Millions of Chinese are familiar with James Cameron’s Titanic, which until recently held the number one spot in ticket receipts. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Cameron’s latest directorial effort Avatar is also winning fans in the mainland.
According to Xinhua, Avatar broke China’s single-day box office record over the weekend, grossing more than Rmb33 million on its opening day.
Freezing weather did not dampen movie fans’ enthusiasm, with the Shanghai Daily reporting long queues and ticket sell-outs at IMAX 3D cinemas around the country.
Avatar, for those who have not seen it, is set on the planet of Pandora, a paradise with blue skinned inhabitants, the Na’vi. Unfortunately, they are at the mercy of nasty developers who want to exploit a valuable mineral called “unobtanium”, incoveniently buried underneath a gigantic tree that the Na’vi call home.
It isn’t the film’s impressive special effects that are earning the most buzz. Moviegoers seem to be drawing everyday comparisons between the travails of the Na’vi and their own experiences at the hands of grasping property developers.
One comparison being drawn is between the Na’vi efforts to defend their property and the frequent scenes in China in which developers have forcibly evicted residents from their homes. The cases are known as “nail houses” because, with all the land around them usually excavated, the homes of those holding out stick out like nails.
“The developer [in the movie] thinks it is promoting GDP growth, improving the economy, and bringing new life to this ignorant backwater,” writes blogger and reporter Li Chengpeng. “The residents, on the other hand… just want to live in the tree, in harmony with the spirits, not in some high-end apartment building with elevators.”
Most nail house residents end up being forcibly driven away by paid thugs or “chengguan”, quasi-governmental law enforcers employed by cities to administer neighbourhoods.
Others have jumped on similar ideas, including Han Han, the country’s most popular blogging personality.
“For audiences from other places, barbaric eviction is something they simply can’t imagine – it’s the sort of thing that could only happen in outer space and China,” Han Han writes.
The seizure of property without owner consent (or with inadequate compensation on offer) has been an enduring source of anger, especially in periods of booming property prices. Critics maintain that, as local governments benefit from soaring land values, they have often turned a blind eye to the treatment of nail house residents.
Sometimes the clashes end tragically. In December, a 47 year-old woman in Chengdu died after she doused herself in petrol and set herself alight in protest at the forced demolition of her home. A few days later, a man in Beijing tried to do the same.
After such high-profile cases the State Council, China’s cabinet, announced that it would consider changes to the nation’s property compensation laws.
The authorities also have a record of responding to entertainment shows that strike a chord with frustrated audiences. A local television drama, Dwelling Narrowness (see WiC41), that seemed in tune with viewers’ anger at rising property prices was pulled from the national schedules. Surely a sci-fi flick about oversized blue-people living in a gigantic plant world won’t offend the censors too?
Hopefully not. But there is talk that Avatar may be cutting a little too close to the bone for Chinese moviegoers, and Raymond Zhou, a columnist at the China Daily, reckons it could be blocked.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the authorities put a stop to the screening of this massive blockbuster,” Zhou writes. He worries that the authorities might not like that “too many people, as I do, read into it a connection with a reality that’s too close to comfort.”
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