PIxar’s love letter to second-generation Chinese immigrant families, Turning Red, marks a milestone for Hollywood, seemingly signaling the end of its doomed love affair with China. We are now two years after the backlash against Disney’s live-action remake Mulan, a film mired in controversy since it was filmed on location near Xinjiang’s internment camps and thanking members of the party’s propaganda department Chinese communist, to its title star supporting police violence during protests in Hong Kong in 2019.
Subsequent Hollywood-China co-productions saw a similar comeback for this form of bowing to China. Abominable (2019) by Dreamworks was boycotted by Vietnamese and Malaysian audiences for its blatant support of China’s geopolitical ambitions. Netflix’s Over the Moon (2020) was praised for its attempt to represent Chinese culture, but failed at the Chinese box office. Disney’s messy Raya and the Last Dragon (2021), which also performed poorly in China, left a sour taste regarding its storyline involving the continued unification of various ‘warring’ kingdoms – a weird nod but clear to Xi Jinping’s centralization strategy.
We are seemingly entering the end of the Hollywood-China relationship, revealing how China is steadily “decoupling” from the West. Under cover of its aggressive zero-Covid policy, China has turned inward, driving the mass exodus of foreigners and foreign partnerships, while pinning its future on Hong Kong as the place to rebuild a “civil society by CCP standards”. Taiwan is undoubtedly also part of this strategy.
As the box office for American films declines, they are being replaced by bigger-budget Chinese films, which follow the formula of Hollywood blockbusters. The mood can change quickly: A notable incident involved Oscar winner Chloe Zhao, who was first hailed by Chinese state media after the Oscar win for Nomadland, but the film’s Chinese release was canceled and social media cleaned up after interview comments about China’s surveillance state resurfaced. .
Therefore, we now find ourselves in an exciting time for Hollywood films telling Chinese stories. Turning Red, directed by Domee Shi (who won an Oscar for the beautiful short film Bao), is a coming-of-age story that follows precocious Chinese-Canadian teenager Mei Lee as she grapples with the challenges of adolescence and the authoritarian expectations of her mother. ; these manifest as a transformation into a red panda. Add to that a long-standing family curse, 2000s nostalgia, and you have an uplifting, universal film that appeals to no particular audience.
A year ago, Marvel’s Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings was a movie I watched with extremely low expectations. But I was delighted to find that it was not only superbly made, but also littered with Easter eggs alluding to China’s whitewashing of its own past (including a bus driver’s badge number being the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre). When her Canadian star Simu Liu opened up about the realities of her family’s struggle in communist China – as well as her love for Hong Kong lemon tea brand Vitasoy, which was boycotted in China following the attack on knife from a Hong Kong policeman – this led to a backlash.
Turning Red goes even further. Its main language is Cantonese, the co-official language of Hong Kong which the CCP is trying to suppress – as it did by limiting the use of the Mongolian language in 2020 – as another strategy to control Chinese identity. . These moves have not gone unnoticed: Shang Chi was denied a Chinese release, and Turning Red went straight to the Disney+ streaming service which is not available in China.
So, as China continues its relentless quest to isolate itself from the rest of the world, we are now witnessing a blossoming of Asian-American cinema. The end of the bargain for Hollywood and China may well lead to a bright new future, free from the shackles of bowing to authoritarian rule for money.