywood has always been politicized, at least as Marxists see it, and even-non Marxists would acknowledge that Tinseltown tends to reflect the zeitgeist of the times, be it the material exuberance of the 1920’s, the prudish strictures of the Hayes Commission in the 1930’s or the patriotic production of war propaganda in the 1940’s.
The “guidance” in co-productions these days is to insert China content and hire Chinese talent, but there are other ways to thread the box office needle. Happily for directors such as James Cameron, epic special effects films such as "Titanic" (1997) and 3D action pix such as Avatar (2009) are among the most remunerative films ever, the latter still China’s box office leader.
The sky is still the perceived limit in China’s dynamic film market, but the distribution game is not for the faint of heart as protectionist sentiment in China is on the rise.
While China has wowed the world with its economic prowess in manufacturing and trade, it is still playing catch-up in creative and innovative endeavors such as film. As such, China’s reception of Western imports betrays a mix of humility and arrogance, admiration and covetousness, –a desire to learn from Hollywood in order to one day beat Americans at their own game. When the quota for foreign films was increased from 20 to 34, the expansion made room for 3-D films only, a dazzling new technology that China is keen to copy, co-opt and master. Sometimes this eager impatience manifests itself in negative ways, such as the IMAX dispute involving claims of stolen technology, or, more agreeably, in the announced purchase of 20% of Imax’s Chinese business by China Media Capital and FountainVest Partners.
Former Shanghai actress Luo Yan, whose Silver Dream Productions has advised Relativity Media and other US clients on the China market says, “Hollywood has never faced such a challenge in its history.” She says the Chinese audience is developing its own tastes related to a national culture that is hard for foreigners to understand.
Not that getting a grip on what people will pay to see in the theatre is easy for Chinese either. The box-office success of the locally produced "Tiny Times" (2013) illustrates the difficulty of knowing what works and why. The lightweight tale about four young women enjoying the hedonism of modern-day Shanghai, ("Sex and the City" being an obvious influence) disappointed foreign film pros and party hacks alike. What kind of cultural barometer is this? Why does something so obviously superficial and derivative continue to pack them in?
Tiny Times, box office sensation

At the same time, serious works, even those in tune with reigning political currents, sometimes go to comical lengths to compete with popular pabulum. When The Sino-Japanese War at Sea 1894 《一八九四•甲午大海战》 (2012)) hit the screens, the publicity campaign featured unrelated buzzwords ripped straight from contentious headlines of 2012: “Diaoyu Islands, Nansha Islands, Shisha Islands.” For some inexplicable reason, Iwo Jima, which had recently been renamed “Iwoto” by revisionist Japanese authorities, was also included in the eye-catching but anachronistic poster.
Sino-Japanese War at Sea 1894

The delayed release of Lu Chuan’s Nanjing, Nanjing (2009) shows how even China’s most powerful production entity, the China Film Corporation, can be stymied by political shifts. This sober film was held up for a year due to ostensible censorship concerns, but not so coincidentally, its initial release date was pegged at one of those rare junctures where it looked like Sino-Japanese relations might improve due to a spate of Sino-Japanese summitry leading to a possible off-shore gas deal, with the result that one hand of the state promoted the anti-Japan fare while the other hand sought to squelch it. The film’s unsparing depiction of Japanese military atrocities against Chinese citizens was an unexpected box office success when it was finally cleared for release after the collapse of the gas deal.
Nanjing! Nanjing!

Beijing authorities issued guidelines this past summer calling for more “patriotic” and “anti-fascist” fare starting in September, but China’s mid-autumn holiday filmgoers opted for middlebrow American art, as an ape costume drama vied for ticket sales against a mercenary action film packed with an ensemble of bankable stars.
As Hollywood Reporter put it:
“Planet of the Apes Narrowly Tops Expendables 3.”
Moviegoers vote with their feet. Despite the imposition of quotas, guidelines, government subsidies, script meddling, the manipulation of release dates and holding up payment of earned revenue, the China box office has a mind of its own.

Philip Cunningham is a media researcher and political commentator with film and TV experience in China and Japan.

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Sunday, December 21, 2014


"The Interview" (2014) is based on a deeply-flawed conceit rooted in American exceptionalism; that a film about the killing a leader for the fun of it is funny as long as the target is unpopular and foreign. Such a cinematic hit job may or may not boost box office, but one thing is sure; it speaks volumes about America’s increasingly out of control culture of violence.

Look at the violence associated with America today; kids shot by cops, civilians cut down by drones, a gun industry selling tools of murder with impunity and an international arms trade to match. The US has a brutal prison system swollen with violent offenders that is now the largest archipelago of incarceration in the world. 

Look at the mindless school shootings and heart-breaking acts of terror, the abomination of state-sanctioned torture and a foreign policy that calls for an endless war that provokes political kidnapping, suicide bombing and videotaped murders in retaliation. 

