China’s Holiday Movie Binge Features Big Sales, Little Propaganda

For a big, boffo movie opening in China, it’s hard to beat the Lunar New Year. Box offices turn into gold mines as crowds seek out new releases during the 10-day holiday, turning film binges into an activity as traditional as family feasts.There are seven must-see movies in this year’s holiday lineup, all Chinese productions, but there’s no “main melody film,” one that presents China and the world through the lens of China’s Communist Party (CCP), a seemingly striking omission months before the CCP commemorates its 100th anniversary in July.But the lineup for the holiday that began Feb. 12 may reflect official interest in refining main melody films to contain less overt propaganda and A man gets his movie ticket from an automated ticket machine at a cinema in Beijing, China, Feb. 19, 2021.The surprise break out is Hi, Mom, written, directed by and co-starring female filmmaker Jia Ling. She plays a devoted daughter, who after her mother dies suddenly, is transported back to 1981, where she meets her mother, played by Zhang Xiaofei.Word of mouth propelled sales to $422 million for the holiday, according to Variety and Beacon.Weng Huangde, executive director of the Taiwan Film Critics Society, told VOA that as Chinese movies have become more commercial, it is more difficult to identify a main melody film.Commercialization meant films appealed more to audiences than the CCP, and in what Yang, the author, called “extreme cases, some main melodic blockbusters even de-emphasized the political aspect and chose to focus on the production techniques and storytelling during the promotion process.”Storytelling was key to My People, My Country, said Weng. The 2019 hit did not follow “the old format of praising the government. Instead, it was about regular people. … Even if your ideology is different from that of the Chinese Communist Party, you were moved by the characters.”The omnibus film produced the year of China’s 70th anniversary, includes seven stories of ordinary people involved in seven key events since 1949.Weng said authorities carefully orchestrated the focus, knowing many viewers don’t appreciate movies that hammer home praise for the government.“So they hide it in the subject matter … so that you can’t see it on the surface, you won’t realize it until the movie is over. I think this is the trend of the Chinese movie – hiding the government’s ideology in different subjects without being noticed,” he said.Pandemic’s impactOr in this pandemic year, are authorities aware that Chinese people may be sick of hearing the government tell them how well it works on their behalf?“As for audience sentiments: that can be a difficult thing to gauge,” said UCLA’s Berry. “There are certainly some audiences who are sick of formulaic propaganda films, but there are also just as many patriotic young Chinese who are only all too willing to support these kinds of films. The Chinese success in controlling the COVID-19 outbreak has also bolstered patriotic sentiments for many Chinese, potentially creating an even larger market for these types of films.”Before the pandemic, Hollywood used the Lunar New Year to release its offerings to Chinese audiences.This year and last, Hollywood release dates have been scrambled or postponed because of COVID-19.The result is a Lunar New Year movie mania focused on Chinese productions. With the Chinese movies breaking box-office records, Hollywood is on notice that the market can do without its exports, which were already suffering from Trump-era trade tussles.“Hollywood is in a precarious position,” Berry said. The pandemic has hurt U.S. production and the domestic box office, he explained, and the U.S.-China trade war “has led many patriotic young Chinese audience members to turn their backs on U.S. cultural products.”With most U.S. theaters closed amid COVID-19, “Hollywood is more reliant than ever on the Chinese box office, but Chinese audiences aren’t buying,” Berry added. And though Hollywood “is heavily reliant upon the global market, the Chinese box office is self-sufficient” and can make films at a fraction of the cost.Pena suggested that “when Hollywood films become easily available again, they will once again connect powerfully with the Chinese public. But that’s always hard to guarantee, as the PRC market remains so controlled.”Or as Weng said, “The performance of Chinese movies during this Lunar New Year may determine Hollywood’s policy toward the Chinese movie market in the future. The movie market this year may also determine which direction Chinese movies will go in the future.”

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