This month’s gross-out college comedy 21 and Over is the kind of no-hype, no-stars box-office blip that usually passes through movie theaters without much notice except from bored teenagers at mall cineplexes. But the film was noticed—not for being the first comedy since the Harold and Kumar series to feature an Asian-American character with depth and screen time, but because the film’s Chinese producers demanded changes to the script and a different cut of the film for their country’s box office.
In fact, the influx of Chinese cash into Hollywood has opened up a new niche beat for some journalists detailing the edits Chinese financiers require. The individual stories—of changing Looper‘s future global capital from Paris to (a more-plausible) Shanghai, of cutting risqué scenes from Cloud Atlas and Skyfall, of deleting a single line from Life of Pi so as not to anger devout moviegoers—are, of course, fascinating. But taken in their totality, the press’s coverage of Chinese censorship of big-studio products has a certain doomsaying quality. A Los Angeles Times reporter writes, for example, that “the net effect [of Chinese influence] is a situation that movie-business veterans say is unprecedented: The suppressive tendencies of a foreign nation are altering what is seen not just in one country but around the world.” Unmentioned is the United States’ own history of government censorship of its films, as well as the progressive outcomes that will result from yuan-financed filmmaking.
Certainly, the Communist party’s repressive practices have had untold adverse effects throughout the Middle Kingdom, from patriotic rewritings of history to the suppression of news stories damaging to the government to the executions of political and religious dissidents. But it’s a mistake to treat the Hollywood filmmaking process—one that’s already riddled with compromise—as if they were the works of a Lu Xiaobo or an Ai Wei Wei. Studio execs only take Chinese bureaucrats’ considerations into account so they can make a few extra bucks on their latest superhero sequel.
After all, Hollywood films are rarely, if ever, pure expressions of Art with a capital A. In the mid-century studio system, the Hays Code—a 36-point list of do’s and don’t that, among other things, forbade kissing for longer than three seconds—was in full effect, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) ruined the careers of many left-leaning artists. Many productions today cut down on budget costs through product placement or collaborate with the Pentagon or other government agencies to create pro-military, pro-war messages. The edits that Chinese producers and party officials ask for are only exceptional in their geographical origins.
Moreover, the coverage about increasing Chinese power in Hollywood seldom mentions the fact that foreign investment will actually lead to two positive effects. First, Asian and Asian American actors will enjoy more big-screen opportunities. Chinese producers understandably tend to choose scripts that already contain Asian characters, or in some cases, as with Looper, ask for Chinese characters to be added to the film. It’s bad enough that most studio (and independent) films tend toward Juno-levels of whiteness—a fact that gets easily erased from discussions of a “free America” and a “restrictive China.” With studios routinely casting white actors for roles that are Asian on the page, thespians of Asian descent need all the roles they can get.
Hopefully, the Chinese-driven expansion of jobs for Asian and Asian-American artists in Hollywood will trickle down to directors and screenwriters, so that Asian/American perspectives and experiences can one day coexist in multiplexes alongside “mainstream” ones. Not all directors of Asian descent are interested in scripts with Asian/American characters, of course. For every Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club), Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala, The Namesake), and Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow, the last four The Fast and the Furious installments), there is an Asian-American director who hasn’t worked with any Asian/American actors, like Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre), Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body) and Tarsem Singh (The Cell, Mirror Mirror). But even this latter category of directors has bodies of work that suggests they’re more inclined toward films about and starring people of color.
The Chinese-driven expansion of Hollywood jobs for Asian and Asian American artists will trickle down to directors and screenwriters, so that Asian/American perspectives can one day coexist in multiplexes alongside “mainstream” ones.
The other positive change that more yuan might buy in Hollywood is a reduction of xenophobia in studio films. If Chinese producers want fewer negative portrayals of themselves and their fellow citizens—like when a grotesque Chinese waiter was revealed to be a violent extraterrestrial in Men in Black 3—let’s all admit that that’s a completely understandable desire, and that a decrease in stereotypes about 1.3 billion people can only be a turn for the better. There’s no point in ramping up anti-Chinese sentiment here in the States or in angering Chinese audiences abroad—unless it’s to turn our proxy wars with China into real ones.
In fact, greater investment into Hollywood filmmaking is perhaps a PR solution that citizens of other foreign nations should consider. Although there are homegrown film and TV industries nearly everywhere, American pop culture is still as influential and widespread as American foreign policy. Given the slow pace of social progress in Hollywood, more overseas investment might offer the quickest route to a more diverse film industry. Let’s just hope that that new class of Hollywood producers invests in better movies than 21 and Over.