Culturally Sensitive Hollywood Doesn’t Want to Hurt the Feelings of the Chinese People

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Today’s China Daily contains an article gushing about how much Hollywood wants to please Chinese moviegoers. I’m not so sure about that.

The article starts off as a very straightforward piece about Hollywood studios coming to China, a topic that has been flogged to death in the past few months:

Not too long ago, Western movie audiences’ idea of a Chinese character was Fu Manchu — an evil mastermind who plotted to take over the world in the 1969 film The Castle of Fu Manchu.

But eight decades later, Hollywood and the silver screens of the West are acknowledging the growing importance of the film market in a country that is also rising in influence on the global stage.

Fair enough, and certainly accurate. The China film market is growing rapidly, and Hollywood is lusting after a new market to exploit. Been there, done that. After reading that bit, I was ready to move on to more exciting fare from my Inbox. But then this passage caught my eye:

But the Western film industry is now aware that “there’s this sort of virgin territory in China, millions of people could be exposed to the Hollywood product. So they can’t really denigrate or demean people using those old stereotypes.

“Hollywood is being very careful about how Chinese people are portrayed because they don’t want to lose a potential audience”, Jurkiewicz said.

Guy Aoki, founding president of Media Action Network for Asian Americans, an organization that monitors how Asian Americans are portrayed in US movies, TV and the media, said movie roles are actually being altered to avoid provoking or angering Chinese audiences.

OK, allow me to pause for a second while I cough and mutter “bullshit” under my breath. I’m sure that Hollywood considers itself culturally sensitive, but let’s get real. Hollywood is conservative, boring, and loves to exploit stereotypical roles, usually decades after audiences no longer respond favorably to them. If they changed the formula too often, the Script-O-Matic 3000 Screenwriterbot would throw a piston or something.

American television is no better. In the past fifty years, TV has made such incredible “progress” with Asian characters that we’ve merely put John Cho is all those “Generic Asian” roles that used to go to stalwarts Soon Teck Oh and Mako back in the old days. Impressive! (Female actors don’t count. There’s always room for a hot Asian chick in a supporting role.)

Is China truly “virgin territory” for Hollywood? Of course it isn’t. I’ve been watching Hollywood movies in China since 1998, and the big issue back then, as it is now, has nothing to do with introducing moviegoers to what Hollywood has to offer. No, it’s all about access to the market.

Did James Cameron have to put Asian characters on the Titanic to make it palatable in the Middle Kingdom? I don’t recall this scene:

First Mate: Captain, I think we’ve hit an iceberg!

Captain: 哎呀! Were you drinking baijiu on duty again?

First Mate: 对不起. I have lost face in the eyes of my coworkers.

Perhaps I’m not giving Cameron enough credit. He could have done it in a more subtle fashion, like he did with Avatar, which was a huge success here because of scenes like this:

Jake: Holy crap! My body is huge and blue, and I’m hung like a mule. This is awesome!

Dr. Augustine: Calm the fuck down, Jake. It’s not like you look Chinese. Big and blue is merely an acceptable second choice.

The point is that Hollywood does just fine, thank you, with the crap it turns out already. While it is moving into more locally produced scripts that have China settings and characters, the big money remains with securing a quota slot for the next CGI-heavy actiongasm. It’s just business, and Hollywood’s strategy seems obvious. If you’re not convinced about what’s really going on, read up on foreign co-productions here.

The China Daily article uses the example of the cinemabortion called Red Dawn, whose China-invades-U.S. storyline was changed midflight to the even more laughable North-Korea-invades-U.S. And no, the movie was not intended to be a sketch comedy.

In June 2010, release of Red Dawn was delayed because of financial difficulties and amid growing controversy in China after excerpts of the script were leaked onto the Internet. Chinese media sharply criticized the film, with headlines such as “US reshoots Cold War movie to demonize China”.

Did they really change Red Dawn because they were worried about hurting the feelings of the Chinese people? Ha! (Shit, I just got Diet Coke up my nose laughing so hard.)

Hollywood could give a shit about angering or provoking Chinese audiences. They certainly don’t care about pissing off American audiences, so why should they care about folks over here? Hell, just making a movie like Red Dawn is a slap in the face of everything humanity holds dear.

They changed “China” to “DPRK” in the script because they were told that there was no freaking way they would get the China bashing version imported and distributed here. They weren’t kissing the ass of Chinese moviegoers, but the rep at China Film Group who told them that the original story had to go. (Do they really think they can now distribute that drek here? That seems wildly optimistic.)

Hollywood. Being culturally sensitive. The same guys that brought us Bagger Vance, Long Duk Dong, and are developing a Lone Ranger nostalgiapic with Johnny Depp as Tonto?

Let’s keep it real.

6 responses on “Culturally Sensitive Hollywood Doesn’t Want to Hurt the Feelings of the Chinese People

  1. Courtney

    I think your analysis is right on. I think the reflection of Asian cultures is particularly bad on American TV – not sure if it’s a quicker timeframe they are writing the scripts in, or less budget, but it always seems references are always pan-Asian rather than to a specific ethnicity, or if they do throw in some Chinese language their pronunciation is horrible. Even on commercials it’s rare to here good Chinese. I’m surprised Hollywood is so delusional to think they’re getting it absolutely right.

    I just did a post on my blog Chinaful about another issue in Chinese film industry, censorship.

  2. Don't forget Danny Woodcock out of the backfield

    The fact that “Red Dawn” didn’t change the enemy from China to North Korea until post-production, and that they filmed the whole movie with China as the bad guy, demonstrates Hollywood decision making at its finest.

    1. KSChin

      It was a terrible movie the first time, I can only imagine its equally bad the second time round. I cringed and empathized with the Russian audience the first time. The script was so incredibly bad. The dialogue so corny and in the end, the enemy were incredibly hopeless. I squirmed through the entire movie. Guess could not believe how bad it could be right to the end.

      So I can guess the 2nd version would be also incredibly stereotyped whether it DPRK or China.

      Makes me wonder what kind of scriptwriters there are in Hollywood. Did they pound it out of a windowless room without even Google access?