Hollywood films have gone from a sense of superiority when it comes to other cultures, often using characters and culture as opportunities for tired jokes, to a much more collectivist, appreciative, and receptive tone. It’s one of the benefits of the digitally connected world. Hollywood’s no longer making movies just for American sensibilities.
This is especially true for China. Over the last decade, studios have realized the power of the Chinese box office to affect overall revenue. So we’ve witnessed an increased effort to bridge the gap between audiences. When this is done well, the result is barrier-breaking, crossover hits like Crazy Rich Asians and Everything Everywhere All At Once. They’re culturally focused but enjoyed by anyone. What’s unfamiliar is fascinating and what’s familiar is resonant.
I couldn’t help but think about all this as I watched Minions: The Rise of Gru. From the opening minutes, it’s clear how badly the producers wanted the movie to do well in both the U.S. and China. The main macguffin is an ancient Chinese amulet. The opening scene takes a character into the depths of China’s awe-inspiring natural beauty. The climax is set to occur during the Chinese New Year celebration. The main villains and some of the heroes all turn into Chinese Zodiac animals. And our main minions train with a Chinese kung fu master. In San Francisco’s Chinatown.
A cynical part of me kept shaking my head at how blatant all of this was. And how forced. The writer, director, and producers are all very White Americans. They’re not drawing on their personal experiences. They’re not exploring the culture or really honoring the culture. They threw in buzzwords to appeal to the market without actually involving the market. The only filmmaking connection to China is having Michelle Yeoh play Chow, the Kung Fu master. It felt so vampiric.
And, to be honest, it’s stuck with me. To be that shameless to such a large audience…it’s impressive. And I’m not the only one thinking about this. Just a few days ago, Vox wrote an article called “How China’s relationship to Hollywood has shaped the movies.” It’s an interview with Erich Schwartzel, a film industry journalist for the Wall Street Journal who just wrote a book called Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Battle for Global Supremacy. At one point, Schwartzel says, “When the studios started to realize how much money was to be made in the Chinese market, not only did they avoid storylines that would be politically problematic, but they also thought to themselves, ‘How can we maximize revenue or our interests there?’
Schwartzel continues, “One thing they started doing was casting Chinese actors and actresses in these films. It started around 2012 or 2013—the X-Men movies, the Transformers movies. Often, they were cast in very bit parts or cameo roles, Chinese actors and actresses who were hugely famous in their home country but unknown in America. Then they’d use those bit parts to market the film in China… As soon as Chinese moviegoers went to see these movies, and they realized that this was a bait and switch, they got very angry at the pandering. They started calling the women in these bit roles ‘flower vases,’ and they said that any more that leaned too hard into trying to appeal to the Chinese market was ‘getting soy sauced.’
When I got home from Minions and read that article, I felt pretty justified. This is a known thing. And something audiences in China aren’t really fond of. Great. I decided it was a-okay for me to write harshly about Rise of Gru.
But I did finally stop and think about it from another perspective. When I was in the theater, it was full of parents and kids. After all, this is a movie for the youth. Not the 30-something film critic with a notebook and pen. When I watched the movie, I saw through the story. But that’s not what a child is doing. If I was 7 rather than 35, am I considering how corporate interests shaped Minions: The Rise of Gru? Absolutely no. Kid Me would think, “Wow, China looked beautiful.” And “Chow was the best part of the whole movie.” And “The Chinese New Year parade seemed really fun. I wonder if I could go one day?” And “Dragon!”
That seems like a very powerful thing. Simply because they watched a movie, tens of thousands of kids, hundreds of thousands, millions, may be more open minded to another culture and country. If that happens because corporate interests demanded Minions: The Rise of Gru integrate China-related aspects purely for the revenue…is that worth it? Is the why, in this case, less important than the result? Especially when the result is that Hollywood continues to broaden itself culturally and respectfully? That will have, beyond Minions, an important impact on future generations and their receptiveness to other peoples. Thinking about it that way was enough to warm my cynical heart.