I feel like I don’t mention the New York Review of Books enough on this blog. Next to the New Yorker, it may be the finest periodical in the country, and the attention that it gives to culture is even more sustained, but a lot of its archives are behind a paywall, and so during the period when my subscription lapsed, I wasn’t always up to date and linking. All of which is to say that Perry Link’s piece on China’s journey to this year’s Nobel Prize, in the form of a review of two contemporary Chinese books, is excellent, and you should read it while you still can. As much as the book is an explanation of those books, one a novel about the internet’s impact on Chinese dissent and ordinary Chinese citizens, and one a history of famine in the Cultural Revolution, it’s also an essay that I think powerfully explains China’s meaning on American movie screens.
It’s notable to me that for China’s rise in the world, we haven’t really figured out where China fits into our movies. The USSR no longer exists, but Russia is still a vague synonym for the enemy even though the Cold War is over. In action movies, skirmishes with China can be a pretext or a red herring, but they’re not the main event, mostly because we haven’t figured out what we’d want the main event to look like. A viable, independent Chinese democracy might be a compelling political and human rights goal, but it’s not easy to translate uprisings on the scale that would be necessary to create true change into a cinematic structure with a few main characters (Tom Clancy’s The Bear and the Dragon may be the only extant story I can think of that would lend itself to such translation, and would have a built-in American audience). I don’t think, despite worries about China’s rising military and economic power, that American audiences would get super-excited about movies that had the American military clashing with China.
Because we can’t separate the regime and the people on-screen, because we haven’t figured out what we want the future to look like, we turn to the past. The fact that Christian Bale will be staring in a movie about the Nanjing massacre made by a significant Chinese director seems like an obvious detente. An English-speaking actor fronts a movie controlled by someone with semi-nationalist sensibilities (the same director did the opening ceremony of the Beijing games) in a movie that shows the Chinese as victims of dishonorable incursion, but suggests that Americans have a role to play in standing up for decency and the Chinese people. It’ll be curious to see who it resonates with.