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Opinion

'Abominable' shows China can melt US hearts even amid trade war

Movie's American success proves value of authenticity

Abominable is the story of a regular Chinese girl living with her family in modern-day Shanghai.    © DreamWorks Animation LLC./AP

Politicians across the Trump administration and U.S. Congress have been raising alarms all year about Chinese influence. Yet despite this, China achieved a remarkable soft power success in the form of the new animated movie "Abominable," which went straight to No. 1 in U.S. ticket sales during its opening weekend in late September.

The key to this soft power success was authenticity, which has often not been a priority for China or its big-budget film productions.

During the 2016 Summer Olympics, Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui gathered global attention with her funny facial expressions and down-to-earth personality. Though she won medals, it was her smiles and frank remarks that endeared her to the world.

She was authentic, right down to attributing a loss to her menstrual cycle. Families around the world got a clear look at the personality of a normal young Chinese woman and they thought she was great.

Fu Yuanhui pose with her medal at the women's 100m Backstroke Victory Ceremony in Rio de Janeiro: it was her smiles and frank remarks that endeared her to the world.   © Reuters

"Abominable" has made a similar bid for authenticity. Rather than a tale of ancient times, kung fu masters or crazy rich Asians living extravagantly, this movie is the story of a regular Chinese girl living with her family in modern-day Shanghai. She lives in a high-rise apartment and her life and adventure centers on family and friendships.

The attention to detail means this movie had to be made in China. Beyond things like bamboo scaffolding, Chinese medicine shops and street stalls selling fried dough sticks, the characters always switch to house slippers when they come home and there are red good fortune symbols hung upside down inside doors of the home.

Most importantly, the story centers on family, with respectful children not turning their backs on the elders. At the end of the movie, everyone returns home and to eat dinner together around the same table.

This is all a form a Chinese soft power. It does for China what Fu Yuanhui did and what so many Hollywood films have done for America: it humanizes people and their values, making them feel not so distant or different.

The attention to detail means this movie had to be made in China.   © DreamWorks Animation LLC. via AP

"Abominable" is the first release from Pearl Studio, the former joint venture of Hollywood's DreamWorks Animation and Chinese companies China Media Capital, Shanghai Media Group and Shanghai Alliance Investment.

The movie, a coproduction with DreamWorks, is a sign that the original vision of DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg to combine Chinese and Hollywood talent to create animated Chinese movies with universal appeal is still very compelling. Pearl Studio, with Frank Zhu as chief executive and Peilin Chou as chief creative officer, is continuing this strategy without DreamWorks for its next project, a coproduction with Netflix called "Over the Moon."

Talent is emerging in China from new art and animation schools and online gaming programs that draw on the country's long artistic history. There are now more students in China studying art and design than chemistry or economics.

Thanks to nearly a decade of such creative professionals spilling into the workforce, more than 90% of Pearl Studio's artists are Chinese-born and trained. The early development of "Abominable" was primarily done by artists, creative staff and management in Shanghai.

As the project developed, this deep well of artistic talent joined together with the experience of DreamWorks and Hollywood in storytelling and technology. At the peak of production, there were about 400 people working on the film, balanced between Shanghai and Hollywood.

Heavy Chinese involvement, however, has had unintended consequences which underline dilemmas with the country's soft power. Authorities in Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines banned screening of the film because of its brief inclusion of a map reflecting China's "nine-dash line" which marks off sections of the South China Sea that the country asserts authority over.

Controversies over maps and labeling of territories, in movies and on corporate websites, have become a regular occurrence in these parts recently. This has become a particular problem for airlines, hotel chains and retailers.

In the case of "Abominable," you have to give the producers credit for authenticity. The story is set in mainland China so the image the young girl sees is exactly how a regional map would actually look like there.

Tallying up the gains and losses of authenticity, "Abominable" comes out a clear success. The U.S. box office is the world's largest, though China trails close behind. Even combined, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines hardly compare.

Given the ongoing U.S.-China trade war, the arrival of a story that humanizes a modern Chinese family and resonates with American audiences has to bring a positive payoff and be counted as a good thing for both countries.

Jeffrey Towson is a professor of investment at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management, a private equity investor, and the co-author of "The One Hour China Book."

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