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Chinese-American Movies and China’s Global Soft Power

You will know China, whether you want to or not.

“What is this, a kickstarter movie?” I asked in jest as the film began. It was a sub-amateur production, college film students tend to do better. The actors had the poise of nocturnal rodents caught in a floodlight, the camera work seemed to have been done from a $19 stationary tripod, and the dialogue was at the level of a 6th grade chapter book. It was so bad it was almost entertaining. The movie was its own parody.

The film was called Legendary: Tomb of the Dragon. It of course starred Dolf Lundgran. It was about a pair of competing cryptozoologists looking for a monster in China . . .

The significance of this film is found in the latter part of this statement.

My interest was piqued I realized that the film was really set in China and mostly featured Chinese actors and extras. The excessive use of Mandarin (often without English subtitles) throughout also came across as unusual for an American movie. Then it became clear that I wasn’t watching an American movie. Though put out by Lions Gate, it was basically a Chinese film with a few Western actors.

Agreements between Western and Chinese film companies to make movies together are becoming more and more common. They usually sound something like, “[Hollywood film company] agrees to shoot [x amount] of films in mainland China in partnership with [Chinese film company].” China’s Wanda Group owns the AMC movie theater chain in the USA, Walt Disney, DreamWorks, and News Corp., and other big US film studios have already begun making movies with Chinese partners. Iron Man 3 and Transformers 4 are big name results of these agreements. I knew that what I was looking at on that screen was one of the first few raindrops of what will become a downpour. Chinese-American movies will become a new global standard, and a huge percentage of the films released by Hollywood will be shot in China, feature Chinese actors, be made in partnership with Chinese film companies.

China is pushing its soft power globally. The Mandarin language, Chinese geography, news, and culture will increasingly be in the face of everybody on every stretch of the planet. You will know all about Guangzhou, you will know the skylines of Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Shenzhen, your kids will talk about Changsha, they may even look up at you and ask where Wuhan is — and there is a reasonable chance that you will be able to explain to them that, “Wuhan is a megacity in China that sits between Nanjing and Chongqing on the Chang Jiang.”

It has become a global norm for the world to watch American movies, but China wants you watching their movies too. And you will. You will know China, whether you want to or not. You will get to know this country like rest of the world has gotten to know New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles: through movies.

Though from what I saw when I watched “Legendary: the Tomb of the Dragon,” a new concept of China and Chinese culture is not yet being asserted. It was as though the Chinese attempted to show themselves the way they think the West thinks of them: as incapable bumblers in need of foreign saviors and boob brained chicks sputtering out corny cute English language catchphrases. The same worn Chinese inferiority complex — West = good, China = not so good — seems to continue being manifested even as China attempts to promote itself through global entertainment networks.

Though I don’t think the West will ever be ready for true Chinese cinematic staples like anti-Japanese war flicks, I do believe this substandard self-portrayal will eventually fade away as China-based films become a Western norm.

The other side of this phenomenon is that these Chinese-American films are, of course, not just being made for a Western audience but a Chinese one as well. They are culturally amorphous productions, singular films being created for both sides of the East-West chasm. The dual use of English and Mandarin make them linguistically permeable and they can almost seamlessly be run as Chinese productions in China and Western ones abroad.

Though what is remarkable is that Americans are watching these movies. The hump of having a film that’s set in China with a profuse amount of the Chinese language and a 90% Chinese cast and having it seem ordinary has been crossed. China has become a global staple.

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Filed under: China, Culture and Society, Essays

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 83 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3215 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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