When it comes to cultivating her image, Angelina Jolie doesn’t rely on a publicist. She handles the press on her own. And pretty adeptly too, becoming a recognised spokeswoman for a series of charities and humanitarian causes.
“She’s scary smart,” Bonnie Fuller, former editor of US Weekly magazine told the New York Times. “But smart only takes you so far. She also has an amazing knack, perhaps more than any other star, for knowing how to shape a public image.”
But perhaps a publicist would have warned the actress to tread carefully in discussing Cross-Straits politics in China. In Shanghai to promote her latest film Maleficent, which opens at the end of the month, Jolie expressed admiration for Lee Ang, the Taiwan-born Oscar-winning director. During the interview with AP, the actress reportedly said: “I’m not sure if you consider Ang Lee Chinese, he’s Taiwanese but he does many Chinese-language films with many Chinese artists and actors, and I think his work and the actors in his films are the ones I’m most familiar with and am very fond of.”
Her comment about Lee’s “Taiwanese” background soon triggered a response from China’s hawk-eyed netizens. Regular readers will be well aware that Beijing is notoriously sensitive about any comment that infers Taiwan is separate from China (it views the island as a province).
“Relations between China and Taiwan have been very complicated. I can sympathise with Jolie, whose view was very typical of an American. But if she’s going to make money in China, publicly voicing an opposing political view is simply not acceptable,” one netizen commented.
“Is this her sick attempt of generating publicity for the film?” another wondered.
“Disney (the studio behind Maleficent) must be crying now,” another joked. (Probably because the last actor to upset netizens with their political views – Hong Kong’s Chapman To – has seen his films tank at the box office since; see WiC238.)
Internet users from Taiwan came to Jolie’s defence. “The Chinese have such fragile self-esteem, they simply cannot abide by any viewpoint other than what the Communist Party gives them,“ one wrote.
Nevertheless, for the most part Jolie’s trip was successful. During her two-day visit she and her partner Brad Pitt were seen taking three of their kids to a contemporary art museum and also picking out toys in local shops.
Pitt decided to skip the red carpet fanfare for Maleficent in Shanghai, however. Critics wondered if that was because Chinese censors weren’t particularly fond of his appearance in a 1997 film about Tibet. But Jolie was back on message, claiming that he had to take their children “to dim sum classes”.
Prior to Jolie’s arrival, Hollywood star Johnny Depp was also in town to promote his film Transcendence (it was Depp’s first trip to China, he said). In fact, Hollywood stars like Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have all visited in the last two months. Mianyang Evening News reported that many Hollywood stars are now prioritising promotional trips to China over countries like Japan, traditionally their largest market outside of the United States. Like Jolie, many are eager to show an interest in Chinese culture, from showing off their chopstick skills to saying a few words in Mandarin at press conferences.
Needless to say, the reason for the visits is that China’s box office has grown far too big to ignore (it is now the second largest behind the US). In addition to promoting their latest blockbusters, Hollywood stars also want to raise their profiles to land endorsement contracts in China. Such arrangements can be lucrative. Brad Pitt was paid $3 million in a one-off deal with General Motors to promote Cadillac to Chinese drivers, for instance; while Canadian singer Avril Lavigne has been endorsing bottled iced tea from food conglomerate Uni-President.
Small wonder, then, that Hollywood celebrities are starting to show up at the Huading Film Awards in Los Angeles. The annual bilingual event started in 2007 and is little known outside China. But producers say it is broadcast to hundreds of millions of viewers, as well as streamed online. Winners are determined by an online votes of 80 million fans – all of them Chinese – and this year stars including Lucy Liu, Halle Berry and Orlando Bloom were among the A-listers present.
Berry, winner of a ‘Global Icon’ award, was suitably effusive in thanking her fans and recalling her last trip to China.
“I felt like I was an original Beatle when I got off that airplane,” she told the audience. “I hope that I will continue to be able to make movies and entertain the Chinese audience and I’m so glad that we get to have an interpersonal relationship with all of you.”
Someone with an eye on a few endorsements to follow, perhaps?
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