The first month of the Chinese lunar calendar is important for Chinese movies and films. This month is called “New Year movie season”. Similar to the summer holiday movie season in the United States, most Chinese people in mainland China will have an entire week off from work and school to celebrate Chinese New Year. Movies in the theater during New Year movie season have the potential for great box office numbers. In this month, a movie called
Amazing China is on every top topic. Why?
Movie producers try hard to have their movies released during the New Year. Usually, the popular movies will be arranged for more show times and in the prime periods during a day. However, Amazing China was in the theater during the New Year movie season with nice looking box office numbers and prime show time slots, but empty auditoriums.
Amazing China is a documentary which recorded China’s achievements in the past five years. It sounds like a proper movie to play during Chinese New Year, certainly nowhere near a horror film like Jigsaw.
(The picture shows the movie times in a Chinese movie theater of the film Amazing China. It was shown almost every hour in the morning from 9 o’clock onward. )
According to the box office report, the film was the top 1 on its premiere day.
(The picture shows the box office numbers of the top 3 movies on the film Amazing China’s premiere day. Amazing China was the first movie on the list with a box office of more than 40 million Yuan. The second one was Operation Red Sea, with a rating of 7.7 out of 10 on IMDb and received an 80% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The third movie was Detective Chinatown 2, with a rating of 6.4 out of 10 on IMDb. )
“It must be a good movie to have such good box office numbers,” you might think. And maybe the audience will look like this:
In fact, it looked like this:
For a moment, I thought I was in North Korea because I heard that in North Korea they need to bow to the great leaders before the movie started!
Moreover, I usually walked in the movie theater with a diet Dr. Pepper and popcorn, but maybe next time I will need to walk in the theater with banners and flags?
However, even the scenes in the photos above are very rare to see. Even though the movie was shown several times a day in the morning prime time hours, it didn’t seem to attract much of an audience.
A chat log with someone who worked for the movie theater:
“What I saw was that there were people taking pictures before the movie started. Some people fell asleep when the movie was running. After the movie finished, the leaders gave speeches and said the company would pay for the movie tickets.”
“There was another show, I walked into the theater at the halftime and saw nobody was in there.”
“So I turned off the machine to save some power, as well as the light bulb life. Then I heard someone coming. ‘Hey, it’s over!’ They sounded excited. I rushed over and told them that I can keep playing the movie. They shook their heads at once and said: “No, you don’t have to.”
“The movie time arrangement was a mandatory two shows per day, minimum. ‘Arrange at least two shows a day, otherwise, run the movie theater at your own risk.’ The people from the local cinema chain told us on the phone. They didn’t even give us a written notification.”
“Which was more ridiculous, usually the movie production company will mail us a copy of the movie. For this one, they asked us to pick the copy up from Zhengzhou.”
“It really is Amazing China.”
What Do the Reviews of Amazing China Look Like on the Internet?
Douban is a Chinese social networking service website allowing registered users to record information and create content related to film, books, music, recent events and activities in Chinese cities. It is seen as one of the most influential web 2.0 websites in China.  Internet users can find reviews in Chinese about almost any movie on Douban.
This is a standard page of Douban Movie.
(A standard Douban Movie page contains the Title, basic information and an overall rating of the movie, both short and long reviews contributed by the users. The picture above shows that the overall rating of the Phantom Thread is 7.9 out of 10. There were 26.4% of people who rated the movie gave 5 stars, and 47.3% of them gave 4 stars. )
Since I said “any movie”, Amazing China was, of course, one of them. On Douban Movie, the page of Amazing China looked like this:
Like other movies, the page of Amazing China on Douban Movie provides some basic information about the film. It was a documentary film directed by Wei Tie. The audio language is Mandarin Chinese and the length of the film is 90 minutes. However, on the right side, where the overall rating of the movie should be shown, it only shows something called “media rating”, which is 8.5.
There were six reviews written by the six mainstream media outlets in China. “Amazing China, A Movie Recorded the Happy Lives of People Lived in a Great Nation” by People.cn; “Amazing China, A Movie Praised the New Age and Recorded the Amazing Achievements” by Phoenix New Media; “Amazing China, a Movie Recorded the Strength of a Great Nation” by China News Service and another three media reviews with similar themes from Sina and NetEase.
On Zhihu.com (A Chinese question-and-answer website), by searching “movie Amazing China”, there were only three related questions when I first searched. After a few days, those three questions were all deleted. Under the search tag “Amazing China”, the number of discussions was zero.
