East West Bank CEO Dominic Ng has helped facilitate several co-production deals between American and Chinese studios — putting him at the center of an issue that’s recently become hot button in Hollywood.
This week, the Government Accountability Office agreed to a request from 16 legislators to review an existing committee on foreign investment, to make sure its legal powers have kept pace with the fire hose of Chinese cash flowing into Hollywood. And Thursday, Rep. John Culberson asked the Department of Justice to take a look at the dealings of China’s Dalian Wanda Group, which has snapped up entertainment companies from AMC Theaters to Legendary Entertainment — and which has close ties to the Chinese government, which censors Hollywood films that are allowed into its theaters.
Culberson raised alarm over the number of acquisitions and co-financing deals made by Chinese entertainment companies that “raises serious concerns about how this may be used for propaganda purposes.”
However, Ng told TheWrap that Americans have nothing to fear in terms of “Chinese values” making their way deeper into American multiplexes. In his view, those “values” will look a lot more like the positive and absurd comedic stylings of one of the country’s most famous and commercially successful directors, Stephen Chow, than a message from the Communist Party of China.
Chow’s most recent film, “The Mermaid,” is a surreal and deliberately goofy tale about a rich developer with plans to build an environmentally-destructive project that would ravage the local sea life, only to change his mind when he falls in love with a mermaid. And although China isn’t particularly known for eco-conscious consumers, the movie and its message were a hit, racking up more than $550 million at the Chinese box office, making it easily the country’s highest-grossing film ever.
Ng, who recently joined the board of independent distributor STX, brought up “The Mermaid” and some of Chow’s previous films — such as “Shaolin Soccer” and “Kung Fu Hustle” — as more emblematic of the type of “Chinese values” its entertainment tycoons want to bring to Hollywood than what the members of Congress seem to fear. In Chow’s films, the humble, working-class protagonists always triumph over bullying bad guys — sometimes even government officials.
“What do [Chow’s] Chinese values look like?” Ng asked. “Poor vs. rich. Good vs. bad. And the good always wins.”
Ng said ordinary Chinese prefer to watch stuff that’s positive — sometimes on the verge of being corny — and Chow has struck an obvious vein churning that out. He acknowledged that he used to see more obvious propaganda films touting Communism circulating around China, but those have become less prevalent as the younger generation would rather watch anything else.
China’s government does operate a censorship body that reviews each of the 34 imported films allowed in each year, and has banned seemingly harmless fare like “Ghostbusters” for its supernatural elements. A Chinese villain in a major studio tentpole is also unlikely to appear any time soon, several industry observers have told TheWrap.
However, Ng said Chinese studio heads and entertainment executives are investing in studios and production companies at sometimes eye-popping values because they are driven by their desire to make movies that can eventually travel — which Hollywood does so well, and which China hasn’t been able to master. Heavy-handed propaganda from the Communist Party doesn’t seem like it would play well internationally.
And even for movies that barely play outside of China like “The Mermaid,” which made just $3.2 million in the U.S., Ng said the messaging is hardly ominous. “The Mermaid” was explicitly about saving the planet, and it became a massive mainstream hit across all demographic groups.
“‘The Mermaid’ grossed $550 million in China, and it was about environmental protection,” Ng said. “Is that a Chinese value?”