America has lost its course; America has lost its compass. It's the violence, stupid.

“The Interview” may be a joke of a film, but the escalating war of words between anti-Kim detractors and the pro-Kim hackers is deadly serious. Despite the predictable, petulant cries of “caving in,” Sony Japan in its own subtle, understated way, belatedly said "no" to its decadent, derelict Hollywood division.

There are things far worse than taking simple precautions in the face of a threat, and that includes doubling down on the bad behavior that created the conflict in the first place. Is it really worth calling for revenge and beating the drums of war to justify an exercise in bad taste?

What core principles are at stake? Does a commitment to free speech mean that anything goes, that values have no value? Does Hollywood not have pieties of its own, topics it won't touch?

Is it right to indulge, in fantasy, as in foreign policy, in the bloody destruction of people beyond our borders?  

Does respect for diversity go out the door when the US border is crossed, in accord with NSA policy of exploiting the privacy of foreigners?  

Is racism and prejudice okay outside the US zone of influence?

It might also be mentioned that there’s nothing funny about journalists doing hit jobs, either, as was the tragic case in Afghanistan when Al Qaeda rival Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated by a camera crew on September 9, 2001 as a precursor to the attacks of 9-11.

President Kennedy, in the last days of his life, poignantly pointed out how wrong it was for the US to sanction the overthrow and killing of Vietnam's Ngo Dinh Diem on November 2, 1963. In more recent times the US government has targeted, with terminal prejudice, unpopular leaders such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. 

For the US, a country that lost four presidents and dozens of civil rights leaders to assassination, not to mention the ongoing epidemic of violence on the street, is it not preposterous that a film depicting the targeted killing of a living leader for kicks should be hailed by the US president, and trumped up by political commentators, as a precious product that deserves the widest release possible.

Garbage is still garbage, and hate is still hate, even if the bad guys are bad.

Hollywood is political, and like US politicians, it takes great care not to offend powerful US constituencies, partly out of fear of push-back but also because the industry is not devoid of decency and there is a sporting sense of what's right and wrong.

As the list of countries that the world's sole superpower does not control or maintain significant influence in shrinks, the shortlist of Hollywood villains gets shorter. Even Cuba, itself the historic target of attempted US hit jobs, is looking friendly now. And China, even before it became a coveted film market in its own right, was too powerful and self-protective to go up against. So, what do you do on a level playing field full of strong people? Kick the dog?

That seems to be Hollywood's attitude to little North Korea. It's odious enough, isolated enough, and until recently, regarded as impotent enough to bear the brunt of trade in hatred and personified evil.

In Japan, as the US, the Pyongyang regime is slyly vilified as a proxy for untouchable China. As a vestige of the losing camp in the Cold War, it's a useful villain and foil for US triumphalism.

Why if it weren't for North Korea, there'd be no one to kick around anymore. Well, we'll always have the Nazis. Central casting can breathe a sigh of relief that Hitler's foot soldiers, safely sequestered in a horrific chapter of the past, are beyond redemption and will always be available for backlot bad guys and stock villains.

To state the obvious, it should be stressed that what the hackers did to Sony was utterly wrong. The hack was devastating and raises issues of Internet privacy and digital security that will be addressed for years to come. 

Where the Sony hackers lost their "lulz" and turned a technically impressive attack into something beyond the pale was the follow-up threat of violence directed against movie theatres, and the implausible, but chilling invocation of 9-11. That's the kind of hatred the controversial film was trading in.

American TV news is on the story, exploding with indignation. But this kind of over-reacting to withdrawal of the film, which President Obama contributed to with some flippant words chiding Sony in a press conference, will ironically lead to an even greater erosion of free expression and privacy. Who do you call when the hackers strike? 

The FBI and NSA have already come running to the rescue.

But with all of this hullabaloo, where's the reflection? Where's the cultural humility and self-questioning? Who in the US talk show circuit has the courage to go against the anti-North Korean stampede and xenophobic catcalls for war to acknowledge that America has a problem in the way it promotes and glorifies violence?

Even with free speech as a most cherished national value, there are lines best not crossed. The classic example starts with yelling fire in a movie theatre, but as the unhappy saga of “The Interview” all too clearly demonstrates, needlessly incendiary movies are not only not in good taste, but sometimes result in real-world violence.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014



(Japan Times)

“The Interview” may be a joke of a film, but the Sony hacking incident and escalating war of words between anti-Kim detractors and the pro-Kim hackers is deadly serious. Despite the predictable, petulant cries of “caving in” Sony finally found the gumption to say "no" to its own misguided and derelict pandering of violence, hatred and racism.

Is it worth beating the drums of war for an exercise in bad taste? What principles are at stake? Is it not about free speech?