On Zhihu Blog, there were a few entries about the movie. They were mostly pure compliments on the movie itself, or praise for the achievements that China has completed in recent years. When I opened one of the entries, it told me that my comments will be reviewed by the author before it showed up on the list.
On Weibo, searching “Amazing China” will lead to the same articles I found on Douban Movie. Also, there were a few posts of compliments to the movie from some internet celebrities in China.
It was highly unusual that you can only hear one kind of voices on the internet. What was this movie and who are the people behind it? Who has the power to silence the whole internet?
Meanwhile, in Chinese content outside of mainland China, I found something different. On a French-Chinese website called RFI: The world and all its voices, there was an article called “Amazing China, the incredible president” written by an internet user called “Andre”. In the article, he said, “On the premiere of the movie Amazing China, a lot of famous actors and actresses in China were invited. However, all of them sounded like they were being choked by something.”
“The first half of the movie looks like a real documentary. But the second half is all about how great President Xi is.”
There weren’t too many comments about the movie on the overseas Chinese websites. Based on the few comments I could find, some people thought the Chinese name of the movie sounded like an internet meme, “which doesn’t actually match the theme of the movie.” said a netizen named Da Bao. Another user said, “The movie was too good to watch for the second time.”
Patriotism and “Zhu Xuan Lu”
The answer to those two questions was obvious if you read through the introduction of the movie Amazing China.
“This movie followed the inner logic of the socialism with Chinese characteristics in President Xi Jinping’s new age…It shows the great leadership of the Communist Party of China, which follows President Xi’s policies…”
Long story short, it’s a “Zhu Xuan Lu” movie.
Zhu Xuan Lu, which literally means the main theme of music, is usually used to describe artworks in China that express patriotism and spread mainstream values.
Amazing China wasn’t the first Zhu Xuan Lu movie. The Foundation of a Republic was a 2009 Chinese historical film. The film retells the tale of the Communist ascendancy and triumph. It was considered the first commercial Zhu Xuan Lu movie. Its prequel, the movie The Founding of a Party, alternatively titled in English Beginning of the Great Revival for its international release, was another commercial Zhu Xuan Lu movie. Both of their Douban Movie pages didn’t allow the user to rate and publish their comments and reviews.
Just like students can hardly pay attention to social studies classes, those commercial Zhu Xuan Lu movies also had a hard time attracting audiences who were willing to pay and watch. However, for a better-looking box office number, there was a way to do it under the socialism with Chinese characteristics.
The picture above was a notification sent to all the movie theaters in Beijing from the Beijing local theater chain’s headquarters. The notification told three things: First, the theaters are not allowed to change the price of tickets for the movie Amazing China (In this way, the theaters can’t give out free tickets or 1 Yuan tickets to ensure the number of sold tickets). Second, every theater must arrange two shows every day in morning and afternoon time. And it specifically emphasized that the midnight show time, early morning show time was not allowed for this movie (The theaters will lose lots of traffic because of it). Third, the theaters can work with local government departments to make block bookings.
The notification explained how those two North Korean style photos happened at the beginning of this article. Basically, all the audiences were forced to go to watch the movie.
(The picture showed a quick notice of going to watch the movie Amazing China as part of the daily job quests. The employees needed to sign at the entrance of the movie theater and picked up tickets with their job ID.)
Movie Amazing China has the box office filled up by executive orders.
Be Alert of Return of the Cultural Revolution
The Cultural Revolution was a sociopolitical movement in China from 1966 until 1976. The movement almost stopped the development of art, film industry and literacy in mainland China. It also brought disasters to many writers, artists, movie directors and actor/actresses. During the Great Cultural Revolution, the government release 8 “Yang Ban Xi”, named Model Dramas in English. They became the only entertainments that people could enjoy during the ten years.
The Model Dramas were the unforgettable memories of one generation in China. “Every day when I turned on the radio, it was always one of those Model Dramas. For a few years in my early life, I could sing out every line of the 8 dramas.” Said an internet user who had experience in the Great Cultural Revolution.
Since Xi Jinping was selected as the president of China, the censorship has become more and more strict. Many domestic and imported shows had been taken off from the internet. People complain the quality of the new movies and shows have been going downhill compared with twenty years ago when China just started its Reform and Opening.
Amazing China is just one movie. However, behind the movie itself, we could see that even the Great Cultural Revolution has already ended for 40 years; the zombie still could be revived. It’s easy to take away free speech from people, but can we deal with the consequences?
At last, let’s see how it looks like on IMDB (A website Chinese people can not visit normally).