The last thing anyone wants is another American saving the world. For the Chinese government, the last thing they want is the citizens of the People’s Republic perceiving that another American is saving the world.
It is this kind of ideological projection of soft power by the US that has always had the Chinese authorities rightfully wary. Hence, the screening of foreign films in Chinese theatres has been a sensitive area.
Back in the day, the nineties and noughties to be specific, foreign films to be screened in China were limited utilising a quota system, a fancy word for putting a limit on the number of films that would be approved each year for the Middle Kingdom’s silver screens. Quite often, the figure barely made it into double digits.
To some, the system worked quite well. It kept at bay the influence of the foreign devils, while protecting a domestic industry that was producing movies which were, not very good, in the mainstream at least.
While the the Chinese arthouse cinema movement blossomed, with films such as “Farewell My Concubine” (1993) winning major international awards, the mainstream remained largely in the doldrums.
The eureka moment was possibly “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000). Chinese mainstream films were quickly improving, to the point where they began wielding large-scale, international influence. With the industry on the up, and Beijing feeling less intimidated, more foreign films were permitted to be shown, and the industry went from strength to strength. By 2012, China had become the second-largest market in the world by box office receipts. In November of last year, box office takings exceeded ¥50 billion for the year, for the first time. ¥30 billion of that was for domestically made films.
With the knowledge of where we were undoubtedly headed, the anvil growing increasingly hot and a chance to put more of its heat on Hollywood, China passed the “Film Law” in November 2016, going into full effect in March of last year. The law’s purpose was twofold; to reign in cinemas that had been cooking the books in terms of their box office receipts, and to put emphasis on films’ moral values.
As reported by Variety at the time, “[Films must] serve the people and socialism. Film makers must have ‘excellent’ moral integrity and ‘self-discipline’”.
Today, authorities are going a step further. News website The Paper has cited a document from China’s media regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT), outlining plans to create a “People’s Cinema Line”.
The idea is to nominate 5,000 theatres, nationwide, to participate in the scheme. These cinemas shall only show domestically-made, mainstream films, and shall offer group sales, discounts and bonuses to convert more people to moviegoers, or more accurately, “mainstreamgoers”. Our very own Jiangsu province is set to see 437 of the 5,000 nominated.
In the west, mainstream means Charlize Theron, Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie; in China it means nation, reform and history.
Zhang Peng, a film researcher at the National Research Center of Cultural Industries of Nanjing University, speaking to the Global Times, said of the new initiative, “The ‘People’s Cinema Line’ is part of the country’s efforts to promote domestic mainstream films, which have been marginalised by Hollywood productions and celebrity-led films in extremely commercialised cinemas”.
Su Wei, a professor at the Communist Party of China Chongqing Committee’s Party School, said, ”As an open artistic form, mainstream movies play a key role in leading social thought”.
There is of course nothing new to the idea that patriotic films are going to go down a storm in China. 2 years ago, this publication reported the story of Chun Hua, who massed an enormous collection of old patriotic films, on celluloid, in Nantong, Jiangsu province, that he projects at government institutions, schools, nursing homes and communities for free. Yet, it is the first time that a national initiative pushes the flag-waving movie genre to the mainstream fore.
With those 5,000 theatres representing a full 10 percent of the total number of cinemas nationwide, it might not be so long into the future when the last thing we will want to see is another Chinese person saving the world.