Hollywood panders to Chinese

Films are using Asian actors in roles that are not meaningful to the plot to pull in Chinese audiences

Angelababy (above) in Independence Day: Resurgence.
Angelababy (above) in Independence Day: Resurgence.PHOTO: UIP
Li Bingbing (above right, with Stanley Tucci) in Transformers: Age Of Extinction.
Li Bingbing (above right, with Stanley Tucci) in Transformers: Age Of Extinction.PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
Donnie Yen (above) in Rogue One: A Star Wars.
Donnie Yen (above) in Rogue One: A Star Wars.PHOTO: LUCASFILM/WALT DISNEY STUDIOS

BEIJING • When the trailer for The Great Wall, a high-profile ChinaHollywood co-production, was released last year, critics pounced: The scenes of actor Matt Damon leading a Chinese army into battle seemed like yet another instance of Hollywood's "white saviour" complex and its repeated whitewashing, the practice of casting white actors in roles originally conceived as Asian (or non-white).

Fast forward to December and vindication of sorts for this Legendary Entertainment picture: Reviewers largely dismissed the accusation, while lukewarm in their assessments of the adventure flick.

"Those who ranted against the project as another case of Hollywood 'whitewashing' in which Matt Damon saves China from dragons may have to bite their tongue," wrote Maggie Lee, chief Asia film critic for Variety.

She added: "His character, a mercenary soldier who stumbles into an elite corps fighting mythical beasts, spends the course of the film being humbled, outsmarted and re-educated in Chinese virtues of bravery, selflessness, discipline and invention."

It’s a question we will definitely have to consider in the future. The way the market is right now,we can’t make an internationally successful film on our own. If we didn’t have Matt Damon, if we didn’t speak English in the film, then it would just be a purely Chinese film.

THE GREAT WALL DIRECTOR ZHANG YIMOU when asked why the film’s central hero is a white guy

What few may have realised - and what American viewers may not know when the film is released in the United States next month - is that The Great Wall was actually conceived as an effort to avoid another diversity issue: pandering.

Looking back, The Great Wall highlights the challenges that films face as they navigate the increasingly complex web of racial sensitivities.

Although Asian-American actors have been quite vocal in the past year about their consistent underrepresentation in Hollywood, white-washing is a fairly novel concept for Asians in Asia, where most local television shows and movies feature all-Asian casts.

Instead, moviegoers here have become especially sensitive to pandering, another common Hollywood tactic that can have several meanings.

As talk-show host Stephen Colbert pointed out in a 2015 Late Show segment called the Pander Express, pandering can mean accommodating the Chinese government by altering storylines to ensure that references to China are positive.

But it can also refer to efforts to cater to Chinese audiences by dropping Asian actors into roles not meaningful to the plot - a form of "reverse whitewashing".

In these films, the actors serve as what Chinese derogatorily call "flower vases". Iron Man 3 (2013), X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014) and Transformers: Age Of Extinction (2014), for example, have been criticised for what critics see as pandering.

Dr Ying Zhu, professor at the College of Staten Island in New York, noted in a 2014 article that the cameos in Transformers made by prominent Chinese actress Li Bingbing and Chinese Olympic boxer Zou Shiming were "so perfunctorily inserted into the film that they amount to nothing more than another type of incoherent product placement".

Chinese audiences again cried foul when Chinese actress Angelababy made a cameo as a fighter pilot in last year's Independence Day: Resurgence. ("It seemed like Angelababy's scenes were all added on during post-production," wrote one user on the movie review website Douban.)

To their credit, some Hollywood studios appear to be responding to the criticism by creating larger roles for Chinese actors.

Take Disney's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). Although it has struggled at the Chinese box office since its release here this month, local media and amateur online reviewers have responded positively to the casting of Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen as Chirrut Imwe, a blind warrior-monk; and Chinese actor Jiang Wen as Baze Malbus, an armoured knight.

Even the state-run newspaper Global Times chimed in with its approval.

"The choice has paid off as mainland director and actor Jiang Wen and Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen have left a deep and favourable impression on audiences in China," the article said.

It went on to criticise previous instances of pandering as "lazy" marketing attempts to make more money in China.

Then again, what is a little criticism when the incentives to pander are so tempting?

China has the world's second- largest box-office market after North America and success here can help salvage an otherwise lacklustre box office in North America (as was the case last summer with another Legendary Entertainment film, Warcraft, 2016) or turn a hit into a megahit.

Pandering also pays because the Chinese government encourages it. Include enough so-called Chinese elements in the film by, for example, casting local actors, shooting on location and raising Chinese financing and the movie could qualify as an official co-production, a government label that entitles a foreign studio to a greater share of the box-office revenue.

The Great Wall, in many ways, was meant to be a solution to the pandering problem. With a Chinese director; a mostly Chinese cast, storyline and locations; and abundant references to the country's culture, it is perhaps the most Chinese film to be made with significant Hollywood studio backing.

Instead of mollifying Chinese audiences with quick cameos, the film is dominated by Chinese actors - thousands of them, if you include the armies.

The film "wasn't coming to China just for finance or for access to the market", said Peter Loehr, one of its producers. "It was a story that organically took place here that organically had mixed actors."

The decision to cast Damon, an international star, in the lead and make the movie mainly in English was, if anything, an attempt to pander to viewers outside China.

But solving one problem opened up another. By framing the movie as a Chinese story packaged in a Hollywood studio film, the question naturally became: Why does the central hero need to be a white guy?

"It's a question we will definitely have to consider in the future," Zhang Yimou, the film's celebrated director, said in an interview.

He added: "The way the market is right now, we can't make an internationally successful film on our own. If we didn't have Damon, if we didn't speak English in the film, then it would just be a purely Chinese film."

Either way, it will certainly be a lesson learnt for future ChineseHollywood co-productions.

As frustrations with Hollywood's lack of diversity become more apparent around the world, the old rule of thumb for big Hollywood blockbusters - to offend as few moviegoers as possible - may be increasingly difficult to follow.


• The Great Wall is showing in cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2017, with the headline 'Hollywood panders to Chinese'. Print Edition | Subscribe