Thursday, May 5, 2016

HOLLYWOOD'S SOFT POWER IS HARD TO COPY

                                                                                                                                                                                     

















 







(First published in China-US Focus, January 19, 2016)



By PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

At first glance, China’s latest Hollywood deal, Wanda Group’s

purchase of Legendary Entertainment, is a hardware-software 

match made in box-office heaven. The news that Wang Jianlin,

China’s richest man, is snapping up a Hollywood blockbuster 

production house is at once breathtaking and utterly 

predictable. It compliments a theatrical empire that includes 
thousands of screens on both sides of the Pacific and meshes 
nicely with plans for the world’s biggest studio.
The acquisition of Legendary can be understood as a leavening 
agent in Wang Jianlin’s quixotic quest to conjure up an instant, 
prefab Hollywood on the rocky shores of Shandong Province.
For such a large-scale studio to justify its existence, it needs 
heaps of creative talent and lots of know-how, especially in the 
art of cranking out action films that play well across territories. 
Thomas Tull’s Legendary has a decent track record in this 
genre, having produced a slate of crowd-pleasing action films—
mostly with formulaic plots involving superheroes, rogue robots, 
and reptilian monsters—that pander to mass market tastes in 
China and abroad.
Recent Legendary releases such as Godzilla and Pacific Rim 
have achieved decent Asian box office, but Angelina Jolie’s 
"Unbroken" stalled for a year, not in China, but in Japan 
due to political resistance about its recounting of history. 
It's lackluster release was delayed until February, a potent 
reminder that market sensitivities differ across borders and 
time.
Wang Jianlin controls vast holdings in theaters and 
cinemaplexes, not just in China, but in the USA as well, where 
Wanda’s purchase of AMC added another 2000 screens in one 
fell swoop. Adding a sprinkle of Hollywood pixy dust to 
Wanda’s seething cauldron of real estate greed and ambition 
seems inspired enough; what could possibly go wrong?
It begs the question--Can a “Hollywood East” in Shandong be 
conjured up and brought into existence through mergers and 
moneymen alone?
China’s phenomenal growth in recent years reflects, at least in 
part, a willingness to think big, to tread where others dare not 
tread, to copy, co-opt, and take big chances.
Take China’s space program for example. Initially dismissed by 
Western commentators, it is moving forward with scientific 
achievement at a time when NASA, faced with funding cuts and 
changing priorities, lacks the means to send men into space 
without a boost from the Russians. Space flight requires bold 
thinking, human risk and tons of cash, but it has a lyrical 
appeal as well, as a continuation of the heroic project pioneered 
by Americans and Russians “for all mankind.”
A bit more down to earth, China built a high-speed rail system 
that was viewed skeptically at first, only to become the largest 
comprehensive high-speed rail network on the planet and the 
envy of many a nation.
The question remains, can a cultural efflorescence such as 
cinematic achievement be programmed and brought to fruition 
like an industrial-strength infrastructure project?
China President Xi Jinping has stated that China needs to do a 
better job of presenting itself to the world. Along comes Wang 
Jianlin, heeding the call, with a grandiose plan to make China 
a major film power by fiat and deep-pocketed investment.
Problem is, what works for rockets and trains may not work for
movies.
Creative success is quirky, subject to shifting tastes and 
capricious audience receptivity. More fundamentally, it is 
rooted in the exercise of free expression.
Film is a fickle business. It is hard to think of a moneymaking 
realm where money is more at risk. Grounded in the nuances 
of human nature and human spirit, art is hard to harness and 
quantify. Cold cash cannot begin to pin the creative genie down.
Hollywood success reflects a century of organic entrepreneurial 
growth, a series of resourceful hits and misses, bouts of film 
code censorship  and outpouring of outright titillation, tireless 
trial and error, constant experimentation and unplanned, 
random growth. It was born of a democratic substrate in which 
directors had the freedom to be foolish, to be irreverent, and to
be wrong—and often all three.
To take on Hollywood—and to keep China’s booming box office
revenue in Chinese coffers—Wang Jianlin seeks vertical 
integration; combining control of software and hardware, 
production facilities and distribution venues. It’s natural that 
men of such ambition should be drawn to the prestige-making 
magic of film. But those who think that industrial muscle alone 
will suffice to punch out patriotic product that people want to 
see will be in for a let-down.
The marriage of Wanda and Legendary may indeed boost the 
fortunes of both companies, especially if investor excitement 
reaches the threshold of a feverish stock listing in Hong Kong 
or Shenzhen. Legendary has been keen on the China market for 
quite some time now, its ambitions best expressed in the 
long-delayed but evocatively titled film being produced by its 
China spin-off production arm, Legendary East.
“The Great Wall” helmed by the iconic Zhang Yimou is due for 
release later this year. It’s not immediately clear how an action 
picture starring America’s Matt Damon going to battle with 
computer-generated dragons against the backdrop of a mock 
Great Wall will contribute to boosting contemporary China’s 
standing in the world, but the mechanics and muscle behind 
the flick will ensure massive publicity and a wide in opening 
in Wanda theatres everywhere.
Exhibiting films is both simple and utterly opaque. Theatres 
thrive selling tickets and popcorn, but what makes people want 
to go to a movie?
The film business is fickle and inconstant but crudely democratic. 
Moviegoers vote with their feet. If people like a film, it “has legs
but if it’s a bore, it goes nowhere. Aggressive advertising, limits 
on competition, control of release dates and monopolization of 
distribution venues can game the system to some extent, but at 
the end of the day filmgoers like what they like. It’s a top-down 
business subversively governed from the bottom up.
Hollywood is so ruthless in rewarding success and punishing 
failure that even the best directors are only as good as their 
last film. Today’s toast-of-the-town is only a flop away from 
losing all cachet.
Theatre ownership is certainly no guarantee of box office 
success and quotas are no guarantee of quality. Yet Wang 
Jianlin is a savvy businessman, so it would be premature to 
suggest that he has bitten off a bit more than he can chew. 
Inasmuch as the Wanda empire of screens and its vast 
purpose-built studio dominion are basically real estate 
ventures, the core business may be economically viable 
but the creative juice that animates all good art can't be 
turned on and off like a spigot.
It is the rare film, such as Star Wars, or Titanic or Avatar that 
soars in every available market. But it is also worth noting 
that the above films—currently the three best selling films of all
time—reflect the indelible creative stamp of stubborn, rugged 
individualists. George Lucas and James Cameron have long 
been Hollywood rebels with a cause, possessed of 
considerable pluck and and lucky beyond belief. The esteemed 
directors paradoxically won over the market by rejecting 
decisions hammered out by market research committees and 
instead stubbornly insisted on clinging to unique whimsical 
visions.
Such films are the box-office standards to beat, their success 
a given, but hard to emulate. If Wanda can crack the code and 
produce mass-market films worthy of solitary genius, China 
would indeed gain prestige and be a force to be reckoned with 
in global cinema.
Yet even Hollywood, for all its rich history, has not figured out 
how to produce a successful movie on command. No one really 
knows how a film will do until the moment the theatre lights 
first dim, and anyone who tells you otherwise is in the PR 
department.


