02/26/2022 – Turning a Corner?

To my mind, Li Bingbing’s appearance in the good old-fashioned, all-American movie The Meg was conspicuous, only another in a line of conspicuous Chinese faces in Hollywood films. This week, it was reported that she won’t be returning for the sequel. Good. We talked briefly about Li Bingbing for our look at the historic and folkloric warrior women of China, as she played a staple character originating in literature, the White-Haired Witch. Of course, she played that character in The Forbidden Kingdom, and she was a bad guy witch. That’s the rare case where you have to cast Chinese actors in Chinese roles, and they did, for the most part, going so genuine-article that they overlooked Chinese-American talent. Bingbing was already an established star, racking up industry awards since the late ‘90s, but it wasn’t until 2011 that she began her Hollywood career proper, with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, costarring with Jun Ji-hyun of all people. From there it was Resident Evil: Retribution as Ada Wong, Transformers: Age of Extinction, and The Meg in 2018.

So, what is all this? Well, one of the most uncomfortable refrains in modern film discussion for me personally — a note, mind you, I’m sure I’ve made — is how we keep seeing Chinese actors in American movies so that Hollywood can open in the lucrative Chinese market. It isn’t slander or libel; it’s probably true, just insensitive. And that’s a little teaser for a broader discussion later, whether here or on QNA: “How Do We Talk About China?” I’ve seen one side say things like “China scary,” and I nod, and the other say “That’s racist,” and I nod. How do we calibrate our sensitivity while thinking about an issue like this? I don’t know that Li Bingbing’s absence from The Meg 2 will offer that broader insight, but it may tell us something. At the very least, we can use this occasion to look back, as if this were some sort of dirge for a now long-dead practice. I mean, perhaps it is, given the recent changes at the top of Chinese governance, surely rippling down to entertainment.

Ugh, like a sore thumb!

The conservative Heritage Foundation offers a quote from Stephen Colbert summing up the issue with some Late Show-era comedy:

“The Chinese government only allows a small number of foreign movies into China each year, and after America, China is the number two biggest movie-going country in the world. So, it’s only natural for American movie makers to try to please the cultural gate-keepers of the Chinese government. They’ve been doing it for years. In the disaster movie, “2012,” humanity is saved because the Chinese government had the foresight to build life-saving arcs. In “Gravity,” Sandra Bullock survives by getting herself to the Chinese Space Station. That movie did so well in China, she went back and re-shot “The Blindside” with an underprivileged table tennis player.”

True enough, Gravity opened strong in China, but director Alfonso Cuarón maintains that the inclusion of the Chinese space station was borne of logic, not pandering: “That’s what existed in space at the time.” Note that he said this in the face of Chinese reporters suspicious of being pandered to. You can’t win! Nevertheless, that leaves the widely publicized cases of Doctor Strange and Red Dawn, both altered during production for the Chinese gatekeepers. In the case of Doctor Strange, that meant $44.4 million in gross, which probably covers the marketing expense. Then there’s The Rise of Skywalker, though that was censored in Singapore and not, strangely, in China. Maybe not so strange, because, well, you remember how minimal the moment in question was. So, Hollywood will go over the heads of its creatives for the fistful of Chinese money, even flout supposed American values like equality and human rights, but will it cast Asian actors?

Tilda Swinton, Doctor Strange (2016)

The history of Asian-American representation in Hollywood movies begins with Hollywood itself in the ‘10s and ‘20s with Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong, then there’s a gap — interrupted by Bruce in the ‘60s – until you hit good ol’ John Cho in 2004. We all love John Cho, so it’s unfortunate he becomes a punchline in this one. Things have improved, though Karen Fukuhara is the only Japanese-American actress I can name off the top of my head, and that we haven’t yet opened the floodgates to the deep bench of wildly popular K-stars is telling and disappointing. So much to say that representation was still an issue during the peak of Hollywood and China’s fling, meaning that any instance of talent from the Mainland represented in American productions is noticeable, and then either the result of social progress or the influence of China. At that point, the casting of Li Bingbing in a movie like The Meg shares substance with the erasure of Tibet and homosexuality – it’s cause for criticism, the answer to one problem while furthering another.

I looked and nobody, not even the Heritage Foundation, specifically says that casting is one of the components of China’s film influence. It’s the kind of observation too difficult to prove, and therefore better reserved for podcasters and bloggers. As a result, I could not locate a “List of Conspicuous Chinese Actors in Hollywood Movies,” so I have to go off memory. What are the titles where I’ve heard this story? Pacific Rim: Uprising comes to mind first. Possibly Kong: Skull Island – the lovely Jing Tian in both cases. Arguably, she looks out of place in Kong, but so did everyone, part of the film’s cartoonish charm, I suppose. But let’s stick with Pacific Rim: Uprising for now.

