Credit: Illustration by Jonny Wan
The rise of the Chinese Communist Party-approved blockbuster
"I'm living in a small town, living a life where nothing changes," a woman says in a mournful voice as the camera follows her walking towards a house that is partially destroyed and almost uninhabitable.
Her marriage is falling apart as well. World War II left the family financially ruined and her husband depressed, neurotic and stuck in the past.
"We never say more than a few words to each other," she says. "I have no courage to die. He seems to have no courage to live."
This portrait of despair opens Fei Mu's black-and-white 1948 film, "Spring in a Small Town," a study of frustrated desire and marital strife.
Regarded today as a masterpiece of Chinese cinema, "Spring" was released months before the Communist Party's victory in the country's bloody civil war, and its fate would be a harbinger of what was to come.
Unlike the era's other films, which focused on leftist themes and the glory of the People's Liberation Army, Fei's melancholic character study was regarded as myopic and ideologically backward by China's new rulers, who criticized it for having a "narcotic effect" on audiences who were in need of a wartime boost. The movie was pulled from cinemas and Fei fled to British-controlled Hong Kong.
In 1950, Mao Zedong's wife Jiang Qing, newly installed as head of the Film Agency of the Central Propaganda Department, began a purge of "rightist" filmmakers and class enemies. A former actress, Jiang recognized the power of cinema to shape -- or undermine -- the Party's message.
In particular, she targeted director Sun Yu's "The Life of Wu Xun," which told the story of a historical beggar who founded schools for poor children during the latter years of the Qing Dynasty.
Wu worked within the feudal system, promoting gradual liberal reforms, and for this was deemed anti-revolutionary and anti-Communist. For much of the next two years, denunciation of the film filled the Party press, with even Mao himself writing an editorial against it in May 1951. The campaign destroyed Sun's career and left him in filmmaking purgatory.
"(The Wu Xun crackdown) was the first ideological campaign of the People's Republic," Desmond Skeel writes in "Censorship: A World Encyclopedia."
"From now on the emphasis would be on political struggle; there was no distinction between art and politics. Themes for films or any other medium would be laid down by the party."
During Jiang's time in charge of Chinese cinema, output dropped dramatically. Those films that were released stuck to the edicts set out by Mao that art should reflect the lives of the working classes and serve the advancement of socialism.
That mantra has changed little even to this day, only the flavor of the political message has shifted to that of Xi Jinping Thought, the sometimes incomprehensible ideology advanced by China's most powerful leader since Mao himself.
Seventy years after the founding of the People's Republic, topics covered by Chinese cinema have changed dramatically. But the level of control exercised by the Party is once again on the rise.
Films are still expected to promote "core socialist values," and are checked by censors multiple times during the filmmaking process, from the script stage to pre-release. Licenses can be pulled or revoked with little warning, as topics which are acceptable one year become controversial the next.
The 1990s and 2000s saw a growing liberalization of Chinese cinema, and the rise of directors like Jia Zhangke and Lu Chuan, whose films highlighted flaws in Chinese society and questioned historical consensus. Under President Xi this trend has reversed. Jia and other directors have had their films banned in China, and others have been pulled with no explanation on the eve of release, leaving directors and studios casting about for what exactly makes a Communist Party-approved blockbuster.
"The broader trend for the industry has been tighter control and less money," said an executive at a foreign movie studio's China office, who asked to remain anonymous due to the political sensitivity of the topic. This has led studios to rein in their ambitions and attempt to recreate past successes.
"The result has been more of the same type of movies, which will have medium- to long-term implications, not just for a year or two," she added.
Big, young market
China's movie market is colossal. Its 60,000 cinema screens -- the most in the world -- bring in vast amounts of revenue.
Domestic ticket sales are expected to top $12.2 billion next year, according to projections by PwC, overtaking the US as the world's most lucrative moviegoing audience, and that's just traditional screens. Video streaming services iQiyi and Tencent have 190 million paying subscribers between them just in China, around 40 million more than Netflix has globally.
Hollywood studios have sought to cash in on this gigantic market, but foreign movies have to compete for a place in a quota system that limits the number of foreign or co-produced films screened in China to 30 to 40 each year.
Hoping to improve their chances in the quota battle, more and more studios are co-producing movies with Chinese partners and sometimes nakedly pandering to Chinese audiences, such as giving domestic stars split seconds of screentime so they can be used in promotional materials, or the jarring use of Chinese products, such as the appearance of QQ Messenger in "Independence Day: Resurgence."