Jan 19, 2016

Sunday, May 1, 2016

SUTHEP SUPPUTRANONT: A THAI LIFE WITH A CHINESE ACCENT


Suthep Supputranont



A Conversation with Suthep Supputranont, legendary journalist and Sino-Thai grassroots ambassador

by Philip J Cunningham

“I’m afraid my Thai is not clear”, the gentle and gentlemanly 79-year-old journalist says with a trademark mix of self-deprecating humor and ruthless honesty. Suthep Supputranont’s Thai is fluent and full of fine phrases by any reckoning, but it bears a slight accent due to the fact that his immigrant parents spoke Chinese at home. Suthep was the first in his family to be born in Thailand. He grew up in rural Chachoengsao Province, a flat, fertile fruit-growing area crisscrossed by canals dug by an earlier generation of Chinese immigrants. Suthep recalls being fascinated by the world outside of his family’s cloistered rural compound as a boy, but his parents insisted he get a Chinese language education. Perhaps it is a mark of filial piety that he still likes to go by his Chinese name, Lin Hong.

Suthep, aka Lin Hong explains he didn’t really speak Thai till he was ten, because his strict mother forbade the use of Thai in their isolated rural compound and he attended Chinese school. Self-conscious about the traces of accent 70 years later. Lin Hong can thank Japan, indirectly, for the fact that he speaks Thai at all. He was groomed for life in China but ended up in Thailand due to the vicissitudes of war, ultimately participating in the establishment of relations between the two countries and serving as a grassroots ambassador and resourceful newsman.

Lin Hong’s mother was due to give birth at the family home in Guangdong Province in south China when a skirmish broke out between Japanese and Chinese troops on the outskirts of Beijing, an event known to historians as the “Marco Polo Bridge Incident.” Correctly anticipating the onset of war as Japan poised for a full-scale invasion, Lin’s mother hurriedly left China by boat for Thailand where he was born within days of arrival, on July 22, 1937.  

Four years later, when Lin Hong was of school age, his mother made arrangements to send him to Hong Kong for a Chinese education. Japanese air strikes against Pearl Harbor and the Japanese takeover of Hong Kong in 1942 put an end to such plans. “More than once, history intervened in a way that put me in Thailand,” Suthep says with a wistful smile. “It is my fate.”


