Vietnam blocks cinemas from showing ‘Abominable’. As China wrestles control of the global cultural narrative, the decision will be the first of many.
Director Jill Culton recently revealed the painstaking attention to detail involved in creating her recently released film, “Abominable”. The film follows a Chinese girl that discovers a yeti living on her roof and charts her and her family’s interactions with the mythical beast.
Creators obsessed over the details to ensure that the depiction of a Chinese kitchen in the film was culturally accurate. DreamWorks designers sent their co-producers at China’s Pearl Studio concept sketches of a Chinese table. “More food”, came the reply. To look authentic Pearl Studio producers needed the table to be packed with food to accurately resemble a typical Chinese kitchen.
“We kept sending it back and forth,” Culton said, “and they kept saying ‘more food, more food!’.
Given the level of attention paid to the minutia of the film, it is, therefore, inconceivable that the inclusion of a map which features disputed territories in the South China Sea within Beijing’s nine-dash line was anything other than deliberate.
The U-shaped line is used by the Chinese government and officials to support their claim over contested areas in the resource-rich South China Sea. The move sparked outrage from ASEAN claimants.
On Monday, the Vietnamese culture ministry pulled the film from its cinemas over the image. The Philippines’ Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr called for a “universal boycott” of DreamWorks films. In Malaysia, film censors ordered the removal of the scene.
The incident was the natural progression of Chinese soft power
Culture feeds public opinion. Public opinion feeds policy, and policy drives politics. Controlling the cultural narrative is a way to accumulate vast political capital. And fewer agents on earth are as adept at controlling the cultural narrative than the Chinese government.
As American audiences eschew trips to the cinema in favour of curling up in front of a Netflix movie, Beijing has been handed a weapon to control the global cultural narrative. China is gaining ground on the US as the world’s biggest movie market. Projections from consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers put the value of the US box office at US$12.1 billion for 2019, with China marginally trailing at US$11.5 billion. China is tipped to overtake the US in 2020.
Studios in the West are pushing for a slice of this expanding market. But before their films can dance across Chinese screens, they must appease the cultural gatekeepers of Chinese culture—the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Before a film can be sold in China, studios must first submit a copy of the script to communist party censorship. Censors can, and frequently do, ask for amendments to the script before it can enter the Chinese market.
If these amendments are requested in pre-production, the additional costs incurred can be kept low. However, if the Chinese government calls for amendments in post-production, these costs can quickly add up. In the case of 2012’s ‘Red Dawn’, MGM spent more than US$1 million digitally erasing evidence of the Chinese Army in the film, frame by frame. The plot originally centred on a fictitious Chinese invasion of the US. To appease Beijing ahead of its global release, MGM replaced the Chinese invasion with a North Korean invasion.
Unsurprisingly, many studios would rather not take the risk of incurring additional post-production costs. Many now invite Chinese censorship officials to the set during filming and include them in the creative process. Alternatively, as in the case of ‘Abominable’, a US studio will co-produce the film with a Chinese production company.
In a list of the top 100 grossing films between 1997 and 2013, only 12 were partly financed by Chinese production companies. Among the 100 highest-grossing films between 2013 and 2019, Chinese companies co-financed or produced 41.
The effects of the Sinification of international cinema will be far-reaching. “You’re not going to see anything that’s like ‘Seven Year’s in Tibet’ anymore,” Larry Shinagawa, a professor at the Hawaii Tokai International College, told the New York Times—referring to the 1997 drama starring Brad Pitt that features Chinese atrocities in Tibet. Any films depicting the three Ts—Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen Square—simply will not be produced.
There can be no politically neutral agents
China’s stranglehold over the film industry sits at the centre of the crossroads between censorship, the free market, and globalization. Vietnam’s decision to remove ‘Abominable’ from theatres will be the first of many decisions ASEAN nations will have to make while the international community stands at this critical juncture.
China is forcing international businesses to toe the communist party line, or face exclusion from their vast market. The nine-dash line featured on another prominent broadcast last week. US sports giant ESPN came under fire after using a map featuring the territorial demarcation in its NBA coverage. The network had previously used a version of the same map without the line.
The decision came just days after lucrative Chinese sponsors pulled their funding from the NBA following a tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in which he lent his support for the demonstrators in Hong Kong.
Businesses that anger Beijing endure swift financial repercussions. No firm can afford to be politically neutral towards Beijing. There is no middle ground to straddle. Companies have to line up behind Beijing and its political narrative or forgo access to Chinese profits.
What does this mean for ASEAN?
Unfortunately for South China Sea claimants, soft power moves to control the global narrative pay off. Despite the backdrop of a trade war, 53% of Americans surveyed in December 2018, had a favourable view of China, the highest level in decades. This is due, in no small part, to China’s increased ability to control the global cultural narrative.
In an issue like the South China Sea conflict, where international opinion is as important as domestic opinion, ASEAN has few recourses to combat soft Chinese power infiltrating the West’s commercial interests.
ASEAN nations can pressure Hollywood for increased transparency regarding Chinese involvement in films’ creative processes. Films which were financed by Chinese firms or modified from their original format to appease Beijing could carry a label before the credits detailing when the content had been modified at the insistence of the Chinese government. This might heighten viewers’ sensitivity to Chinese cultural and political influences. However, it would have done little in the case of ‘Abominable’ where the target audiences of families and young children are largely oblivious to the South China Sea dispute.
Like a yeti sitting on the roof, the Chinese market has become too big to ignore. But to befriend the Chinese yeti, companies will have to facilitate its political and cultural ambitions. Vietnam’s decision to remove ‘Abominable’ from cinemas will be the first of many difficult decisions as the Chinese censorship apparatus collides with free-market capitalism.
This article was updated to include the response from the Malaysian government.