Dalian Wanda's purchase of Hollywood studio Legendary Entertainment might bea boost for Chinese film-making, butnot necessarily for Chinese soft power.
BEIJING • If moviegoers are wondering what new offerings Hollywood studio Legendary Entertainment might have in the works now that it has been bought by a Chinese corporation, they need not wait long.
Come Thanksgiving, audiences worldwide will be treated to Matt Damon and Andy Lau battling monsters on the Great Wall of China, in a fantasy flick which Legendary mooted years before its recent acquisition by Dalian Wanda.
Although much of the plot has been kept under wraps, we know that Oscar nominee Damon plays European mercenary William Garin, while Hong Kong heart-throb Lau is Strategist Wang, an alchemist and technological innovator.
With an army of Chinese warriors split into divisions such as Cranes, Bears, Deer and Eagles, they transform the Great Wall into a weapon and defend humankind against the "other-worldly creatures hell-bent on devouring humanity".
Despite the bizarre plot, industry watchers are expecting it to be a hit in China, where films with local cultural elements, big-name Chinese stars and Hollywood-grade special effects often do well. It is also the first English-language film by celebrated Chinese director Zhang Yimou.
What observers are less certain about is its reception abroad.
Therein lies the rub for sceptics, who believe Chinese tycoon Wang Jianlin's US$3.5 billion (S$5 billion) purchase of Legendary is a flagrant attempt at boosting his country's soft power around the world.
Mr Wang has denied this charge by pointing out that "government soft power belongs to another sphere" and that his main focus is business.
Indeed, there are plenty of commercial reasons for Legendary and Wanda to come together, without having to wade into the realm of geopolitical influence.
Wanda has the financial muscle that Legendary - which produced the hugely successful Jurassic World and the Dark Knight trilogy - needs in the risky film industry.
Meanwhile, Legendary provides film-making expertise, audience knowledge and marketing savvy for the Chinese conglomerate, which is the biggest cinema operator in the world. Furthermore, the new entity would circumvent the quota that China's government imposes on foreign studios and their films, with only 34 of them allowed to be screened every year to protect domestic productions.
Chinese politics and film expert Stan Rosen noted: "For the most part, I take Wang at his word.
"You don't become China's richest man by making bad business decisions."
Yet, Mr Wang is also unlikely to be oblivious to the call of his country's leaders, who highlighted in 2011 the "urgency for China to strengthen its cultural soft power and global cultural influence".
How China sells on celluloidis the question. Domestically, its most concerted attempts were among its clumsiest, such as stuffing 150 local stars into the Beginning Of The Great Revival, an unwieldy 2011 film made to celebrate the Communist Party's 90th birthday.
Faced with an unenthusiastic public, the Party reportedly booked entire theatres to boost box-office figures for the widely-panned film.
With its growing financial clout and film market, which is set to become the world's biggest in 2018, China now dangles incentives to Hollywood through its co-production scheme.
This allows studios to keep a higher portion of box-office receipts and have the film classified as non-foreign, if there are positive "Chinese elements".
But from Iron Man 3 to Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, much of the results have been superfluous. Part of the film could be set in China, or a Chinese star may be roped in for a short, benevolent, non-speaking role, hardly a great leap forward.
As co-productions are not allowed to portray the country in a bad light, China will feel it gets greater control over external representations of the country.
Yet, if this is China's vision of soft power through film, it is unlikely to get far. As its name suggests, soft power, unlike hardware, cannot be bought and purposed.
Whether it is Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the most successful "Chinese" films and icons so far have no official hand in them.
But the problem most experts see with China's overall push for soft power so far is that it has been limited by its belief that the authorities are the main source of it. On the contrary, soft power usually comes from individuals, the private sector or civil society.
The more the government controls the projection of soft power, the less appeal it has.
Forget about propaganda films, even odd plot points are easily sniffed out by audiences everywhere. Just ask the unimpressed Chinese moviegoers who watched Tony Stark receive acupuncture in China's version of Iron Man 3.
Said media expert Terry Flew of Queensland University of Technology: "It's hard to advance China's soft power without compelling media content.
"This is the area where the US still possesses a considerable edge."
So while it may go against instinct, China would be better served not capitalising too obviously on the opportunities that will come froma major Chinese company controlling a major Hollywood studio, instead leaving it free to produce popular films worthy of acclaim and prestige.
The good news is that Mr Wang seems aware of this. He has taken care to retain the experienced hands in the companies he bought.
When he took over major American theatre operator AMC in 2012, he kept its management team. Similarly, Legendary's founder and chief executive Thomas Tull will continue running the studio.
These moves present precious opportunities for Chinese film executives and crew to learn from some of Hollywood's best,as they pick up skills that might eventually help Chinese films compete regularly with Hollywood flicks internationally.
The resulting expertise might then create the best soft power exports for China - its own Kung Fu Panda, if you will. Doraemon and James Bond have no overt messages to peddle, yet they have become powerful symbols of Japanese and British soft power respectively.
Said Prof Rosen: "If Wanda succeeds with Legendary, Mr Wang would have built an international brand name, which is another goal of Chinese soft power.
"So while he's not using film content directly to promote soft power, he's promoting it in other ways."
Legendary's first film under Wanda has not arrived yet.
But if China's leaders want to help the cause, they should loosen their grip on narrative-making and let the film industry grow organically.
For a government not accustomed to giving up control, that might be harder than fighting monsters on the Great Wall.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2016, with the headline 'Wanda's Legendary opening act in Hollywood'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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