Some people are born journalists and Lin Hong is one such person. He got a foretaste for the joys and trials of the trade at a young age, when he created his own “newspaper” as a grade school student. He showed a desire to write, and perhaps impress his friends but his informal publication got him in trouble, something all driven journalists experience sooner or later. He was kicked out of his Christian-affiliated Chaoguang primary school on account of a satirical piece he wrote about Jesus, but undeterred, he doubled-down and continued to write. He started submitting pieces to the local Chinese language press and doing Chinese subtitles for Hollywood films.

“I loved the classic films--Greta Garbo, Gregory Peck, and I liked Anthony Quinn. To tell the truth, I had trouble understanding what they were saying, but I usually got the main idea and that’s what I put in the subtitles.” Lin Hong continued his education piecemeal in Bangkok at various adult education programs near Wat Suthat. He excelled in his studies and entered the prestigious Thammasat University, but was offered a full-time job before beginning his third year and he left school to work full time.

Six decades of journalism in Thailand

Lin’s first employer, the Bangkok-based Chinese language Guanghua Daily, was closed down by the anti-communist strongman Sarit Thanarat, but that couldn’t stop the ink flowing from his pen so he focused on business journalism instead, writing for the Huashang Weekly. Sarit was replaced in a coup by Thanom Kittikachorn, another pro-US general infused with the stated mission to stop communism in Thailand. To this purpose, Thanom’s deputy Praphat Charusathien, who Lin describes as “the real power in the government” at the time, made an intriguing offer. Would Lin be interested in running a left-wing pro-communist newspaper? The paper didn’t have to make money--it was to be secretly bankrolled by the government. The ruse was presumably designed to better keep watch on local communist activity, and after some arm-twisting, Lin Hong accepted. But within a year he quit the Dongnan Daily, unable to fully explain what was going on because of the secret backing. “The pressure was incredible, because the all-powerful deputy Prime Minister Praphat insisted on the pretence that I was doing it entirely on my own. It was dangerous. The communists hated me, so did the anti-communists.”

Although Lin had been receptive to communist ideology in his youth (several of his Chinese school teachers were clandestine communists) it is characteristic of his stubborn individualism that he got kicked out of his underground Marxist Study Group in the mid 1950’s for criticizing Mao’s Anti-Rightist campaign in China. Ironically he attributes his shift away from communism to be based on a regular reading of the People’s Daily, where the party line proved to be deceptive, dishonest and untruthful. Another influence that moved him away from the left was his friendship with a wise and avuncular Chinese information officer who worked for the British embassy in Bangkok.

The war in Vietnam gave Lin a chance to get back into mainstream journalism, and he went to Saigon, writing for Taiwanese newspaper “Chunghua Jibao.”  His collegial relationship with the crew of Western journalists who gathered at the Majestic Hotel in war-wreaked Saigon was an eye opener. He was called a “running dog” by the Vietnamese leftists, but it was no laughing matter; five of his journalistic colleagues were killed in the war. Gaining entry into the world of junket journalism under the aegis of US General Westmoreland, Lin was invited to travel freely with the Western press corps, including side trips to Taiwan, Japan and Singapore. In Taiwan he met Chiang Kai-shek, a meeting he describes as being as awkward as it was unexpected, for the taciturn Chiang was flanked by bodyguards with who kept their guns pointed at him during the entire conversation.

Suthep travelling by Thai Air Force plane

Lin later fell afoul of the legendary Thai Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman while the Vietnam War raged on for having the temerity to question government policy at a press conference. He confronted Thanat, asking if sending Thai soldiers to fight in Vietnam in support of the US was not giving fodder to the Thai communists to popularize their cause. He said the question cost him dearly as Thanat had him “blacklisted for four years.” Long after he had broken with communism, he came under suspicion of being communist.

After Vietnam, he covered Thai domestic politics, including numerous coups.  “October 14 was the most scary” but he again watched in horror from sidelines as police attacked students at Thammasat three years later, October 6, 1976. It shocked him to learn that a policeman he knew and had been friendly with was directly involved in massacre, and outraged by the unnecessary violence, he never spoke to him again. Today, his view is slightly more philosophical. “Policemen have the worst job and they often end up being the worst kind of people. They carry a gun around and it gets to them. Look at what is happening in the US.”

He said the Thai Communist Party never had a base in Bangkok and support for the Thai guerillas was fragmented by location, with Chinese influence strongest along the borders of Burma and Cambodia, whereas Vietnamese influence was strongest near Laos.

As the Vietnam War came to a close, Thailand turned its attention to China. Lin’s intimate knowledge of things Chinese gave him a chance to advise the Thai government and he accompanied prime minister Kukrit Pramoj on the historic trip to Beijing establishing relations in 1975. Since then, he has become a fixture on the Bangkok-Beijing circuit with some 300 trips to China, usually in tyhe company of Thai businessmen and politicians to China.

