Patriotism starring on screen narrates a success story of communist Chinese cine-fare. It has learnt the ropes from the several decades of worldwide distribution, audience taste and choice. The voice of commerce has its own power on the content created for the big screen. China’s blockbuster movie “The Eight Hundred” in 2020 became the biggest box office grosser fare. It is to the Chinese what “Dunkirk” was to the West. Some envious quarters vainly tried to dismiss it as a propaganda on the big screen. They wondered whether the 2020 Chinese box office blockbuster was purely an entertainment or a political statement in the guise of a semblance of period film. A genre churned out in their thousands by major cine-producing countries since early decades of the world industry led by Hollywood, “The Eight Hundred” depicts the fierce defence of a Shanghai warehouse, where a Chinese battalion successfully faced the invading Japanese forces for four days in the 1930s and “restored the pride of a nation”. It collected $500 million worldwide to become the year’s second-highest grosser, in what could be an indication of the competitive content in Chinese cinema on a path to feeding the supply line of screen fare in the world’s most-populous country. It followed the trail recorded in 2019, when “The Wandering Earth” ranked among the top-notch fares worldwide. And the first quarter of 2021 made robust box office showings.
Contrasting course In the corona pandemic year of 2020, Hollywood had hard time finding a firm footing. Production activities were few and far between. In stark contrast to the desolate and forlorn look of most screen halls in much of the world, China’s 70,000 screens opened since August. Hollywood and other major movie industries eye closely the lucrative Chinese market. If Rambo series and the Boxer sequel franchise movies that catapulted Sylvester Stallone to a roller-coaster stardom, their box office collections are hailed as record smashing, trend setting genres. As long as the going goes good for its industry, the rich industrial West talks loud about entertainment values and presentation qualities. The moment setbacks stare, the same bloc does not hesitate to bare its teeth. War movies conceal more than they reveal. Had they carried critiques instead of filling them with overdoses of fantasy under fictional licence, the US would not have lost 58,000 of its soldiers and returned home with severely brutal tales to carry. When American soldiers took the plunge, Vietnam was divided between the China and Russia-backed North and the US-supported South. By the time all American soldiers were recalled home, it was only a question of time before a united communist Vietnam emerged, in a reminder as to how a poorly equipped but fiercely committed force made the mightiest military outfit turn back with vain wishes that the whole tale would be forgotten. Most movies are escapist fares. Some are serious narratives but with the eye sight also on the box office and a few are uncompromising presentations made for sheer quality offered by the makers’ best of ability. Even if well aware of this, some critics seem unable to stomach the Chinese record takings. Regarding this year’s “Detective Chinatown 3”, one critic tried minimising its success to “a bored China propels box office sales to a record”. The flick fetched some $400 million in just three days in China. In fact, the first six weeks this year registered China’s total box office collections at $1.55 billion in stark contrast to the $2.2 billion worth of ticket sales in the US for the whole of 2020. The COVID-19 entered the US that was found napping before waking up at a snail like pace to the gravity of the situation. The past 15 months are by no means an emphatic trend regarding the regular pace of box office collections but they do suggest that Chinese cine market is gearing towards greater self-reliance on the supply line. Big banners of the Hollywood mould crave for the Chinese movie market pie. Money has an enormous hold on the mighty and the profit-addict. Earlier this year, PEN America expressed concern over Hollywood’s pro-China self-censorship, which avoids “sensitive” aspects like Mao, Tibet, protest rallies in Hong Kong and Tiananmen Square stir. Virtually everywhere, telling the story on the screen carries risks. War movies make passing references to insubordination, rebellion, loss of face and surrender involving the countries of origin of the concerned film makers. At best, the story might begin with a passing reference but climbs to a crescendo of success and celebrations created out of the narrator’s imagination. Patriotism on screen is often a tale more fiction than fact, i.e., victory without the valued truth. The magic of screen myth is fickle. Cine-creativity gets lost in an atmosphere where propaganda purposes prevail. The fibre of fact-based stories has a deeper impact. Shortly after the Russian Revolution in 1917, groups of French sailors refused to fight communist Russia. In what is known as the Black Sea mutiny, they refused to fight in Russia where the new regime pledged to serve the poor and the downtrodden. The US-led allies wanted deep intervention against the regime in Moscow that posed a threat to their capitalist order. The mutineers were imprisoned and court-martialled for disobeying an order. This does not inspire full-fledged period films, though.
Fare hard to bear Formerly recorded history arrives hard and not infrequently late. Individuals and group perceptions might differ but to deliberately resort to false claims and make distorted projections constitutes intellectual perfidy and professional dishonesty. Whether pledging capitalism, communism or other strands of political ideology, crooks are crooks. Myth meshes with make-believe and money-spinning machine that more often than not avoids fulsome facts of the unflattering aspect of a story. The unmentioned name of the game: Movies are too powerful a medium for too much creativity. Search for truth on screen, big or small, becomes a nuisance to the ruling class that sees itself as the guardian of national pride and international profile. That is the reason why movie makers rarely ever venture to touch upon at length the series of defeats their rulers led them to in the theatres of war. At best, they might briefly touch upon a setback, only to end the narrative with a twist blazing in glory catering to patriotic pride. Some war truths are concealed, a few are mentioned sketchily and the rest are coated in the formula of triumphs, real or imagined. Truth thus gets censored as too heavy with history for mass digestion.
(Professor Kharel specialises in political communication.)