Again, Hollywood has focused far more narrowly on business. And that focus has been reinforced as Hollywood has stubbornly resisted other countries’ efforts to engage in cultural protectionism. It took decades for the U.S. Supreme Court to change the legal status of film from “a business, pure and simple” to cultural expression deserving First Amendment protection. It is therefore ironic that, when faced with foreign governments lobbying the World Trade Organization to curb Hollywood’s dominance of their film markets, the standard American response has been to bluster that film is a commodity like any other, and that to define it as cultural expression is to violate the sacred principle of free trade.
In early 2017, Beijing’s strategy of working with Hollywood to enhance China’s cultural influence culminated in the release of the biggest Sino-American co-production ever: a $150 million special-effects extravaganza called The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon and helmed by Zhang Yimou, China’s foremost director. Produced by NBCUniversal and three Chinese partners at a state-of-the-art studio in Qingdao, The Great Wall was the third stage in a process by which Hollywood went from exporting U.S.-made films into China, to co-producing films with China in America, to co-producing films with China in China. At each stage, the American producers received a greater share of the revenue—and submitted to a greater degree of control by the Chinese authorities.
If The Great Wall had turned out to be the massive hit everyone was expecting, this process might have continued. But The Great Wall was not a hit. It was a massive flop—in China, America, and everywhere else. Since then, the relationship has been going a bit sour. As China has pulled back from major co-productions with U.S. studios, there has been a migration of individual film professionals, including not just actors but also hundreds of “below-the-line” workers (cinematographers, composers, visual-effects supervisors, action coordinators, and the like) into the Chinese film industry—which is to say, into the Chinese propaganda machine.
By propaganda, I do not mean lavish epics about sexy female wuxia warriors, or animated features with cute pandas and white-whiskered sages under blossoming plum trees. I mean bloody, ultra-violent action flicks, in which heroic, righteous Chinese soldiers kick some serious ass, including cowardly, decadent American ass, in exotic foreign places that are clearly in need of Xi Jinping Thought.
The prime example is Wolf Warrior 2 (2017), a nonstop tsunami of gun battles, massive explosions, wrenching hand-to-hand combat, and a spectacular tank chase, which hammers away at a single message: China is bringing security, prosperity, and modern health care to Africa, while the United States is bringing only misery. The film broke all box-office records in China and is still, at $5.6 billion, its highest-grossing film ever. And while the state media lauded it for beating Hollywood at its own game, they neglected to mention that the action was choreographed by the Hollywood veteran Sam Hargrave.