“May you live in interesting times.”
So goes the famous Chinese saying. And the times couldn’t be more interesting for “The Great Wall” — the biggest, most expensive movie ever made in China — arriving in American theaters at a point when U.S.-China relations could scarcely be more consequential, especially when it comes to movies.
A bit of history: For the past several years, Hollywood and China have been engaged in a wary dance that could be both lucrative or disastrous, depending on what’s at stake. As the Chinese investment sector and middle class have grown, the American film industry has eagerly courted both — as a source of financing, and as a movie-hungry market. With an average growth in box office of 35 percent a year since 2011 — compared with a relatively flat performance in the United States — China has become the new holy grail in putting rear ends in seats.
And there are plenty of seats to be had: China is now building around 26 screens a day to accommodate burgeoning demand in that country, whose population hovers around 1.3 billion. Although the state much prefers indigenous movies — allowing for tighter control of stories, images and social messages — the biggest demand is for mainstream Hollywood blockbusters. After years of severely limiting access to American product, in 2012 China signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States — which had objected to unfair trade practices — agreeing to allow at least 34 non-Chinese movies into the country every year, and allowing their home studios to keep 25 percent of the box office receipts.
The Chinese film industry, owned and controlled by the state, has also bolstered its domestic means of production, with an eye toward making the kinds of slick spectacles it can export to the rest of the world. U.S.-China co-productions are increasingly the order of the day, proving advantageous to Hollywood because they aren’t subject to the 34-movie quota, and to China, which is eager to up its game vis-a-vis production values, prestige and “soft power” relevance.
So far, the relationship has produced some hits and a few notable misses, especially when it comes to the American creative class navigating Chinese state censors who oversee which movies get into the country. No one who wants a piece of the world’s largest market would be stupid enough to alienate their audience by making the villain Chinese; but while few mourn the passing of “yellow peril” stereotypes or equally offensive ethnic cliches, attempts to cater to the Chinese market can veer toward pandering. Movies from “X-Men: Days of Future Past” to “Gravity” to “Iron Man 3” have tweaked content and casting to appeal to Chinese audiences. The science fiction film “Looper” changed an entire plot line to take place in Shanghai when filmmaker Rian Johnson received Chinese funding.
In the case of “Looper,” the Chinese locations and characters wound up looking unforced and organic, even forward-looking. But, in an effort to placate cultural sensitivities, filmmakers have been willing to make all manner of changes to their work, whether it means removing scenes of laundry air-drying on a Shanghai street from “Mission: Impossible III” (too poor-looking) or excising a stunt when James Bond kills a Chinese security guard in “Skyfall” (too offensive). Even more sobering is the fact that films dealing with such subjects as homosexuality, a free press and democratic dissent — think “Brokeback Mountain,” “Spotlight” and “Selma” — never make it past square one with Chinese censors.
As China’s most high-profile domestic production, made in tandem with an American company (Legendary Pictures) and a huge American movie star (Matt Damon), “The Great Wall” has an enormous amount riding on it, financially and symbolically, in terms of China’s global reputation as a cultural player. Two 2016 co-productions offer stark illustrations of what’s at stake: While “Kung Fu Panda 3” was a huge hit, “Warcraft” — which underwent tinkering to make it China-friendly — was a bomb.
Of course, “Warcraft” did fine in China, as has “The Great Wall.” But, as an action-fantasy re-tread with no story to speak of and wooden lead performances, it’s not likely to do particularly strong business in the United States, which will once again put China on the back foot, in terms of proving its cultural throw-weight. (Early concerns about Damon playing a “white savior” in the film turn out to be unfounded: His character, a mercenary soldier, is heroic, but also clearly a foil for the superior principles and courage of his Chinese allies.)
And this is where interesting times come into play. The 2012 memorandum, signed under the auspices of the World Trade Organization, is up for mandatory review this year, at a time when the new U.S. president has sent some mixed signals regarding his China policy. (The renegotiation is intended to further open the Chinese market and improve financial terms for U.S. studios.)
In something of a setback, China’s reliably surging box office actually experienced a dip in growth last year, which most observers attributed to a lack of quality movies. If “The Great Wall” is any indication, that country still needs American expertise when it comes to luring people into all theaters, while American filmmakers must maintain a delicate balance between artistic freedom and the Chinese investment and box office revenue they need to survive. Add the backdrop of Trumpian uncertainty, and you have a reminder of why “may you live in interesting times” isn’t considered a blessing, but a curse.