Toto, I don’t think we’re in Shanghai any more

It was in those first few days, after I had mustered the willpower and bother to finally set up a blog and began to get down to work on it, that I took a last minute-ish week’s holiday to China.

Ok, so it wasn’t exactly unexpected, but since this is essentially a film-only blog I chose not to prattle on about my life’s doings and so never mentioned that I would be absent. Of course, I planned to blog from China, but WordPress is suspiciously blocked over there on those censored Eastern shores.

I could talk at length about my impressions of China after my first visit – half of which I spent in Hangzhou, a “medium-sized” (only 8 million inhabitants) city with a stunning amount of greenery, and half in Shanghai – but I will be brief, and then link everything back to the movies.

The level of economic growth there is astounding; the major cities have grown and continue to grow at unprecedented speeds. High-rise buildings rival New York in numbers. Roads, railways and subways are all improving in quality and safety (if only the same could be said of the drivers). People eat and dress at the height of fashion and cost; designer labels are everywhere, and now that most of the counterfeit markets have been shut down in lieu of the Beijing Olympics, their store-bought prices are enormous (ironic really, since so many of them are “Made in China”).

What I found hard to ignore as a psuedo-journalist and pop-culture junkie was the failure of China to embrace global culture by creating something new. Their sky-scraping buildings are impressive but all are in a very Western style; there’s just nothing strictly Chinese about them. Chinese pop music, the little of what I heard of it as I quickly shuffled away from the speakers playing it, is a nasty mix of five-year-old hip-hop and pop.

Most notable to me of course was the lack not only of a film industry but of film advertising altogether. In my entire trip I saw one sole billboard for a film, a Chinese thriller of some sorts. Cinemas are few and far between and seem to play limited and neutral American imports; the few hundred or so they take in for the year chosen wisely and censored carefully.

Unable to attend the cinema where all would be dubbed into a language that I could neither understand nor comprehend the basics (largely because despite being only a two hours’ drive apart, Shanghai and Hangzhou have different dialects which made all the little Chinese I had picked up in the first few days utterly useless in Shanghai), I was forced to sample films on the hotel TV. Obviously Chinese shows were inaccessible to me, and those that I saw were all very soap opera-ish, of the kind of quality one would associate with the more popular of those two Australian ones (I am choosing not to name them on purpose), if not worse.

Thank god for BBC World, because the Chinese news, which does actually come in an English language version, is utterly biased towards the State, with no care at all for the outside world. Thankfully, in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake, the focus was largely on survivors and aid efforts, which propagandistic or not are still important to cover, and the positive and negative aspects of the whole thing are moving regardless.

As for the movie channels, I didn’t really have the time to inspect them thoroughly, due largely to the lousy selection on view. Sex and drugs were of course more or less off the cards, and violence was ok as long as it wasn’t too brutal. Much of this I assembled from watching about 20 minutes of 300, that amusing festival of riotous machismo. The most notable edits were of course the missing nudity (all except Gerard Butler’s ass, I must protest) and interestingly the removal of all decapitations.

Hilariously all of the violence was more or less retained, except that blood was replaced with what could only be described as some kind of dirt mixed with oil. If anything it resembled the orc blood from The Lord of the Rings, which is amusing to think that they could de-humanise the Persians any more after all the criticism that was fired at this film for that very reason. I’m left wondering why they wouldn’t just show something else.

To return to my original point, China should not just be taking what is foreign and bending it to be acceptable to the Chinese. Censorship is something I am unhappy with in most cases but for a country rebuilding itself as quickly and successfully as China I think it’s something that can be accepted provided there is a move towards a more open scenario.

Having built up its economy so rapidly, China has undoubtedly ignored, for the time being one hopes, its political and cultural developments. Culture is particularly on the edge of the knife, because there truly does not appear to be anything deeply Chinese and modern bar the ever-present figure of Jackie Chan (his face advertises almost every product you could imagine).

It was a great shame that a play that I was to attend, directed by Zhang Yimou no less, was cancelled due to rain (it was an outdoor performance on Hangzhou’s West Lake). The Chinese are undoubtedly eager to update their culture, but seem to be lost in the past, as the story of this play, Impressions of the West Lake, and indeed much of Zhang’s filmography.

Walking and taxiing around Shanghai I saw a city that was incredibly international, perhaps even more so than New York, if not close to, and countless locations offered infinite possibilities for any kind of film; thrillers, political dramas, cultural comedies, romances, bleak dramas, uplifting dramas. China is simply to afraid to show itself, despite how well it is doing. A film on the societal effects of the one-child policy could be fascinating, horrifying and/or touching, but there is just no way it could be allowed. Yet.

The status quo in China is simply not ready for that, which is a shame, because the rest of the world is ready to see the new China. I saw a brief glimpse of it and was hugely impressed by how far they’ve come; the Olympics will no doubt speed the process along, but it’s a journey very few will ever actually make. If they can experience just a taste of the new China through media; books or television or film; then the positive light that could shine on China will no doubt help them secure the international primacy they seek.

I’m not saying that films are the answer to all of China’s problems… I’m just saying that a revamp of their industry and outlook couldn’t hurt. Cause if I see another goddamn Wuxia movie I’m just going to give up altogether.

Writer’s note: Just to clarify that the title of this entry was not just a random and pointless film reference. Toto is a Japanese company which manufactures bathroom fixtures, and thus the name TOTO was branded on every urinal, sink or toilet I used while in China. And as almost any male will agree, if you see a funny name written on a toilet, you’re not going to forget it any time soon.

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