Actor Alessandro Nivola plays a photographer who calls it in from Tiananmen Square for Channel Four in "Chimerica"

Split screen effects: making a thriller out of unsettling history

by Philip J Cunningham

“Chimerica” tells the story of an American journalist haunted by the memory of Tiananmen Square in 1989. The newly-released TV drama, first written for the stage by Lucy Kirkwood, bristles with provocative writing, even when inaccurate, and the acting is interesting, even when not true. Kirkwood’s adaptation for film not only undergoes the expansive transformation that takes place when a show moves from the proscenium to the screen, but updates itself politically in the wake of the rise of Trump and demagoguery on both sides of the Atlantic.

No longer a triumphalist work that pits barbaric China against the democracy-loving modern West, the new version is riddled with doubts about both sides. This much is good, but what it gains in irony and nuance, it risks losing in focus. The skullduggery and scheming between China and America is timely but not informed; the writer is quick to exploit hot topics, but it’s all headlines and no depth. In contrast, the exploration of newsroom dynamics and fake news in the four-part series is far better executed. Produced by Britain’s ITV, the hybrid product makes for good television, even if it’s not good history.

The story starts out at Tiananmen Square on the verge of a bloody crackdown and rockets the viewer back and forth to the year of the Trump-Clinton presidential race of 2016 with the dizzying acceleration of a Tesla going from zero to seventy. The safety harness that holds the implausible plot together is the dramatic focus on the photographer, ably, and amiably, played by Alessandro Nivola. His obsessive quest to find the tank man does not shed new light on the actual man in front of the tank but offers an audience-pleasing dramatic twist that invites us to think about the famous photo differently. What was in the bags he carried? What did he say to the soldiers inside the tank?
"Chimerica" speculates about the emotional lead-up to the world-famous shot

The acting is good; the earnest photographer is tested by his perky publicist friend (Sophie Okonedo) and a hard-as-nails older woman who mentors him (Cherry Jones) among other well-drawn characters. The Chinese friend of the photographer (Terry Chen) is a comforting and genial presence when speaking English. One aspect of the production that did not take well to the transition from stage to screen was the casting of secondary characters who speak Chinese to one another. The Chinese dialogue is stilted and weak; at best, it sounds like Mandarin 101, where everyone speaks super slow so as to be understood.

It may not make much of a difference to the average Anglo viewer, but to anyone with an ear for the language, let alone a native speaker, people Beijing have a distinct way of talking, and the way they talk is the national standard. It’s hard enough for Cantonese speakers from Hong Kong to get it right, never mind second and third generation British Chinese from the diaspora.

The set decoration tends to visual cliché and Chinatown bric-a-brac, but the insertion of archival footage from the real deal brings the Beijing scenes alive, especially as the crowd goes wild. Liberally lifting footage from British TV news coverage, a portion of which I contributed to working with a BBC crew on the Square on the night of the crackdown, gives the otherwise stagey drama a realistic veneer. Archival footage provides a background to the staged drama in way that is less than seamless but convincing enough for short takes. 

archival footage from 6/4
matching staged footage

"Chimerica" re-stages scene with fake tank
Footage of real tank is included in montage

It was with an unexpected sense of wonder that I watched contemporary actors walk onto the ersatz Tiananmen Square of "Chimerica." The knitting of the real and unreal was inviting enough to make me want to suspend disbelief. That such a re-enactment could win the eye of a jaded observer attests to the success of the method; it manages to convey a sense of what it was like to be in one little corner of a very big square.

There was even a scene of the lead actor being given a popsicle by a sympathetic activist, cooling off on a hot day in a friendly crowd with the same whimsical joy I experienced after a day of marching, as detailed in my book, "Tiananmen Moon."

The author cooling off at Tiananmen (1989)
A similar scene from "Chimerica" (2019)

Outdoor scenes set in China were mostly achieved with computer magic that knitted archival and dramatic footage. Most indoor scenes and some back alley scenes were filmed in Bulgaria, a far cry geographically, but not a totally uninspired choice since the dreary housing blocks where much of the ancillary action takes place reek of Soviet-style shabbiness and neglect. 

When one considers the daunting cost and the passage of time, let alone the unlikelihood of getting official permission from the same Beijing authorities who have assiduously swept the memory of Tiananmen 1989 under the rug for three decades, any re-staging of the epochal event is going to be grounded in compromise and the art of the possible.

The bar to get the visuals right remains unusually high, though, because Tiananmen Square is one of the most-photographed places in the world, and there are numerous documentaries on the 1989 uprising and crackdown. I contributed footage and photos to a number of them, and while the narrative focus varies and the stentorian voiced-over conclusions differ, there is just so much video footage to go around, and important parts of the story remain untold.

In 1990, with images and memories of the exuberant 1989 student outburst fresh in my mind, I worked with writer Ed Hume on a screenplay called “Tiananmen Square.” Optioned by HBO, it languished in development purgatory for reasons both understandable and inexcusable. In those pre-CGI days, there was no easy way to render Tiananmen Square in a believable way. Feelers were put out to South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan for possible location shoots and crowd scenes, but most officials, then as now, were loath to take the chance of offending Beijing. Less convincingly, HBO argued that the film had “too many Chinese” in it to be profitable. The option played out and the film was never made, though HBO offered me the consolation prize of visiting the Moscow set where “Stalin” was being filmed in its stead, starring Robert Duvall and lots of white people.

The exciting thing about seeing the event get dramatic treatment, however belatedly, is that it opens up a whole other world of possibility, to capture things that weren’t caught on camera, to show unknown nuances of a historic turning point and the human condition in its full potential.

Due to the obsessive focus on the man in front of the tank, "Chimerica" only makes baby steps in that direction. But it’s a breakthrough, of sorts, and deserves recognition as such, since the TV and film business is so eager to please China these days that the topic is rarely breached.

A recent example of the big media chill is CBS, which just last week censored a drama that takes China to task for censorship among other things. A full 90 seconds of the “Good Fight” were cut from the episode broadcast during the first week of May this year. The allegedly offensive content, a gag song that touched on Tiananmen, among other taboo topics, was not televised. Rather than give "offense," which presumably could influence the CBS bottom line in the huge China market, CBS brass insisted on cutting a minute-and-a-half of an American drama for American viewers in America. It was replaced with an Orwellian message:

                                    This is what self-censorship looks like.

Viewers initially thought “CBS HAS CENSORED THIS CONTENT” was a joke, a gag, a wry meta-message, a scripted part of the show, but it was not.

British television has suffered its share of censorship—news touching on the IRA, MI5 or MI6 was routinely scrubbed or scrapped for years--but at least ITV has shown some gumption by airing a show critical of both the US and China at a time when others duck for cover and run from the topic. "Chimerica" throws down the gauntlet and raises the hope that other thoughtful, humane and nuanced interpretations of the history that was made at Tiananmen will follow.