Shuttling back and forth to China, Lin has met a number of leaders including Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai, but he confesses he was less-than-impressed by most of China’s top politicians--even the legendarily diplomatic Zhou Enlai struck him as being a poor leader. He cites Zhou’s direction of bloody reprisals in Shanghai in the early days of the communist party that included killing of entire families, the subsequent betrayal of Zhang Wentian in favor of the duplicitous Mao Zedong at Zunyi, and over-eager capitulation to Mao thereafter as telling moments in Zhou’s career. Thus he feels it incumbent to take Zhou Enlai off the high pedestal of respect that he is usually accorded by those unfamiliar with his back story.  He says Deng Xiaoping, who he also met in the flesh, was tough, coarse, and not at all impressive.

Grudgingly, he admits to holding respect for just  “one and a half” Chinese leaders. He accords full respect to the long-embattled Hu Yaobang, and half respect for the equivocating but well-meaning Zhao Ziyang.

In his view, the Beijing government under Hu Jintao initially had high hopes for Thaksin, having pegged him as a Chinese Thai interested in doing business, but relations soured some time later.

Lin relates that he has gotten to know the Chinese diplomatic missions to Thailand well, including a string of ambassadors and political officers. He describes the Chinese mission as “generally talented but hemmed in by small size of mission, some 70 people on tiny compound compared to US with three sprawling plots and mission of some 2000.”  

The grassroots diplomat adds that he once got in a heated argument with a PRC ambassador who called him to embassy to upbraid him for the published observation Taiwan was for practical purposes, an independent country. In his newspaper he wrote that Taiwan might indeed one day be part of China, but it was plain to see it wasn’t at the moment--after all it had its own elections, defense and postal service. The Chinese ambassador was furious.  “We want to be your friend,” he reprimanded Lin. “But not if you write things like that.” Lin felt this was a threat and reported it to diplomat’s superiors, saying “the diplomat had no business telling Thais what to think in their own country.” The complaint got lost somewhere in the bureaucratic records of the embassy, and the next time he saw the ambassador, he ignored him.   

Lin Hong’s favorite Thai political figure is Pridi Phanomyong, the French-educated founder of Thammasat University and a former prime minister who was forced into exile at the outset of the Cold War in part for his leftist leanings. Pridi settled in China for over a decade but moved to France to avoid the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping, also a victim of ravaging Red Guards, had studied in France the same time as Pridi, but Lin sees the two men as essentially different. Unlike the young Deng who spent his entire time abroad devoted to Chinese political intrigue, “Pridi actually studied when he was in France and came to appreciate the country.”

When asked to rate Thai prime ministers he’s known, Lin says “Anan Panyarachun was the best and Thaksin Shinawatra was the worst.”  He says Anan was serious about being a public servant; in contrast he felt Thaksin was in the political ring to amass power and money. “He is a policeman and he uses the police culture method. He systematized corruption on a national scale and turned state enterprises into sources of vast personal profit. He reneged on promises and was brutal with his opponents, especially in the south.”

He puts Thaksin was in the same class of greedy rulers as Marcos of the Philippines and Suharto of Indonesia.

“But one thing I can say for Thaksin, he has a good memory.” As Prime Minister, Thaksin made a much publicized visit to rural Sisaket in the northeast. At the time Lin Hong was consulted for advice. He suggested a slogan in colloquial Chinese to the effect that “a failure in agriculture causes a hundred businesses to tumble.” Thaksin used the formulation, in Thai, when he addressed his audience in Sisaket.

The next time Lin Hong and Thaksin met, many months later, Thaksin greeted him warmly. Although Thaksin is not a Chinese speaker, he was able to repeat the exact slogan first offered by Lin in dialect, saying “jek long bai baet shiang.”

Looking at the present, Lin considers Thaksin to have been effectively sidelined by the Thai military. Given the military nature of current rule, he expects things to heat up this April/May, due to military reshuffling and a cascade of unrelated events stressing the self-appointed leadership such as Buddhist tensions, the Supreme Patriarch controversy, constitution drafting, etc. He notes in passing that although Thaksin was giving speeches abroad and talking politics again, he remains essentially powerless as long as he is outside the country, though it is not beyond his ken to make trouble.

Lin is cautiously optimistic about the future. He regards Thailand as being fortunate in the sense that it has frequent skirmishes but few big battles. Indeed looking back on the sixty years of reporting politics, Thailand strikes him as being the best off of all its neighbors, all of which have been bloodied by war, revolution and extremely oppressive regimes. He still writes and publishes, in addition to consulting work with bankers and businessmen. A man with a nose for news, and always on the go, he is a worthy model for a new generation of journalists.