About twenty minutes into La La Land, I started cracking up in the middle of the theater. It was instantaneous — a knee-jerk reaction to something so farcical that I couldn’t hold in my laughter. To make it worse, I was probably the only one laughing. In the scene in question, Emma Stone’s character was having dinner with her first boyfriend and his brother. The brother was probably in the movie for less than two minutes, but during those two minutes, he received a phone call and proceeded to speak in Chinese. And it was just so bad. Of course, this is yet another example of an increasingly widespread phenomenon: Hollywood studios pandering to Chinese audiences.
With the explosion of China’s population, which currently hovers at around 1.36 billion people, its movie-going audience has grown into an extremely lucrative market. Hollywood’s solution has ranged from indiscriminate product placement to casting major Chinese actors into very minor cameo roles.
In addition, pandering also plays a large part in appeasing the Chinese government, which can lead to increased revenue. If a movie chooses to include enough “Chinese” elements, such as the use of local actors or shots from a location in China, it is eligible to be classified as an “official co-production,” meaning the studio can get a larger cut of box office sales, in addition to domestic U.S. sales.
At first, I thought this type of clumsy pandering was funny. In “Now You See Me 2,” which was partially set in Macau, the audience watches Jesse Eisenberg and Morgan Freeman stumble through lines of Chinese, garbling the words so much that I could not even understand what they were saying.
To be fair, Mandarin is an extremely difficult language to pronounce correctly. There are four tones plus one neutral tone, so there can exist five different pronunciations of a single syllable. One of the most notable examples is that the word “ma” can be said five different ways, with meanings ranging from spicy to mom to horse.
However, as time went on, I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth. The closer I looked, the more blatant the pandering became. In “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” most of the Asian characters were played by white actors. Tony Stark in “Captain America: Civil War” switched from an LG smartphone to a Vivo phone, a cheap, Chinese brand the U.S. government would never let him use.
What bothered me most was less the crass consumerism and more the lack of respect for Chinese culture. Among other things, Hollywood studios have begun to treat famous Chinese actors like objects to rack up brownie points in China. For example, Chinese actress Ling Bing Bing and Chinese boxer Zou Shiming were given such brief cameos in “Transformers: Age of Extinction” that Professor Ying Zhu of Staten Island University remarked they were “so perfunctorily inserted into the film that they amount to nothing more than another type of incoherent product placement.”
Recently, our society has become much more sensitive to the issues of culture and race, especially in regards to cultural appropriation. Outcry has ranged from anger over Caucasian women wearing African trends like corn rows to the inexplicable case of Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP chapter leader who, although born white, still identifies as an “African American.” Even as we grow into a more interconnected world, we must walk the fine line between embracing foreign cultures and coopting them.
Take, for example, Panda Express. Hopefully, most Americans are aware that Panda Express is not authentic Chinese food. Don’t get me wrong. Orange Chicken is delicious; it’s just not Chinese food. Despite this awareness, to many Americans, Panda Express and Chinese culture are inextricably linked, and this is my fear with Hollywood pandering. As Hollywood begins to incorporate more and more Chinese touches, my hope is that they accurately and respectfully reflect the culture. A significant portion of American exposure to China comes through Hollywood, and thus it’s important China is not relegated to a random phone company or minor role.
In this particular case, I think it would be beneficial for Hollywood studios to incorporate more of Chinese society into movies. Blending cultures is in general a positive trend, but, in my opinion, the difference between cultural appropriation and the gradual blending of cultures is respect. Instead of taking the lazy way out by sticking in Chinese products and actors wherever possible (sometimes creating plot holes in the process), Hollywood should view this as a challenge to elevate their art. The Chinese audience’s reaction might surprise them.
However, much of this work can be done on a local level as well. In fact, the 4J school district will be introducing a new Chinese Immersion program next school year. Set at what was formerly Crest Elementary, the program will start off with a curriculum exclusively for kindergarteners and first graders, adding a new grade each successive year. Eventually, Kennedy Middle School and Churchill High School will continue the immersion program. Hopefully, this will encourage Eugenians to not only learn more about the Chinese culture, but also be able to speak the language more accurately, since they will be starting the learning response at a younger age. Perhaps, over the next few generations, Hollywood will take the hint.