The influence of Chinese values and Chinese money can have political effects too, however, as seen in the removal of Japanese and Taiwanese flags from Tom Cruise's iconic bomber jacket in an upcoming "Top Gun" sequel. Chinese stars have also faced the same kind of pressure to toe the line regardless of who they are working for, such as with "Mulan" star's Liu Yifei's comments against Hong Kong protests.
Despite the huge audiences and profits, analysts agree that unpredictable and opaque censorship rules mean the Chinese movie industry has been stunted, as production markets struggle to find a model that works.
Censorship compounds all these difficulties, with studios having to balance not only tight formal regulations, but political winds that can drastically change direction during the years-long production process.
Reasons for censorship can range from "jeopardizing the unification, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the State," to showing men wearing earrings or women with too much cleavage. The 2016 "Ghostbusters" remake was likely denied a Chinese release because it promoted "superstition."
In 2018, supervision and censorship of the movie industry was moved to a new super agency, directly under the supervision of the Party's Central Propaganda Department.
The move came as President Xi shored up his absolute control on power and dropped term limits, and removed any theoretical separation between the Party and regulation of the film industry, which state media said had a "unique and important role ... in disseminating ideas and in culture and entertainment."
David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project at Hong Kong University, wrote at the time that this demonstrated how under Xi, there has been "tighter, more centralized control of media and ideology."
This push for greater control has coincided with the rise of jingoistic films such as "Operation Red Sea" and "Wolf Warrior 2," both of which focused on the role of Chinese military forces overseas.
The foreign movie studio executive who spoke to CNN said that Xi can have an influence on movies, even without stating an opinion publicly, as people try to read the political tea leaves for what might gain his approval.
"If you base your creative decisions on (Xi's) remarks, like tycoons buying football clubs because he loves football, that's just too speculative," she said. "Of course the general tightening of the environment is related to his views. But it's not like he's been talking a lot about the movie industry -- oftentimes it's the underlings making decisions based on their guesses of his views."
"Operation Red Sea" is loosely based on the real-life evacuation of Chinese citizens during the Yemen civil war and has echoes of similarly chest-thumping Hollywood films like Michael Bay's "Thirteen Hours" or Paul Greengrass's "Captain Phillips."
Like their counterparts in the US, Chinese audiences devoured the cinematic nationalism, and both movies were big box office successes. "Wolf Warrior 2," broke box office records on release, and featured the tag line "whoever offends China will be hunted down and punished wherever they are."
The film, a "Rambo"-style drama in which special forces soldiers protect aid workers in an unspecified African country, fits the Xi era's focus on a more muscular, outward looking form of Chinese nationalism.
"The image of China around the world is different now and the public is really feeling this," Yu Yusan, executive vice-general manager of Dadi Film Group's distribution branch, told the South China Morning Post around the film's release. "In the past, propaganda films often promoted collective action, but now China has entered a period when individualism (such as the heroism in the movie) is more appreciated and the audience is getting more mature."
For a time, it appeared that the sweaty jingoism of "Wolf Warrior" would be the new face of China's movie industry, until the release of sci-fi hit "The Wandering Earth" in February. A disjointed, over-the-top adaptation of Chinese author Liu Cixin's novella, about an outlandish plan to move the Earth out of the solar system, the film nevertheless attracted huge audiences at home as well as interest overseas, where it was picked up by Netflix.
Dan Wang, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), said both "Wolf Warrior" and "Wandering Earth" benefited from a receptive political atmosphere.
"'Wolf Warrior' fits the tone of the Belt and Road Initiative and thus got strong support from the government and extended time in theaters," she said. "'Wandering Earth' came out in the midst of the China-US trade war. With a sci-fi film featuring Chinese leadership, it catered to the patriotic needs of the public and the government."
Big budget flops and surprise blockbuster hits show the "unpredictable side" of Chinese cinema, said James Li, co-founding partner of Beijing-based film industry market research firm Fanink.
"It shows how early a stage the Chinese movie industry is in," he said, pointing to the lack of a mature studio system that cultivates directors and franchises, such as Marvel's hit factory or award magnet Pixar. While Li was optimistic about the potential for the market, he said studios were too dependent on individual creators bringing them fluke successes.
"The ultimate problem or challenge for the Chinese entertainment industry has to do with the lack of standards or systems at each stage of the production or marketing cycle," he said. "There doesn't seem to be any process in place to nurture or foster good movies to become even better."
