Chloe Zhao, James Bond and the Future (and Present) of Chinese Storytelling

When Beijing-born Chloé Zhao won the Academy Award for Best Director (and Best Picture) last week for Nomadland, the mainland Chinese media were under instructions to remain silent, and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) censors had turned on their Chloé Zhao filters, preventing mainland movie fans from celebrating the ascent of a native daughter to the pinnacle of the movie business.

Close observers of the China scene will know, of course, that Zhao was “canceled” by the CCP (and therefore the PRC) in February, when China’s online Ideological Purity Police (not an actual government agency, but most definitely a thing) dug up remarks she had made in 2013 to an American film magazine in which she criticized China as a place “where there are lies everywhere.”

So Zhao was canceled, and unfortunately for Beijing, on Sunday night she and Nomadland turned out to be the film industry’s top story, which meant the film industry also had to be canceled. Or at least the foreign film industry.

Some Western media outlets reported last week that “canceling” the foreign film industry is just fine with the Chinese government because China “has a broader agenda: to promote homegrown movies and weaken American cultural dominance.”

Well, yes, and that has always been true.

The foreign film industry in China has always struggled with market access restrictions, as well as with censorship. Do you remember Seven Years in Tibet? Although the film was not scheduled for release in China, the CCP took umbrage at Sony’s politically incorrect (in China) retelling of Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer’s experiences as a tutor to the 14th Dalai Lama, and blocked the company from releasing any film in China.

And today with the Chinese box office increasingly important to Hollywood studios’ bottom lines, the CCP has found itself in a position to censor films globally.

What’s that, you say? China is censoring films that are being released at the Peoria Multiplex? You betcha.

Distributors that want to release films in China must submit them to China’s National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), formerly the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT), for approval. If the NRTA requests cuts, distributors make cuts. This worked fine for Hollywood until a few years ago, when the CCP realized it had much more economic leverage than it had previously and could demand that cuts be made to the global release, rather than just the China release. They do this regularly, and Hollywood can’t do much about it.

Have you wondered why James Bond films no longer contain much sex, violence, alcohol consumption and witty repartee? Because they are made for a global audience, and not only China but also the Muslim world and a few other areas are uncomfortable with films featuring these staples of Hollywood storytelling (and life, if we’re honest with ourselves). The witty repartee (remember Bond’s armorer, “Q”?) is mostly gone because wit usually translates poorly in subtitles.

Please don’t think this is a rant about how unfairly China is treating Hollywood producers (and directors); the CCP treats home-grown filmmakers even more strictly.

Chinese film legend Zhang Yimou has fallen afoul of officialdom more than once, and at this point appears to have resigned himself to making generic “mortgage movies” that stay well within the lanes Beijing has painted on the road to Xi Jinping Thought. In fact, Wikileaks tells us that in 2007, future Chinese President Xi Jinping sat down to dinner with American ambassador Clark Randt Jr. and talked about movies, criticizing Zhang Yimou for focusing too much on “bad things in imperial palaces”. “Some Chinese moviemakers neglect values they should promote,” Mr. Xi said, according to the cable sent by Ambassador Randt back to Washington after the encounter.

Several years later, Zhang demonstrated his complete understanding of the system when he said, “Foreigners think that because I did the opening ceremony of the Olympics, I have certain privileges, but in fact it’s not like that at all. In front of censorship, everyone is equal. My film may be subject to more scrutiny. Leaders in charge often tell me in private that my film will be looked at more closely because I will have bigger audiences, both in China and overseas.”

But then in 2017, Zhang published an opinion piece in The New York Times titled What Hollywood Looks Like From China in which he wrote, “But at the moment, a large discrepancy exists in that very few Chinese movies are able to enter the American market and attract a significant audience. Chinese audiences provide Hollywood with huge profits, but what does China’s film industry gain in return?”

Zhang almost certainly was urged by the Chinese establishment to write his op-ed, because he knows better than anyone why few mainland Chinese movies attract a significant audience in America. Leaving aside that few foreign movies garner a big box office because Americans (and many others) don’t love to read subtitles, the fact is that Americans are uninterested in politically sanitized storytelling.

China, after all, is the cultural authority that ordered the producers of Mission: Impossible III to cut a scene showing laundry drying outside, an image it deemed “harmful” to the global perception of Shanghai as a modern metropolis.

Imagine, then, my idea for a film about a family that lives in a small and dingy apartment on the outskirts of Beijing, where the teenage son has a drug problem and is trying to come to terms with his poor prospects, the unhappy taxi driver husband is having an affair with a woman down the hall, and the neglected and much-put-upon wife is struggling with depression and the collapse of the family unit, not to mention an abusive mother-in-law. A typical human drama, right? Plenty of opportunity to let my actors spread their wings.

But I could never get that movie funded in China. Too much risk that the censors would not permit it to be released. And even if I did find the money, there’s little doubt that my film would be accused of “neglecting values I should promote”, namely that the Party cares for all, and that there are no unhappy stories in the Workers’ Paradise, as long as you walk the straight and narrow path to Xi Jinping Thought.

Now, you may be thinking, “Who’s this guy, with his imperialist running dog views of China and its thriving film industry?”

Fair question.

I’m a guy who has spent his life talking to taxi drivers and many other people, living outside of my native culture (in Asia for 31 years), asking the locals what they think. And around 15 years ago I had the opportunity to organize a handful of film production and screenwriting workshops in Beijing and Shanghai for the heads of the Chinese film studios and some of their salaried (and perhaps obviously, given the context, most accomplished) screenwriters.

The most interesting part of this was mediating the discussions between the Chinese screenwriters and the visiting American lecturers. The Americans talked about storytelling in all its aspects. Typical workshop stuff, i.e. here’s how we do it, and here’s what works commercially in this most commercial and cutthroat of businesses, with a wink and a nod to legendary Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman, who famously said, “Nobody knows anything. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

The Chinese absorbed this, asked many questions and seemed to value the event, but later, over drinks in the bar, confessed that the Chinese system doesn’t allow any freedom to tell human stories that “neglect values they should promote” (they expressed this differently, of course).

The other night I watched If Anything Happens I Love You, the winner of the 2021 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. If you haven’t yet seen it, you should. It’s only 12 minutes long and it’s a beautiful and sad meditation on loss, and more subtly, an indictment of American gun violence. A film that could never be made in China because every social issue is potentially a political issue. And even if you put everyone in costume and set your story 500 years in the past, you run a risk that your film will be denied release.

I also watched Colette, the winner of the 2021 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject. Only 24 minutes long and even better, in my view, than If Anything Happens I Love You. Bring tissues. But again, a film that could never be made in China because, well, history is messy, and needs to be told through a very narrow lens, if at all.

This is why – as Zhang Yimou knows very well – mainland Chinese films don’t do well in America (and often, in China). Americans are just not that interested in yet another glorious retelling of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression.

And filmmaking is storytelling. Hollywood wisdom has it that if as a screenwriter or director you can turn a movie around (i.e. surprise viewers) in the last two minutes, you can live quite nicely. Turn it around again in the last 10 seconds and you can live quite nicely … in Bel Air.

When you are an authoritarian government you need to control the narrative. Completely. You cannot have creative industries in which you allow people to use their imaginations to produce original stories. You cannot even allow them to produce remakes of politically incorrect old stories.

The above is a guest post by Roberto De Vido. Roberto is a communications consultant with over 25 years of experience in Asia (Singapore, Hong Kong/Shanghai, Tokyo), recently returned to the San Francisco Bay Area.