China rescues the world

Hollywood blockbuster pleases patriotic audiences

China rescues the world

"Only Beijing can help us now..."

The ancient Mayans predicted a world apocalypse would occur in the year 2012. But they had failed to foresee that Chinese factory workers would save humanity from extinction. At least, that’s how Chinese audiences are interpreting Hollywood’s latest blockbuster, the disaster movie 2012.

Directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow), 2012’s plot is simple enough: in 2009 scientists secretly brief world leaders about a catastrophic bout of earthquakes and tsunamis predicted for 2012. Topically enough for the climate summit talks in Copenhagen, this unfortunate situation is a result of a heating of the planet’s core.

The solution agreed upon: to build enormous arks to save select people, so that they can repopulate the earth once the crisis has subsided.

Western reviews of the movie were dreadful. Rotten Tomatoes, the film review site, found only 37% of the reviews were positive. The Wall Street Journal seems to agree, referring to the film as “Emmerich’s latest assault on planet Earth and its moviegoers.”

But in China, the movie has been a smash hit, grossing Rmb300 million since it opened three weeks ago. Industry observers now reckon 2012 could earn more than Rmb400 million ($51 million) in box office receipts, says Southern Metropolis Daily.

So why is the latest end-of-the-world movie such a hit in China? Chinese netizens have been quick to highlight the scenes in the movie that are perceived as having pro-China messages.

For instance, the Americans turn to China to build the life-saving arks because, “the task would be impossible if given to any other nation”. After all, who else has the labour force to build such huge ships so quickly?

In another scene, a group of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers suddenly appear to offer help to the main (American) characters. Cue wild applause in some theatres in Beijing.

Then there are those who see deeper meaning. A netizen wrote on Sina: “The apocalyptic tsunami is a symbol of the financial tsunami. And in reality, the US wishes China to step up to save the world.”

He Liangliang, a commentator with Phoenix Television, agrees: “Hollywood can no longer distort, or even satirise, the Chinese as it did before.”

Hollywood has been accused of more negative portrayals in the past, although local sensitivities can be paper-thin. A couple of examples: Mission Impossible III was criticised for an unflattering portrayal of Shanghai (underwear drying on the side streets) and the latest Batman movie The Dark Knight failed to get past the censors due to “cultural sensitivities” (Batman has the affrontery to capture a Chinese criminal in Hong Kong).

But some are more sceptical about the “pro-China” angle. 21CN Business Herald says the mega arks are constructed in China to reinforce Western stereotypes of China, i.e. lots of cheap labour making stuff designed to order by Americans.

There is also an unspoken subtext in the movie, says the newspaper. Where else could such a gigantic undertaking be executed in total secrecy? Only China combines the requisite industrial might with a society in which the government is still able to tightly control information.

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