The executive of the foreign movie studio said that even flops can sometimes be beneficial in improving standards: "A more discerning audience has also been positive for the industry since they can vote with their feet."
"China is a huge market -- but without much quality," she said.
Sometimes a movie can be on the verge of apparent greatness, pass all the initial checks and attract hype -- and still fall at the final censorship hurdle. Huayi Brothers' highly anticipated 2019 summer release, "The Eight Hundred," was one such victim.
With an award-winning director, a reported $80 million budget, and strong word of mouth, "The Eight Hundred" seemed on course to be a blockbuster, until the film was pulled just days before its scheduled release.
Set during the 1937 Battle of Shanghai, the film's cancellation -- which was never fully explained -- was likely due to its focus on Nationalist soldiers fighting the Japanese invaders, experts said.
Following World War II, the Nationalists resumed their civil war with the Communists, eventually being defeated and fleeing to Taiwan. And Chinese films set in this era tend to exaggerate the Red Army's role in defeating Japan and downplay that of their rivals.
Coming months before the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic, this lack of loyalty to the Party may have been too much for the censors. One widely shared social media post by a cinema insider about the film's cancellation pointed to the "interference from all sorts of mysterious actors we generally don't see -- from 'old leaders' and 'old cadres'," who still nursed the grievances of the civil war.
"Preparations for ('The Eight Hundred') began four or five years ago -- and it obviously received approval to be made and was ready to be released," the foreign movie studio executive told CNN.
"But the abrupt cancellation really shows that nothing is guaranteed until a movie is actually shown in theaters."
She added that, "of course, it's the 70th anniversary of PRC this year, but there will be something major every year in the foreseeable future. The environment is only going to get worse from here."
Wang, the EIU analyst, said censorship was a "severe constraint on movie content and its timeliness. The original plotline and dialogues are subject to change and the planned release date can be delayed. It is a disincentive for producers to innovate."
In this environment, some filmmakers have chosen to stick to the safest of safe topics: Xi Jinping Thought.
Two recent movies, "Hold Your Hands" and "Amazing China," have celebrated Xi's visionary leadership and ideological brilliance. "Amazing China" focuses on megaprojects such as Xi's Belt and Road Initiative and other achievements under the President's rule.
"Who else could have done this? Only the Communist Party," Xi intones in the film, which closes with a nationalist pop song: "We are confident! We are going forward! Watching the Chinese sons and daughters walk towards a new universe!"
Both movies -- which were screened widely and received glowing reviews in state media -- saw success at the box office, with "Amazing China" becoming China's most successful documentary in nine days.
Ahead of National Day celebrations on October 1, "My People, My Country" was getting heavy promotion in state media. A report in the nationalist tabloid Global Times described it as a "patriotic epic celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People' Republic of China."
The compilation of seven short films focusing on key moments in Chinese history, including the handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule, "is considered a gift to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC," Global Times said.
Not every Communist Party-approved blockbuster is steeped in such blatant propaganda, however. "Ne Zha," tells the story of a demonic child who defies his parents and throws violent tantrums. Loosely based on the Chinese mythological figure of the same name, the animated film has been 2019's surprise smash hit. As of September, it was China's second highest-earning film of all time at $691 million, behind only "Wolf Warrior 2."
It has also earned plaudits from the authorities. A recent commentary published by the People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, said the film -- and Ne Zha's eventual heroism -- was "worthy of serious consideration by the majority of Party members and cadres in the new era," referring to a key tenet of Xi Jinping Thought.
"Party members and cadres must learn from (Ne Zha's) indomitable spirit of persistence, always maintain a never-ending attitude of struggle, always maintain the urgency of waiting for the (right) time and the enterprising spirit of facing difficulties, and regard difficult challenges as experience," the newspaper added.
In particular, the Party mouthpiece praised the movie's message for showing how the rebellious Ne Zha's parents steered him onto the "right route."
The censors have been doing the same with Chinese films for decades. And despite the complaints of producers and moviegoers at their often heavy hands, they are unlikely to stop anytime soon. Thanks in part to the success of "Ne Zha," analysts predict this National Day holiday could see a record 7 billion yuan ($988 million) box office, quite the 70th anniversary present.
CNN's Maisy Mok and Stella Ko contributed research. CNN's Steven Jiang contributed to additional reporting.