China catching on to the PR value of movies

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2019/2/21 17:26:24

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

It feels like everyone around me is talking about The Wandering Earth. Adapted from Hugo Award winner Liu Cixin's novel of the same name, the futuristic movie tells a story about a grueling, cruel and often hopeless human effort to push the Earth away from the solar system in a struggle for survival because the sun is dying.

It simultaneously opened in China and the US on February 5, Chinese Lunar New Year's Day, and had garnered $609 million at the box office globally by the second week, pushing it into top spot.

In New York, those who have seen it excitedly shared their experience on social media platforms - in particular describing the moments when the audience collectively laughed, sighed, got tense or applauded.

Diehard sci-fi fans discussed the physics possibilities and impossibilities. Older audience members grumbled that they couldn't recognize the pop songs in the movie. And feminists questioned the role of women in the film as the ones who need to be protected and whose fate is decided by men. But they are the lucky ones. Many others are still waiting to see the movie because tickets are in short supply.

Some Chinese living in the US swarmed into the movie theaters because they wanted to see an acclaimed blockbuster produced in their home country - a rare opportunity that has happened less than a handful of times in history.

But it is not only Chinese who showed great interest in the film. Mainstream audiences tweeted about it, and mainstream media talked about it from various angles - the breakthrough of China's sci-fi films, China's achievements in outer space and the movie's depiction of its attempts to rescue the world.

But perhaps the most noteworthy point is that, like it or not, everyone seems to agree that the film is very Hollywood. As The New York Times pointed out in its review of the film: "It is just as awash in murky computer imagery, stupefying exposition and manipulative sentimentality as the average Hollywood tentpole."

To be Hollywood-like may not be the highest compliment for a film, especially if you are serious about the art of motion picture production. But to China, the meaning of a film like this extends beyond the silver screen.

For a long time, Hollywood movies have played an important role in promoting US culture. The films, as cliched and predictable as they are, always follow a formula that wraps US core values around universal human stories - a formula that has proven to work at the box office. And that, until now, is what China has missed.

China's public relations on the international stage has been immature, to say the least. Critical questions from the media receive either harsh ridicule or are ignored, some cultural events are inadequately promoted or sloppily organized, and when soft power is flexed it is done so in a ham-fisted way so that unique Chinese elements are the focus rather than the universal human touch. The result is suspicion and a big contributor to the skepticism and resistance China faces around the world.

But things apparently are changing. Last year, Better Angels, a documentary film written and directed by two-time Academy Award winner Malcolm Clarke was released in both the US and China. Portraying the interactions between the two countries via everyday stories of ordinary people, the film showed that both the Chinese and Americans are peace loving human beings rather than monsters.

Some critics in the US questioned the film because it didn't delve enough into critical issues and called it Chinese propaganda. If it is propaganda, it is smart, at least much smarter than the hard-to-swallow top down messages that we'd seen too often.

So, to the "Earth." When Hollywood tells an apocalyptic story, Americans are always the heroes who rescue mankind. When China tells such a story, it is natural that the heroes have yellow skin and dark eyes. As long as it is a human interest story, who the heroes are doesn't really matter to most members of the audience.

These films may only be commercial productions that happen to be aligned with the messages China would like to send out. But many China-backed organizations in the US have screened Better Angels and Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying called on reporters to see the "Earth" in a recent press briefing, clear signs that China has realized the invaluable PR value in human stories.

At a recent forum regarding US future policy toward China held by the Asia Society in New York, an audience member who identified himself as a diplomat from the Chinese Consulate in New York asked the American China experts on stage how China can improve its public relations. Orville Schell, director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society, said the stressed China-US relationship is already a broken wall that cannot just be plastered and held up by improved communications skills. "We need some major re-accommodations," Schell said.

But that doesn't mean the focus on improving China's image is not more important. Even if good PR alone is not able to fix the wall, bad PR could easily be the last straw that brings it down.

The author is a New York-based journalist and Alicia Patterson fellow.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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