By Hans Ebert
There was an article I was reading recently about what could be described as being the “Panda-ering of Hollywood”, where there’s a very obvious strategy in place to appeal to Chinese film fans, yes, but, especially, attract more and more investors on the Mainland desperate to hitch a ride on the gravy train that started gathering steam almost a decade ago where the country’s movers and shakers are hell bent on buying its way into making Shanghai the movie capital of the world.
The article mentioned how certain blockbuster films are edited purely for the China market with scripts now looking at ways to make Shanghai the city where it all happens, and rather blatant attempts to “go Chinese” when it comes to product placement- like substituting soya milk for milk, and casting a model like Fan Bingbing to make token appearances in a movie like Iron Man 3. If only Donald Trump knew the kowtowing going on in Hollywood for those Chinese cheque books to open…
In a well-scripted celluloid cultural exchange programme, an actress like Scarlet Johansson is probably the most popular Western actress in China through her boffo box office successes in “Lucy”, filmed in Taipei, “Pacific Hero” and “Big Hero 6″. At the same time, with her personal appearances in the Middle Kingdom, she’s building a huge new fan base, and brand for herself in this new land of opportunity And why not? It’s parts deux of a career that might have peaked in the West.
There is meanwhile China’s Wang Jianglin, below, Asia’s richest man and Chairman of the Dalian Wanda conglomerate whose business portfolio includes the AMC chain of cinemas in the US, Legendary Entertainment, producers of Jurassic World and The Dark Knight, and Dick Clark Productions with its ownership of events like the Oscars. Wang Jianglin makes Harvey Weinstein look like a bit player. And he’s not even started to reach the lofty heights he plans to reach- if he’s allowed to.
Let’s also not forget that following the mega success of “Avatar” in Mainland China, there was the sudden emergence of a record number of 3D cinemas with director James Cameron said to be lured for huge bucks to produce various sons and daughters of “Avatar” through his company CPG, and also help meet the demand for these types of movies by bringing in American expertise to teach, mentor and create a new technology driven Chinese film industry.
The “Americanisation” of the Chinese film industry has been going on for years. One could say that the great Bruce Lee kicked the doors open by going the other way- bringing immense Chinese pride, and his very own brand of martial arts to the West where the little “Chinaman” took on the “gweilos”, and the evil Chinese, and made a mess out of all who stood in his way. May the Force always be with Bruce Lee.
Jackie Chan was/is a slapstick, chop suey-talking side attraction that appeared in a few harmless buddy movies playing some new version of Charlie Chan for Western audiences, whereas Chinese directors like John Wu made some excellent movies for the West like “Face/Off” while the Chinese movies of directors Stephen Chau and Wong Kar-wai caught the eyes and inspired film makers like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.
Actor Chow Yun-fat tried to break into Hollywood as a leading man in the truly awful “Replacement Killers” with Mia Sorvino, and the even more ridiculous remake of “The King And I”.
For reasons too surreal to understand, Actor Nicolas Cage became “China’s most popular global superstar”, and, at one time, even announced that he was going to live and work in China. Maybe he did.
All this leads to music, and begs the question as to why music companies in this region can’t be a tad more creative, stop being seen as 98 pound weaklings and Yesterday’s People with zero power, and, instead, follow a similar marketing strategy as those in China behind the evolution of the movie industry. This will not happen by signing up B Grade versions of Whitney Huston, Mariah Carey, and J-Lo-average talent with big noting connections behind them such as singers Coco Lee, below, and Karen Mok.
Continuing to replicate everything that has come before is an exercise in futility. Over the decades, we have seen dear Coco reinvent herself to become “The Chinese Mariah Carey”, and when that idea went nowhere other than an appearance at the Oscars, she took a breather before returning as “The Chinese J-Lo” with some contrived bits of Hip Hop. It remains cringeworthy stuff.
Wyclef Jean came to China and tried to hype something equally embarrassing whom he named- wait for it- China Wine. What was going through his addled head?
Damon Albarn flirted with something mildly interesting with the “Monkey: Journey To The West” project recorded in Beijing with Chinese musicians and a Chinese composer.
The Blur frontman, however, has a history of juggling so many projects at the same time that he’s now got a reputation for not being able to give some of his ground breaking ideas the attention they deserve. And from a brief working association with him and his management team when with EMI and trying to launch Gorillaz in Hong Kong and China with a particular focus on the Chinese character Noodle, Mr Albarn is, sometimes, a bit too precious, and averse to even the hint of criticism. It’s probably why even Adele couldn’t work with him.
Leaving that past blur aside, and all the others who have flirted with entering the China market with half-baked ideas and false promises, who has the originality and breakthrough thinking to create a totally new musical soundtrack that can be part and parcel of the trend of bringing Hollywood to Mainland China, and attracting the interests of the many investor groups in cash-rich Shanghai?
Music companies still holding out hope in the old mantra that “China is potentially the largest music market in the world” are just kidding themselves and their various head offices. Even in today’s DIY world, nothing can be done without funding. Most music companies today are bereft of the money needed to nurture artists. And artists without their very own fairy godmothers, who are able to turn pumpkins into gold carriages, need new opportunities and financing to grow. Either that or just keep making music that travels nowhere other than through the peanut recesses of one’s mind.
Music from China, the often overlooked creativity of Taiwanese artists, and even Hong Kong if it’s ever capable of looking beyond the ponderous ballads and derivativeness of Canto Pop, the bland doodling of the hotel lounge Muzak Of Jizz, and musicians from the copycat school of Top 40 soundalikes, just might have a future if it can hitch a ride with the world of movies and the very strong reality of Shanghai becoming the new Hollywood through a fresh Made In China or Made In Greater China soundtrack.
Perhaps this will bring about change through new writers, arrangers and producers not from the often very one dimensional world of Chinese pop music. Better yet, start making your own indie movies and creating plots, sub-plots, characters, and whatever sounds are playing in your head. It just might reach the eyes and ears ready to finance something new and add it to their business portfolio. It’s better than sitting there watching the same old wheels go by.