One of the best blockbuster movies you and I have never seen is the one Hollywood has never made, about the events that happened 25 years ago today in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Chinese authorities demand that their people forget, or at least pretend to have forgotten, the crackdown by People’s Liberation Army troops against young pro-democracy protesters in which hundreds or perhaps thousands were killed on June 4, 1989. The New York Times reported that this year’s 25th anniversary has brought a particularly aggressive “stability maintenance” campaign, with even more arrests and detentions than usual in an effort to enforce cultural amnesia. Chinese authorities have also warned Western journalists away from the square.
Even if Beijing can enforce domestic silence about its suppression of the Chinese democracy movement, it has no authority to squelch discussion - historical or dramatic - of the topic over here. Yet where can an American find a movie about Tiananmen Square?
If you are particularly interested in the topic, you might look at “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” a documentary which elicited both critical praise in the West and strident denunciation from the Chinese government upon its release in 1995. A short Canadian documentary from 1998, “Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square,” was directed by Chinese artist Shui-Bo Wang and was nominated for an Academy Award - but I doubt most people could name the films nominated for best documentary short this year, let alone 16 years ago.
There’s the little-known 1992 action feature “Rapid Fire,” in which the June 4 massacre simply serves as a tragic backstory for the protagonist. A few Chinese filmmakers have tackled the subject in feature films directly or indirectly, usually with the help of European producers or distributors, as was the case for “Black Snow” (1990), “Lan Yu” (2002) and “Summer Palace” (2006).
So where is the well-marketed, big-budget, American-made film about the massacre - or even the Chinese-made film that has the full distribution and marketing support of a major American company?
It doesn’t exist.
This fact is striking when you consider the cinematic legacy of the 1980s. There has been a recent resurgence of films concerning the early days of the AIDS crisis in America, including last year’s Academy-Award-winning “Dallas Buyer’s Club” and HBO’s new adaptation of the play “The Normal Heart.” The fall of the Berlin Wall just a few months after the Tiananmen massacre has inspired a wide array of movies, from the serious to the frivolous. Unlike the little-known films that have touched on Tiananmen, ordinary American moviegoers are likely to have actually heard of or seen “Charlie Wilson’s War” or “Jarhead,” about the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the first Persian Gulf War, respectively.
Has nobody written, or considered writing, a good screenplay about the events in Beijing 25 years ago? That’s possible, but unlikely. The more obvious reason for American film studios to have avoided the subject much simpler: economics. I suspect Hollywood kowtows to the Chinese regime in order to maintain distribution rights in what has become the second largest film market in the world, in addition to some measure of copyright protection against Chinese piracy.
Hollywood is not shy about wanting to exploit China’s market despite the relatively small profits that filter back to foreign producers. Blockbusters like “Iron Man 3” and “Total Recall” have had extra footage added or select footage deleted in order to appeal to Chinese audiences or censors. The 2012 remake of the film “Red Dawn” was extensively edited, even in U.S. release, to make the original Chinese antagonists North Korean instead. (The film was a flop, and while the change may have placated the Chinese government, “Red Dawn” still did not play there.) While not every film will make it to China, American studios evidently want to do everything they can to maximize their opportunities in China, as well as their profits on films that are permitted to be shown there.
It goes without saying that a Western film about, or even including, the Tiananmen Square assault would be banned in China. I don’t think this fact alone is the reason such a film doesn’t exist. Instead, I presume the major studios want to avoid the risk of inclusion on a Chinese version of the McCarthy-era blacklist. Art-house film company Focus Features might greenlight a prestige film about Tiananmen Square on its own, but its parent company NBCUniversal is unlikely to risk Chinese reprisals that could jeopardize box office results like that of “Despicable Me 2,” which earned almost $53 million in China last year. Any producer, director or even star associated with such a film might be banned, personally and professionally, from Beijing to Lhasa. While an individual actor or director might be willing to take that risk, producers and studios are unlikely to let them.
There is great irony in the U.S. film community’s abhorrence of our own country’s history with blacklists while imposing this near-total self-censorship about unflattering depictions of the world’s most populous country. Hundreds of millions of Chinese viewers, though unable to see such a work in theaters today, might be able to view it online or travelling abroad. More importantly, their children or grandchildren might have a chance to look back on such films about their own country as classics.
Beijing’s authorities may have only mixed success in enforcing historical amnesia at home. But in Hollywood, their tactics are working flawlessly.