Occasionally these stories have a happy ending, as when Quentin Tarantino refused to sanitize “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” Generally speaking, though, the Communist Party gets its way. But James Tager, author of PEN America’s new report on China’s cultural power, noted recently in a podcast that Americans tend to get riled up about these stories for a bit and promptly forget about them. It’s long past time we stopped with this goldfish act. We should label movies made with Chinese investment and influenced by Chinese censorship so Americans know propaganda when they see it.
As Tager noted in our conversation and his report, censorship is more sophisticated than the state simply taking scissors to reels of film — or removing digital frames from massive files — once a movie has already been shot and edited. Massive efforts such as MGM’s decision to digitally transform the villains in the 2012 remake of “Red Dawn” into North Koreans rather than Chinese people are rare. It’s what never gets made in the first place — and the notions that are inserted into movies during preproduction — that are even more troubling.
“Over time, writers and creators don’t even conceive of ideas, stories, or characters that would flout the rules, because there is no point in doing so," Tager wrote. "The orthodoxies press down imperceptibly, and the parameters of the imagination are permanently circumscribed.”
As Tager explains, getting a movie made and released in Hollywood isn’t easy, even without taking foreign markets into account. But even before the pandemic left U.S. movie theaters in infinite limbo, Chinese audiences had become increasingly important to U.S. studios.
The Chinese government has a quota of foreign films that can be released every year, and the competition for those slots is so fierce that studios avoid any and all potential missteps for fear of losing out. A major studio movie such as “Red Corner,” Richard Gere’s 1997 thriller about a businessman framed for murder by the Communist Party, is unimaginable today, much less a movie that lionizes pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong or highlights the evils of China’s anti-Uighur concentration camps. No studio would dare risk losing its entire slate’s ability to get in front of 1.4 billion Chinese customers. It’d be commercial suicide.
This dynamic doesn’t just keep new ideas away from Chinese consumers. It has allowed an authoritarian nation-state to insert its own propaganda into American films.
Fenton spent years pioneering co-production efforts that partnered up Chinese and American firms to help studios get around the quota system and keep a larger share of the Chinese box office. But those agreements came with all sorts of extra requirements: Chinese cast members, shoots on Chinese locations and efforts to placate Chinese censors.
For “Looper” — about a hit man who travels back in time to stop the birth of a crime boss — Fenton and his team persuaded director Johnson to alter his script rather substantially, shifting the action from the United States and France to the United States and Shanghai. A number of scenes were shot specifically for a Chinese cut of the film. But the trickiest thing was working around a ban on time-travel plots in movies, which Chinese authorities say “disrespects history." In actuality, Chinese authorities fear the use of time travel as a way to comment upon current affairs. How did Fenton and Johnson avoid this pothole?
By flattering the Chinese, of course.
“They showcased a future China powerfully in the film,” Fenton said he told a film executive when trying to sell him on the idea of working with the Chinese. “It was music to the ears of the Politburo and a delight to the Communist Party municipal officials in Shanghai. … China was powerful and the center of the world in ‘Looper.’ ”
I rewatched “Looper” after reading this passage in Fenton’s book. It remains a solidly entertaining, visually stylish film that cribs some of the best stuff from “The Terminator,” “Back to the Future” and “Akira” while still managing to feel original.
Yet Johnson’s filmmaking talent and Jeff Daniels’s skill as an actor make the insertions even more insidious because they don’t stand out. When Abe, a crime boss from the future played by Daniels tells a young hitman, "I’m from the future: You should go to China,” the average viewer does not realize he’s being propagandized. He does not realize this line is a big win for the Chinese government, an effort to increase an authoritarian regime’s status at home and abroad.
We’re eight years closer to that future now. When Johnson has one of his characters extol the Chinese future, he probably didn’t imagine he’d be extolling a future of violent repression and concentration camps for religious minorities. But that’s the danger that comes with shilling for an autocracy.
Fenton writes that he is acting in the best interests of both countries as a sort of cultural ambassador, attempting to stave off a dangerous cold war. He gives the game away in the epilogue, though, when he acknowledges the billions of dollars to be made by playing the game by China’s rules. No wonder cultural figures such as NBA star and would-be movie mogul LeBron James shut up and dribble as atrocities continue to take place in China, even as they speak out about politics in the United States. The calculations are different. The financial rewards are the same.
More chilling and cynical is a point Fenton makes a little later: “Even worse, the price of crossing the culture gap in the wrong direction can be catastrophic — think Islamist gunmen killing editors of Charlie Hebdo, or the riots following a Danish cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. Navigating these divides requires careful consideration and a guide.”
I underlined this passage in his book and, in anger, added an expletive. It demonstrates what Fenton and those who argue for greater “openness” with China and similar regimes actually are willing to tolerate in exchange for the money they make there. They’ll take censorship. They want artists to avoid criticizing certain groups or powerful nations. They’re willing to treat murderous violence and economic warfare as a business opportunity
Most important, though, those artists are costing considerate folks like Fenton and the corporations he works for “billions.” If these executives are willing to sell out the arts and our artists to placate foreign censors, little can be done about it. During our chat, Tager suggested it might be time to counteract the goldfish effect by attaching a permanent label to the beginning of any film that accepts Chinese investment — and, thus, Chinese censorship — to serve as a warning of sorts. The Motion Picture Association already has a mechanism in place to carry such warnings: Virtually every film released in theaters comes with an MPA rating, one that informs audiences of evils such as “sexual content” and “historical smoking.”
Would it be too much trouble to give American audiences a heads-up that their entertainment is doubling as Chinese agitprop?
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