If you’ve gone to see a movie in the theaters at any point in the past 10 years, chances are you may have picked up on the increase in subtle aspects of Chinese culture in Hollywood movies. From almost unnoticeable elements like Miles Morales using QQ–a messaging app popular among teens in China–in Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, to huge plot points like China swooping in to save the day in the third act of The Martian, back in 2015, these scenes are like bread crumbs being left in our movies, but what are they leading to?
When I first noticed more aspects of Chinese culture in Hollywood productions, I didn’t think much of it. When I did stop to consider it, I simply appreciated what I assumed was an effort to make films more diverse and appeal to a larger audience. After all, Chinese audiences have always had a voracious appetite for film, and the country is expected by industry professionals to soon have the biggest cinema market out there, so it would seem only natural for Hollywood to decide to throw those audiences a bone every now and then.
Another thing to consider, of course, is the fact that there are many Chinese investors producing and funding Hollywood productions, and if a movie wants a chance at getting big figures they might be encouraged to show their investors in a more positive light.
However, after realizing just how big an appetite Chinese audiences have for film, and how much Chinese money is invested in Hollywood, it makes one wonder why we have yet to see more Asian faces on the big screen. Why has it still taken so long for Hollywood to make movies where the cast is all, or even just predominantly Asian? One would think that if the goal were to appeal to Chinese audiences, or even just appeal to wealthy Chinese investors, representation and diversity would be a surefire way to their hearts.
Despite the fact that Asian audiences may have felt snubbed by the nominations this award season, with Crazy Rich Asians left completely out of the Oscars, China still celebrated a win: Green Book. The Chinese-owned production company Alibaba Pictures was an investor in the triple Oscar-winning movie and boasts it as a victory, despite the fact that it only opened in Chinese theaters after the Oscars, on March 1st. Other award winners and contenders such as BlacKkKlansman and First Man have also been claimed as Chinese victories due to their connection to the Chinese production company First World Entertainment.
The issue of Chinese involvement in western media is a complicated one, and there seems to be more left to unpack. When it comes to the country’s representation, of course, portraying the nation in a negative way is not permitted. I can see how this could infringe on a writer’s ability to create well-rounded complex characters and stories. Diversity on an individual, character-based level is simply not the goal when it comes to Chinese investment in Hollywood productions. Finances are the main goal, and movies that do well and make money are considered triumphs despite their diversity or lack thereof.