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How U.S. Soft Power Won the Chinese Box Office

Chinese have noticed how ‘Transformers 4’ took their money -- then depicted Texans saving the human race anyway.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Hollywood triumphed in China this summer after Transformers: Age of Extinction broke all previous box office records there, selling over $300 million worth of tickets against a $244 million U.S. take. But jubilation over the film’s Chinese success has been dampened somewhat by jeers from major news outlets in the West that Transformers 4 was yet another example of Hollywood’s selling out to China. Critics of the film point to its numerous Chinese product placements, generously featured Chinese landmarks, cameos by Chinese pop stars, and a pro-Chinese-government message. To see for myself, I braved the midtown Manhattan crowds, and ventured out to AMC Empire-25 — a branch of the now-Chinese-owned theater chain — to catch the 165 minutes of relentless explosions that comprises the film. It turns out that the moaning over Hollywood’s capitulation to China is completely unwarranted. On the contrary, Transformers 4 delivers a victory for U.S. popular culture.

Western media has wrongly excoriated the film’s (thin) plot for pandering. Variety has declared that "Transformers: Age of Extinction is a very patriotic film" but that "it’s just Chinese patriotism on the screen, not American." It’s true that the film takes a predictable jab at the CIA while depicting a timid White House beholden to the interests of the military industrial complex. It juxtaposes an ineffectual U.S. government with a Chinese state led by an upright-looking Chinese defense minister determined to save Hong Kong from an alien robot attack. This premise has many Western commentators worried that the Chinese Communist Party comes across as the good guy. The U.K.-based Financial Times lamented, "While western democracy is represented by a Cheney-esque goon heading up the CIA and running rings around an ineffectual president, the response of the Chinese government to alien invasion is one of efficient, disciplined resolve." The Guardian, another U.K. outlet, called such a decision "sinister," as it showcases an autocratic political system as more functional than Western democracy.

It’s more mercenary than sinister. The office of the film’s fictional Chinese defense minister resides in Pangu Plaza, a dragon-shaped hotel, office, and mall complex, owned by a company that entered into a product placement contract with the film’s producers. And while the film’s Chinese collaborator, according to numerous Chinese reports, insisted on adding a Chinese military presence in the film, the determined defense minister is accorded only a brief shot as he vows to scramble China’s fighter jets to defend Hong Kong. No Chinese fighter jets actually appear in the film.

Instead, the plot leaves it to a few Americans from Texas, led by protagonist Cade Yeager (played by Mark Wahlberg) to come and run around the Far East and save the human race. In so doing, the film perpetuates the myth of triumphant American individualism and exceptionalism. The supposedly worrisome contrast between the dysfunctional U.S. government and the highly disciplined Chinese government actually highlights the very deficiency of a media under the tight grip of a Chinese state that insists it must be depicted in a positive light. The Chinese on the screen, including the upright defense minister, are reduced to sidekicks and bystanders, while Americans save the day.

Chinese partners do tag along for the joy ride, but on their own dime, and for a meager return. Although Chinese firms paid to have their products and landmarks shown and China contributed cameos by its beloved pop stars, the placement of both is so haphazard that they are at worst insults, and at best satire, in neither case casting China in a particularly glowing light. U.S. characters’ drinking the Chinese version of Red Bull and using a Chinese ATM card in Texas, or taking a moment to sip Chinese milk on a Hong Kong rooftop with a deadly assassin in hot pursuit, hardly do justice to the plot, or even to the products themselves. A Chinese survey conducted by media company Sina indicated that the product placements in the movie had little impact on Chinese consumer behavior; and there’s no evidence of Chinese soft drinks and milk taking over U.S. markets in the near future. Meanwhile, the assorted Chinese celebrities — from Zou Shiming, China’s first Olympic gold medalist boxer, to Li Bingbing, China’s female screen icon — are so perfunctorily inserted that they amount to just another incoherent product placement. Small wonder some Chinese viewers say they found these efforts patronizing.

From a broader perspective, Chinese film suffers most when Hollywood dumps the likes of Transformers 4 on the Chinese market. It is thanks to the brilliant production assistance and marketing campaign of the film’s willing Chinese partners — the monopolistic China Film Group and its sister company, the equally monopolistic China Central Television movie channel — that Paramount Pictures Corporation was able to conquer China’s massive market, at the expense of China’s smaller private film companies. Zhang Hongsen, Chief of the film bureau of the Chinese State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television, saw it coming when he urged cinema owners to ensure that local movies would not be squeezed out by Transformers 4.

It might indeed be the case that Hollywood tent-poles increasingly cater to Chinese tastes. But those Chinese tastes have long been molded by Hollywood, which ultimately sells American — not Chinese — dreams. Joseph Stalin once remarked: "If I could control the medium of the American motion picture, I would need nothing else to convert the entire world to Communism." Comrade Stalin’s successors will have to keep waiting.

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