The US is rightly proud of its tradition of free speech and Hollywood filmmaking. But to put a lame, zany ill-conceived comedy film on the frontline of a trumped-up battle in defense of Western values is a bit like betting the bank on Bozo the clown and refusing to back down. For one, it suggests the Hollywood mogul's Midas touch can do no wrong, when there's ample evidence of tone-deaf studio bungling and bad judgement. Sony's American  branch inadvertently echoed the kind of one-sided righteousness  invoked by defenders of the CIA’s indefensible torture record; admit no wrong, for if we do it, it cannot be all that bad.

Hollywood hardly holds the high moral ground on free speech issues either; it has a rich history of self-censorship, pandering to vested interests and playing to power. Sony Executive Amy Pascal is no exception; she vowed she would never work with Mel Gibson after his intemperate drunken outburst about Jews, which he later apologized for, yet her reputation now rests on her decision to green-light and promote a racist film that takes cheap shots at Asian characters.  

Free speech runs the gamut from the principles of the founding fathers and other lofty ideas all the way to hate speech, anti-Semitism and incitement of panic or crime, and America, with its penchant for political correctness, is not the bastion of free speech it pretends to be. What's more, as Sony has learned, America's obsession with violence on the screen, while couched in terms of artistic "freedom" is not without consequence, even if it's just a second-rate slacker comedy looking for quick bucks and cheap laughs.

The kill scene in Seth Rogan’s “The Interview,” in which an explosive projectile strikes the leader of North Korea in the head and creates a fiery mess is not only not art, but it constitutes a kind of hate speech which would be fiercely contested if the object of the on-screen killing were the standing leader of the US or an ally.

The Sony hacks are unprecedented, but it is ludicrous to characterize them as an act of war, as suggested by radio shock jock Howard Stern, shock politician Newt Gingrich and other assorted knee-jerk rightists spoiling for a fight. 

The financial damage to Sony is real, and mounting, and the hack raises vexing issues of how to balance privacy and journalist’s right to publish leaked documents and a host of other digital age conundrums that will be discussed for years to come. But for Aaron Sorkin to cry "treason" and squelch discussion of leaked material because it happens to be humiliating to him, or to argue that the hack is an act of war along the spurious lines that financial loss is equivalent to an act of terror is a good illustration of just how out of touch some of these Hollywood execs can be. If the Sony hack was an act of war because it involved monetary loss, one is left without words to describe the incomparably bigger shock that Wall Street inflicted on the world in 2008. Or "Shock and Awe" for that matter.

The anonymous hackers warned moviegoers away from the theaters, an ugly development by any reckoning. Nobody likes to be told what to do, but perhaps nowhere more so than in post-2001 America, where the received political wisdom suggests that the US way of life is entirely honorable and non-negotiable; Americans will continue to do what they please, and will do so with a vengeance, all the more so for being told not to. The despicable threat of violence might even boost the film’s popularity in a perverse way. Bring it on.

But therein lies the crux of the issue. Isn’t American society saturated with enough violence already? Has US foreign policy not tweaked enough foes and wreaked enough death and destruction abroad? Have the shoot first, ask questions later tactics of US domestic policing and the horrid schoolyard shootings and the violence of America’s vast prison archipelago become such an integral part of the national DNA that it is normal to relax and celebrate the season of light by scheduling a “feel-good” assassination comedy on Christmas Day? What was Amy Pascal thinking?

Morita Akio, the legendary head of Sony, who built a world-class company from scratch on principles of quality and prudence, thrift and innovation would be horrified to see his legacy at risk due to a bloated, inane stoner picture. Morita admired the United States and thought the US and Japan had a lot to teach each other, but he also pointed out that American executives were ridiculously overpaid and lacked an understanding of Asia. He stressed the need for Sony to build bridges with neighboring countries in Asia, an important part of Sony’s core electronics market.

The Sony head office in Japan understands this, which is why Seth Rogen’s snuff comedy never had a serious chance at theatrical distribution in the Japan market, or on the Asian mainland either. A film that depicts the killing of a living leader for the shock value of it is simply too rude and crude for a country like Japan which had no police shooting deaths in a year when the US had over 400.

The Pyongyang regime is unpopular with its neighbors, especially Tokyo, which has seen citizens kidnapped from Japan’s shores by its erratic and tyrannical neighbor, and even Beijing has been sufficiently annoyed by North Korea's bad behavior to look the other way when Chinese netizens made a  music mash-up making fun of a dancing Kim Jong-un. But a graphic cinematic kill crosses the line into stupid, gratuitous violence.

There’s no magic fix for Sony in the face of its own lousy decision-making, but this time but after extensive bungling Sony was right to say no. If its American branch chooses to release “Interview” at some future date it would be prudent, and congruent with the best of the Hollywood's creative tradition, to edit out the exploding head and work for laughs the old fashioned way, by earning them.

Japan Times

The author has worked in film and TV in China and Japan since 1986.