This movie was totally fine, by the way

Pacific Rim: Uprising is the unlikely sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s daikaiju love letter, possibly only coming together when Legendary Pictures was bought by the Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group in 2016. If this were not simply a more-researched-than-usual blog post, I probably would’ve watched Uprising and witnessed for myself just how awkwardly Chinese it was. Here’s what the writer for Slash Film noted in a casting announcement:

“No word on what role she will be playing in this sequel. I have not seen Jing Tian in a movie yet, so I have no right in assessing her placement in this sequel. The cynical part of me says that Legendary needed a Chinese actress to fill their Chinese production deal. On the other hand, I loved how diverse and global the original Pacific Rim was, and I don’t think it would be right to assume that Tian’s casting is just to fulfill a quota required to take advantage of the lucrative Chinese box office.”

Look at this. What is this? She trying to take over??

So What’s Changed?

For The Meg, nothing. The original was an American-Chinese co-production, and executive producer Catherine Xujun Ying of CMC is staying on for the sequel. However, it looks like, at least in early stages, the sequel is swimming in a new direction, with an art-film director and an R-rated sensibility. I suppose we remember when this was the case with World War Z, so I wouldn’t put too much stock in anything reported in the trades this early into production. Does any new direction somehow conflict with what Li Bingbing brings to the table? I never saw The Meg, either, so I don’t know how strongly they suggest that she and Jay Stay were gonna be an item. Those never last in action movies anyway. She probably would’ve tragically died in a car bombing in the opening scene of The Meg 2: The Trench. I mean, she is over 40.

As far as the broader issue, the relationship between Hollywood and China, it seems that the lingering effects of Trump’s trade war and even concerns over human rights abuses have contributed to the big crackdown, the Chinese Community Party’s increasing hostility toward its soft power arm. If you also remember from that Chinese Warrior Woman video/post, Fan Bingbing – you know what, I don’t even want to talk about it. Here’s the Hollywood Reporter:

“The first phase of the downcycle for Hollywood and China actually preceded Donald Trump’s arrival on the world stage — albeit only briefly. In late 2016, Beijing began hitting the brakes on Chinese companies’ pattern of aggressive pursuit of international trophy assets. Concerned over downward pressure on the Chinese currency and alarmed by the vast sums Chinese conglomerates like Wanda, Fosun and others were spending in nonstrategic sectors, Chinese regulators abruptly cut off their access to state bank financing for outbound investments, plunging several of the firms into sudden debt crises.”

Was This Ever an Issue?

Analogies are dangerous, especially when made between unimportant stuff (movies) and important stuff (education), but to me, this operates in principle to the current (eternal?) battle over Affirmative Action in ivy leagues schools. That conversation should be shut down immediately by recognizing that legacy admissions are simply another kind of Affirmative Action, and that the latter only exists to counteract implicit bias. By the same token, a stray Chinese actress in an American film, no matter how “forced,” will always be one where there wouldn’t be otherwise.

It’s also just been hard for me to believe that Chinese actors like Jing Tian, Max Zhang, Chin Han, Fan Bingbing and Li Bingbing (no relation, unless you count The Coven) are being cast in American movies just to appease the albeit appeasement-requiring Chinese film market, simply because that makes no sense. Chinese audiences don’t require Chinese faces in American movies to buy tickets. It might be a nice surprise for them – might be – but it seems like too much work for something so unscientific. And don’t tell me it isn’t too much work, otherwise why wouldn’t today’s top CBS sitcom feature a Chinese-American lead and have it be no biggie? Or any CBS sitcom? Or drama? After a while, it really does grate. Like, you know how much people love that Cinderella movie with the AMBF pairing (Brandy and Paolo Montalbán)? Every time the networks roll out a new show with yet another white couple going through the same tiny problems and tiny victories, I think: why wouldn’t you want to try something special? Why wouldn’t you want to be celebrated just like that?

The sooner Hollywood splits from China the better. Better for its shitty blockbusters which are getting worse and worse anyway, and better for helping America take a united, though ever-shifting stance. We shouldn’t be trimming out LGBTQ+ themes like so much very small amount of frames, and shooting in Tibet shouldn’t be an impossible dream. From my limited perspective, The Meg 2 spoke to me as an example of that split even though it decidedly isn’t. Not sure what the story is for Bingbing, who hasn’t acted since 2018. I just hope that when we bid China farewell, we’re able to separate the authoritarian whims of its CCP from Chinese people generally, and we keep seeing Li Bingbing in movies. Maybe we’ll even start writing movies with her and her fellow international stars in mind, instead of dropping them into blockbusters where we think they don’t belong, thus lending credence to the idea that there’s anywhere they don’t belong.

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