Friday, July 4, 2014

As Hong Kong Rocked in Protest, Transformers 4 Plays Chinese Politics: Critics Call Director "A Giant Tool"

A few hours ago, I was sitting in a local theater with my wife watching Transformers 4, the latest iteration of Director Michael Bay's "robot porn" series. (The fact that we paid money to see it is perhaps an admission of a guilty indulgence.)

Trying to keep warm in the chilly theater, we were enjoying that special Bay combination of explosions, CGI, and corny star-studded humor. All of a sudden, there was a cut-away scene to the Chinese Ministry of Defense in which a top official says "the central government will defend Hong Kong at all costs"!

I felt like my sci-fi escapism had been blind-sided by a Communist Party public service announcement.

Beginning in Texas, and making it's way through Chicago, the movie eventually landed (and ended) in China. This was a reflection of both the Chinese money behind the film--China Movie Channel and Jiaflix Enterprises--as well as Paramount Pictures' hope to enjoy a big payday at the Chinese box office, which is set to overtake the U.S. as largest market for motion pictures in the near future.

After making a run through Beijing, the eye-melting finale of the movie takes place in Hong Kong, where Optimus Prime and his Autobot chums save the world while riding transformer dinosaurs. (Dinoformers doesn't sound right, and transosaurs sounds like a Decepticon gay pride parade, so I will stick with transformer dinosaurs for now.)

Hong Kong, like Chicago in the previous Transformers flick, ends up being pummeled by robot baddies. In response, a Hong Kong security official exclaims that the "central government" should be called in for help. Moments later the film cuts to Beijing where, as I mention above, the defense minister resolutely states that "the central government will defend Hong Kong at all costs".

This is a clear political statement, especially given the intense and mounting  turmoil that has rocked Hong Kong in recent months as locals oppose the perceived infringements on their liberties by the forementioned Chinese "central government".

What's more, the statement by China's Minister of Defense in the film plays absolutely no consequential role in the movie's plot. It is not a twist or even  comic relief. It is an utter non sequitur. The central government does not defend Hong Kong, which is ultimately saved, as expected, by the Autobots and leading actor Mark Wahlberg. The Chinese military does not even make an appearance until the final scene when the dust has settled and Optimus Prime is delivering his closing remarks--setting us up, no doubt, for Transformers 99.

If that declaration by the defense minister, to protect Hong Kong to the end, is irrelevant to the film, then it was only given screen time because the Chinese government--either directly or via the Chinese companies funding the film--wanted to use this unprecedented international platform to establish a political stance with audiences both foreign and domestic.

Such a conclusion implies that Michael Bay would do anything to make sure the film reached China's massive market, which loved the previous Transformers flicks. (Also not the shameless product placement for Budweiser, 伊利 milk, and others in the movie.)

Critics on both sides of the Pacific have blasted Bay for kowtowing to China, such as criticism from Variety and the South China Morning Post. The former magazine calls Bay a "giant tool", writing that "Bay hasn't a clue how to engage with Eastern culture, assuming engagement means more than blowing it up and mining it for product placements and stereotypes" ... "Bay, who has no compunction about mocking the smugness and inhumanity of the American left, displays no such swagger when it comes to critiquing the government of a foreign superpower. Far be it from this filmmaker to bite the hand that feeds him."

I'm sure Bay has a hard time hearing any criticism through mountains of cash he's earned from a number of blockbuster hits. Indeed, Transformers 4 is set to break sales records in China.

But the Chinese government statement in Transformers 4 is less important for what it says about Bay than what it says about the state of international media's relationship with China.

Movie studios, directors, and actors are going to increasingly fawn after China's huge and growing movie audiences. Assuming that the Chinese government continues to draw distinct political lines in the sand--Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, human rights activists, political corruption at the highest levels, etc.--we will probably see a greater number of foreign film players ready to either avoid those issues or bend to the will of the Chinese government in order to maintain access to the country's market.

As this disinfected image of China is disseminated around the world through Hollywood films, people who may not usually pay attention to China will come to understand a version of the country filtered by its government. As Perry Link recently put it in a ChinaFile discussion: "[W]e are left with a picture of China that is not only smaller than the whole but crucially different in nature."

But maybe I'm making too much of that moment in the Transformers movie. SCMP's Hong Kongese critic wrote: "When that part came on, nearly everyone in the theatre with me laughed out loud." Only time will tell if we can disregard it as a laughing matter.

2014.07.05 UPDATE: A friend reminded me that the proper terminology for a transformer dinosaur is a dinobot. Glad that's resolved.

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