18 August 2012

On censorship, video games and cultural soft power

I am very ambivalent on the subject of censorship. I am certainly not an extremist either way: I believe Germany’s laws banning Holocaust denial and Nazism are justified, as are the similar laws in Austria and France, given the unique problems each of them has faced with these ideologies; and I also feel that commonsense limitations on free speech ought to be imposed when the safety of innocents is compromised (as in the WikiLeaks affaire). At the same time, though, I do need to make it clear that I think SARFT (China’s ministry in charge of broadcast media and films) completely sucks at what they do. If your country is trying its damnedest to build up ‘soft power’, you need to make it easier for people to sympathise with your culture and history, rather than harder. After having spent many interminable hours watching Chinese war dramas and period pieces with what can best be described as ‘stick-figure’ acting and scripts which are burdened down with the ‘official touch’, I often despair at seeing such a beautiful and rich country and culture so poorly represented in broadcast media.

However, there certainly is hope for China building up the kind of soft power it desires, precisely where it seems it least wants to go looking for it. My wife Jessie was saying that the most beautiful elements of Chinese culture, often the most good and true as well, along with the chivalric (俠義) spirit, are preserved in its video games. She cited as an example the old DOS-based Taiwanese role-playing game The Legend of Sword and Faerie (《仙劍奇俠專》) by Crazy Boyz Group: set in a fictionalised mediaeval China, telling a tale of tragic heroism, romance and self-sacrifice; it became an immediate cult classic both in Taiwan and in the mainland. And - get this - the video game spawned two TV series (the Chinese Paladin series), one of which met with overwhelming critical acclaim. (I have only seen bits and pieces, but if what I saw was any indication, then that acclaim was well-deserved.) When was the last time a video-game spawned any kind of critically successful TV show or movie anywhere else? I can think of exactly one example: Mortal Kombat with Christopher Lambert and Shou Wan Por, and that success only came about because it deliberately did not take itself seriously. Imagine if someone tried to turn the Elder Scrolls series into a movie.

Er... sorry about that. Speaking of Mortal Kombat (or rather its soundtrack), have some Napalm Death for brain-bleach.

Actually, Wikipedia has a very helpful list of movies based on video games here, with Rotten Tomatoes ratings provided - the only two movies to get a higher rating than MK were Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (okay, I’ll grant you that one) and Prince of Persia (ehh). And there was the game show of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? with Greg Lee and Rockapella that I used to watch when I was a tyke. But as someone of the ‘video games are art’ school of thinking, I do think it possible (if undeniably tricky) to do great cinematic or television adaptations of stories based on video games; and one of the sole shining success stories in that sector belongs rightly to mainland China. However, SARFT is now seemingly (true to form) trying to ensure that the success of the Chinese Paladin TV series cannot be easily repeated. For the foreseeable future, sadly, I guess we are stuck with the fourth, fifth and sixth CCTV rehashes of Dream of the Red Chamber...

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