"Leap," a Chinese film portraying the country's storied women's volleyball team through almost four decades, made its debut last month across thousands of cinemas in China and, in a far more limited release, a still partially locked-down United States.
One of a number of films full of patriotic sentiments that were released ahead of the weeklong celebrations of China's Oct. 1 National Day, "Leap" opened to rapturous applause at home but got mixed reviews abroad.
That was because of its focus on Lang Ping, the "iron hammer" who took her team to the gold in the 1984 Olympics, trouncing Japan in the process. Now likely in the sunset of her long career, Lang has spent the last two years coaching the national team ahead of the now-postponed Tokyo Olympics.
"As an athlete and coach, she fights for the honor of her country until the end," noted a recent Communist Party documentary focusing on modern Chinese icons.
Yet when the film's producer, Huanxi Media, brought the first cut to Beijing for the requisite stamp of approval, the censors were not happy. It was only when the script was altered to make it less centered on Lang and more about the team that the bureau signed off, according to a producer at Huanxi.
These days, everything in China comes under increasing scrutiny for political correctness, from entrepreneurs to entertainment. What may have been acceptable even a few years ago is no longer acceptable today, and the government and party have ever less maneuvering room. That has led to unprecedented uncertainty, caution and self-censorship.
At the same time, the worsening friction with the U.S. is reinforcing the need to conform to political orthodoxy. The decoupling with Washington, which originated in trade and then spread to finance and the capital markets, can now be seen in academia, the media, and sports and entertainment.
All of which have led to a more virulent form of nationalism. Not only must domestically produced films express the proper sentiments, so must foreign films hoping for success in China. And they must satisfy not only Beijing, but an increasingly nationalistic audience, as the fate of Disney's "Mulan" shows.
"Disney's new Mulan, an action drama based on a centuries-old traditional Chinese story ... though starring popular Chinese actors, received a cold shoulder due to its self-righteous depiction, which failed to resonate with Chinese audiences," noted the Global Times, the newspaper that most reliably conveys Beijing's views, last month.
"The unpopularity of the film has nothing to do with the West's defamation, which the Chinese audience do not care about. It is just the poor art level it showcases and misunderstandings of Chinese culture that disappointed the market," according to Chinese netizens, the Global Times concluded.
Here we see the power of the Chinese market being used as a weapon both internally and externally. If a domestically produced film doesn't pass muster with mainland authorities, it can still be shown abroad. But it can never be screened in China itself -- and that is where by far the majority of profits are to be gleaned.
This year, Chinese box-office revenues may finally exceed those in the U.S., in large part thanks to the speed at which life has returned to normal on the mainland. That means top directors such as Chen DaMing have returned to their homeland from the U.S., where many trained. Chen, for example, spent 10 years hanging out in Los Angeles with top directors such as Richard Linkletter before working with Huanxi.
To be sure, Huanxi's profits are a small fraction of what they were last year, but thanks to the flexibility to stream films, Huanxi is virtually the only studio on the mainland not to drown in red ink in the first half of the year. That is a tribute to Huanxi's ability to balance artistic criteria, commercial considerations and an understanding of the rules.
In order to succeed, both returnees and locals have to know the script. Take Lang, who describes the unswerving spirit of the Chinese women's volleyball team, which continues to inspire, as "never giving up" and "playing as one." Last year Lang -- and the team -- took part in parades in Beijing to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China, even meeting with President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People.
Similarly, "Leap" director Peter Chan described to the China Internet Information Center how the crew built a volleyball training base in Beijing by taking apart and moving the original wooden floor from its base in Fujian in order to re-create the original atmosphere.
"The floor still shows the blood, sweat and tears left by the women's volleyball team members back in the 1980s," said Chan. "Every time I wanted to give up, I thought of coach Lang Ping's words: 'The spirit of the women's volleyball team is not to win the championship, but to fight tooth and nail even though they know they may fail.' This is a film with a sense of mission."
Last year, China's State Council decided that in the future, sports would become one of the country's pillar industries. Expect even more nationalism at the next Olympics, wherever and whenever they are held.