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Why moving away from the Chinese film market won’t harm Asian representation in film | movies

PIxar’s love letter to second-generation Chinese immigrant families, Turning Red, marks a milestone for Hollywood and seemingly signals the end of his predictably doomed love affair with China. We’re now two years away from the backlash over Disney’s live-action Mulan remake, a film that ranged from its filming near detention camps in Xinjiang and thanks to members of the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda department to its titular star, the Supported police violence during protests, was controversial in Hong Kong in 2019.

Subsequent Hollywood-China co-productions experienced a similar setback for this form of kowtowing to China. Dreamworks’ Abominable (2019) was boycotted by Vietnamese and Malaysian audiences for its apparent support for China’s geopolitical ambitions. Netflix’ Over the Moon (2020) was lauded for its attempt to represent Chinese culture but failed at the Chinese box office. Disney’s messy Raya and the Last Dragon (2021), which also fared poorly in China, left a sour taste for its narrative of uniting various “warring” kingdoms — an odd but clear nod to Xi Jinping’s centralization strategy.

We are seemingly nearing the end of Hollywood-China relations, indicative of the way China is steadily “decoupling” from the West. Under the guise of its aggressive zero-Covid policy, China has turned inward, leading to a mass exodus of foreigners and foreign partnerships, and targeting Hong Kong as a place for rebuilding “civil society according to CCP standards.” Taiwan is undoubtedly also part of this strategy.

As box office numbers for American films decline, they are being replaced by larger-budget Chinese films that follow the Hollywood blockbuster formula. The mood can change quickly: one notable incident involved Oscar-winner Chloé Zhao, who was initially hailed by Chinese state media after winning an Oscar for Nomadland, but the film’s release in China was canceled and social media slammed after interview comments about Cleaned up China’s surveillance state reappeared.

So we are now at an exciting moment for Hollywood films telling Chinese stories. Directed by Domee Shi (who won an Oscar for the beautiful short Bao), Turning Red is a coming-of-age story about Mei Lee, a precocious Chinese-Canadian teenager dealing with the challenges of puberty and the high expectations confronts her mother ; these manifest as a transformation into a red panda. Add in a long-standing family curse and 2000s nostalgia, and you have an uplifting, universal film that’s not aimed at any particular audience.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was littered with Easter eggs alluding to China’s euphemism of its own past”… Simu Liu, lead actor in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Photo: Christopher Polk / E! Entertainment/NBCUniversal/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

A year ago, Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was a movie I saw with extremely low expectations. But I was delighted to find that not only was it superbly made, but it was littered with Easter eggs alluding to China’s euphemism of its own past (including a bus driver’s badge number bearing the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre represents). When its Canadian star Simu Liu opened up about the realities of his family’s struggle in communist China – as well as his love for Hong Kong’s lemon tea brand Vitasoy, which was boycotted in China over the stabbing of a Hong Kong police officer – it prompted backlash.

Turning Red goes one step further. Its primary Chinese language is Cantonese, Hong Kong’s co-official language, which the CCP is trying to suppress — as it did with restricting the use of the Mongolian language in 2020 — as another strategy to control Chinese identity. Those moves didn’t go unnoticed: Shang Chi was denied a release in China, and Turning Red went straight to the Disney+ streaming service, which isn’t available in China.

As China continues its relentless quest to isolate itself from the rest of the world, we are now seeing a blossoming in Asian American cinema. The end of the affair for Hollywood and China may well lead to a promising new future, free from the shackles of kowtowing to an authoritarian regime for money.

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