How Chinese Propaganda Films Became Watchable

IN 2021, LA A year after China overtook America to become the world’s largest film market, “The Battle at Lake Changjin” has become the highest-grossing film in Chinese history and the second-highest of the year. in the world. It grossed over $900 million, second only to “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

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The eponymous battle took place in 1950 during the Korean War and saw Mao Zedong’s army inflicting a heavy defeat on America. The film, which was directed by Chen Kaige, a figurehead of the “fifth generation” of filmmakers who rose to global prominence in the 1980s, was particularly popular with young Chinese. Social media users posted rave reviews. Fans posted videos of themselves eating frozen potatoes and fried flour, like the soldiers in the movie, as a tribute to the hardships of this generation.

But the film is important for another reason. It was produced in close collaboration with the propaganda organs of the Communist Party. All films in China must pass party censorship, but until recently, market-driven comedies and dramas have been the most popular. Films specifically intended to drum up support for the party were notable for their boredom. In 2009, “The Founding of a Republic” was the first of a trilogy published for the 60th anniversary of the founding of Communist China. It was such a flop that Douban, a movie rating site, disabled voting. Now, after a decade of working with serious filmmakers, the party has figured out how to turn propaganda into entertainment people actually want to watch.

The government still locks the public in and limits choice. In 2021, to celebrate the party’s 100th anniversary, he ordered every cinema in the country to schedule at least two screenings per week of “patriotic” films (and which, as usual, confuse patriotism with party support). Full houses were ensured by bringing in officials and party members and reducing ticket prices, as per a political directive. For “The Battle of Changjin Lake”, the schools reserved movie theaters for their students. A Chinese journalist famous for investigating official corruption has been arrested after criticizing her.

But such measures are now less necessary. Patriotic movies and TV shows, known in Chinese as zhu xuanlu— “main melody” movies — often get hundreds of thousands of high ratings on Douban. A 2017 nationalist film, “Wolf Warrior 2,” ranked above two-thirds of other action films. Nearly half of all viewers of the 45 new “main tune” TV shows in the first ten months of 2021 were between the ages of 18 and 24, according to Endata, a research firm.

The party wants to build on these successes. In November, the China Film Administration, which determines if, when and how a film is released, released a new five-year plan for 2021-25. China will become a “strong cinematic power” by regularly releasing “masterpieces that manifest Chinese spirit, values, power and aesthetics”, he said. It will force the country to release “ten big movies” every year that are “critically acclaimed and popular” and 50 that gross 100 million yuan ($16 million) or more. Domestic films are expected to account for more than 55% of total annual box office receipts.

It should be easy. Local titles accounted for 89% of releases in 2021, according to Dengta, an online ticketing platform. The country, which had only 2,600 screens in 2005, now has 82,000 (twice as many as America, where the number has not increased for a decade). Patriotic films are therefore likely to multiply.

Historical films generated around 15% of ticket sales in 2020 and 2021, compared to 1-2% in previous years, according to Dengta. Lead tune films dominated discussions in forums at the Beijing and Shanghai International Film Festivals in 2021. The government’s support seems bottomless. “The Battle at Lake Changjin,” like many of these films, was subsidized by a special fund that takes 5% of domestic box office revenue and redistributes it to films made in the country.

The cast of some of China’s most famous movie stars, spanning multiple generations, helps. Many of the most popular young actors and musicians are also the faces of the party. Jackson Yee, who starred in “The Battle of Changjin Lake,” is one of China’s hottest celebrities. Originally a member of a boy band, he has the kind of androgynous appeal that the party has, in other contexts, recently condemned as “abnormal”. But he is also a member of the standing committee of the National Union of Students, which is controlled by the Communist Youth League, a branch of the party. A hashtag promoting Mr. Yee’s role in “The Battle of Changjin Lake” has been viewed nearly 13 billion times on Weibo, a microblog.

To pave the way for flag-waving local dishes, China is excluding most American films. A quota system allows up to 34 Hollywood films to be screened in theaters each year. In 2021, only 19 were allowed. Heightened tensions between America and China, coupled with the pandemic, which has made China more insular, may explain the reduction. Authorities often hold up foreign blockbusters for months to help a domestic rival sell more tickets.

Movies from Disney-owned Marvel Studios have had a particularly tough time. No Marvel titles were approved in 2021, no matter how hard they tried to avoid upsetting the censors. Even “Shang-chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” a superhero movie set in China, failed. The party may have punished Marvel after nationalist trolls unearthed critical remarks about China made by the film’s Chinese-born star Simu Liu. The same thing happened with Chloe Zhao, the Beijing director of “Eternals”, whose previous film, “Nomad land”, was banned as a result.

It’s not just Hollywood; films from anywhere overseas are squeezed out (see chart). Only 11% of films released in 2021 were imported. Political tensions hampered the release of films from India, South Korea and Japan.

A boom in genuinely popular patriotic television shows is also underway. A 23-part series titled “Min Ning Town,” chronicling the party’s anti-poverty agenda, scored 9.2 out of 10 in Douban, beating out “The Queen’s Gambit,” a Netflix chess series. The “Age of Awakening”, about the founding of the party, produced with the support of propaganda outlets, was another of the most popular TV shows in 2021, scoring a 9.3 rating on Douban from nearly 400,000 voters. Many viewers were surprised by the quality of these “red-themed” dramas, as the genre is known.

Wherever there is culture, the party gets more involved, especially if there is a chance to retain young people. In November, a few weeks after a Chinese team won the world championship in League of Legends, a video game, one of its members, Ming Kai, joined in the fun. Official podcasts, like a recent series on party history, now sound as good as their viral American rivals. And the party begins LARPing – “live role-playing game” – in which enthusiasts don costumes and act out scenarios in a fantasy world. People in China spent about $2.7 billion on fashion in 2021. Authorities are promoting patriotic Sino-Japanese War storylines instead of the usual murder mysteries. Never has party propaganda been so frightening.

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the title “How propaganda became watchable”

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