26 June 2011

每个晚会有个扫兴,所以我们请你来 (Every party has a pooper, that’s why we invited you)

Well, okay. Maybe I’m celebrating a little early. But given that a film, 《建党伟业》 (Founding of a party), celebrating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party was released just this past week, I think I may have a little licence for celebration and reflection. The more so when one notes that the New York ‘it’s-torture-when-you-do-it-but-enhanced-interrogation-when-we-do’ Times has just come out with both a news article and a review (well, more like a sound bite) of the film, both (as to be expected) broadly negative.

Now, I’d normally be the first person to say that a film produced by a political party narrating that party’s own history is pretty bogus, and I am certainly aware that political content can destroy artistic merit if it is offensive or ham-handed or both, but let’s be clear – a number of very decent films have been produced under state direction, even states whose politics were or are not what I would consider exemplary. The Soviet Union’s Белое солнце пустыни (White sun of the desert) is very much a gem, if you like Westerns… and have a taste for the black humour of Russian comedy. Even though from reviews I went into seeing Kazakhstan’s Қөшпенділер expecting to hate it, it turned out to be an enjoyable popcorn flick with fantastic scenery (character development be damned when there are horse chase scenes and battles to be had!). I actually halfway enjoyed 《建国大业》 (Founding of a republic) for the opposite reasons, namely its colourful characters and Shakespearean overtones to the characters of Mao Zedong and particularly the tragedy of Jiang Jieshi (even if the actual political drama was drastically over-sanitised and even downplayed, such that the propaganda content, such as it was, was pretty tame). I’m not averse to the NYT dumping on a film for its political motivations and the way it is propagated, so long as they acknowledge that’s what they’re doing.

And of course it’s wrong for the government to prey upon the desires of their audience by threatening to delay showings of other films until this one gets more box-office sales. But let’s not fool ourselves even for a moment that such an implied threat is not exactly what nearly all marketing is (if you don’t use this deodorant, the girl you like won’t go out with you; if you don’t wear our brand of clothing, other people won’t think you’re sexy; if you don’t drive our brand of car, other people won’t think you’re classy; if you don’t drink this brand of cola, people will think you’re an old fuddy-duddy; I could go on, but you get the idea – suffice it to say this kind of soft-power coercion, manipulation of desire, is both existentially unhealthy and insidious). If the New York Times is going to criticise the Chinese government for doing this, it seems to me that they might as well round up every last marketer working for every last corporation using TV advertising and give them the same shotgun treatment while they’re at it. Hudge and Gudge all too often wind up doing the same thing by different means.

Speaking of which, apparently the powers that be are threatening to delay showing the new Transformers movie, so Michael Bay will have to wait a few days to broadcast his lowest-common-denominator American-military-industrial-complex-approved cheap-plastic-toy-selling propaganda in China to line his pockets. Cue the world’s smallest violin for the world’s saddest song. I defer to Ben Croshaw’s highly astute opinion on the Transformers franchise in general; suffice it to say I wouldn’t shed any tears should theatres in China decide of their own accord not to show that particular film. And - let’s face it - it may well be that one of the saving graces of 《建党伟业》 is that it does not star Shia LaBeouf in the main role, even if it may star everybody else and his mother in a cameo.

Seriously, Bill Keller, you can do far better than this. I know your paper has a foreign policy agenda to push, so tell you what – I’ll cut your paper a break when it at least tones down the double standards (and believe me, I’m not the only blogger out there who notices). And I’ll give you three guesses as to which movie I’m going to go watch next – the first two don’t count. I’d like very much to form my own opinions.

EDIT: The pun in the title doesn’t really translate, since there are at least two Chinese words for ‘party’: 党 (dang, political party) and 会 (hui, a meet-up kind of party, like a 晚会 dinner party or a 茶话会 tea party or a 舞会 dance party).

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Soviet cinema was particularly good. My favorite movie is "Dersu Uzala," although technically that was a Soviet-Japanese co-production with Akira Kurosawa at the helm as director.

    In addition to the many great "Red Westerns," the Soviet film industry also produced many quality fantasy films that mixed Slavic folklore with colorful scenery and costumes. I even think some of the more overtly ideological Soviet films such as “Strike” and “The Battleship Potemkin” have a lot of artistic merit.

    Great point about Transformers, by the way. I liked the toys and cartoon as a child, but the movies are unimaginative and crass, even for a franchise that revolves around selling toys and other consumer goods. Unlike many people in my age group, I can’t really see what was so great about the 1980s or 1990s, especially in terms of popular culture. I generally prefer the 1950s-1970s for things like music and television.