The foreign actors making their careers in China’s propaganda films
Tom Shanahan thinks it’s “hilarious” that Chinese audiences think he looks like Putin. (Supplied/Reuters)
It’s World War II, and a special team of the Chinese military has been secretly sent to rescue an American pilot whose plane was shot down by the Japanese army.
A fearless, blond pilot had been discovered hanging from a tree by his parachute by a Chinese hunter and his grandson. But the hunter and grandson were quickly shot dead as they tried to protect the pilot from Japanese soldiers.
At the critical moment, a Chinese rescue team arrives to save the day. The pilot took out his ID and said, “I am an American. I am Captain Mark, from the Flying Tigers. Thank you for saving for my life”. With an Australian accent.
This is the popular Chinese TV drama, Blossom of the Battlefield. It’s one of thousands of patriotic Chinese dramas with an anti-Japanese war theme. Most Chinese audiences can’t tell that “Captain Mark” is played by an Australian.
“Captain Mark” is actually Tom Shanahan from Brisbane, who’s played five American pilots in Chinese dramas since he started acting in China in 2007.
In recent work, Shanahan has also taken on the role of Russian President Vladimir Putin in a drama celebrating the 40th anniversary of China’s reform policy. He says it’s “hilarious” that Chinese people think he looks like Putin, but it was “a great honour”.
But there’s a catch: Chinese audiences aren’t watching him, because his roles are just designed to make Chinese heroes look greater
China needs more foreign actors
In the past 10 years, China has witnessed increasing demand for foreign actors. Renaud Moran, a French filmmaker and critic, says China is aiming to expand its global influence through its entertainment industry, and the only way is “to have more and more international coproduction and casting”.
Shanahan, who used to work as a salesman in Brisbane, wanted to build his acting experience before attempting Hollywood. He says the barrier to entry is “lower than other countries because they do not care [about experience], as long as you have foreign faces”.
“But it is still difficult to get regular, ongoing work,” he says.
His first year in China was tough since he didn’t speak any Chinese. Within two weeks of arriving in Beijing, he got an audition for a “dream role” in the Jackie Chan film The Forbidden Kingdom, but says he didn’t get it because of a greedy agent and the “extremely unreliable” film industry.
But then the Chinese state media, CCTV, offered Shanahan a job hosting an English program called Rediscovering China. Two years as a TV host helped him connect with Chinese celebrities and politicians — having a foreign friend in the media was a status symbol in China.
“China is a very status-structured society,” says Shanahan.
“I could get into the top rank quite easily as a foreign actor, TV presenter or filmmaker.”
He is now using these valuable contacts to promote Australian brands in China.
Most roles that Shanahan played were set during World War II or in the 1920s spy era in Shanghai.
“It’s all based on what’s politically possible,” he says.
“The main thing that Chinese producers want to do is pass the censorship of SARFT [the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio Film, and Television].’
Storylines based on stereotypes
Alongside the A-list stars in the Chinese war blockbuster, Wolf Warrior II, there’s a young African named Dorea Emmanuel Tshipamba Taty. The plotline is typical of patriotic dramas — a Chinese special force soldier rescues Chinese hostages, protects locals and defeats rebels — but the setting is new: Africa.
Dorea Taty feels conflicted when Africans are portrayed as villains in Chinese dramas. (Supplied)
The film grossed 5.68 billion yuan (A$1.16 billion) in China alone, making it the highest grossing film ever released in the country.
“As a film, it was a masterpiece, but the storyline is just based on stereotypes, which frustrates Africans,” says Taty, who is from Congo.
The stuntman-turned-actor came to China at the right time. The Chinese government hopes to show off its tight relations with Africa to boost its “One Belt, One Road” development strategy. China also opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti in the horn of Africa last year.
The growing number of productions about Africa and the Chinese army’s participation in global peacekeeping requires more actors like Taty
As a professional actor, Taty enjoys the challenge of portraying evil characters, but feels concerned that “the bad guys are always African, and the savers are always Chinese”.
Taty thinks Chinese films are copying American propaganda movies without any innovation.
“China is trying to sell an image about the Sino-African relationship without consulting Africans, which is why the storyline is based on stereotypes.”
But Chinese screenwriter and film critic, Shi Hang, does not think this is a “China thing”.
“Whether it’s a foreigner depicting Chinese people or Chinese filmmakers depicting foreigners, there will always be some bias. It cannot be avoided, there’s no need to blame either party,” he says.
Wolf Warrior 2, which tells the story of a Chinese mercenary who protected Chinese workers, smashed box office records in 2017. (Supplied: IMDb)
China still hung up on Japan
While China seeks to expand its influence across the world, it’s fighting a PR campaign closer to home, too. Of the 340 TV dramas that China has broadcast in the past two years, 90 have an anti-Japanese invasion theme.
Otsuka Masanobu (Massa) is one of the Japanese actors who plays the Japanese “enemy”, some seven decades on from the World War II. His first Chinese role was in City of Life and Death, which depicts the Japanese army invading Nanjing city during World War II and the massacre that followed.
Many influential Japanese actors had turned down the part because of the subject matter, but Massa believed the film’s famous director, Lu Chuan, would have a different approach to war films.
“No one knew about me in China at that time, I thought, I have to take part in this film, and impress Chinese audience,” he says.
The film won many international awards, including the top Golden Shell prize at the 2009 San Sebastian Film Festival. Despite its international success, it was criticised in mainland China because of its sympathetic portrayal of a Japanese soldier. Director Lu Chuan and his family received death threats online and the film was nearly pulled from Chinese theatres.
Fortunately, Chinese audiences accepted Massa and other Japanese actors as young and brave foreigners who “dared to face history”.
Massa has taken every role seriously, even if it’s only one line, viewing himself as a representative for all Japanese actors — historically, Japanese characters have been played by Chinese actors. He has attracted a lot of attention in each film crew because of historical sensitivities, but he likes to introduce modern Japanese culture to his Chinese colleagues.
“China is interested in Japan, but most Chinese people have never been and don’t have any Japanese friends. Their knowledge of Japan relies on Chinese news and TV shows,” says Massa.
“I often think the two countries need more communication.”
Massa likes to introduce his Chinese colleagues to contemporary Japanese culture on set. (Supplied)
Through hard work, Massa scored the chance to work with top Chinese and international directors and actors, including Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar Wai, Christian Bale and Tony Leung. Occasionally, he was able to break out of war films.
“I have my rules to take part in a war film. I refuse characters who kill ordinary people or rape women. I do not play characters in movies which purposefully insult Japan,” he says.
But these standards reduce the work available. There’s limited character types for foreigners in the market. Massa has now moved back to Tokyo to work in the Japanese film industry after 10 years working in China.
Are patriotic films going anywhere?
Patriotic films are only getting more popular.
“There is a new trend that more investment goes to patriotic [stories],” film critic Shi Wenxue told the Global Times.
“This is because of the government’s support, and also the big box office these films have generated.”
Under the guidance of President Xi Jinping, Chinese artists are urged to create works which encourage national pride and strengthen confidence in Chinese culture.
At the end of Wolf Warrior II, a strong message is displayed on screen: China will “always be right behind you” if you encounter danger abroad.
But Taty feels conflicted when he watches the film that launched his acting career.
“No matter how proud I might be, someone who does not know me, who does not know where I come from, who watches a film that portrays Africa badly, will not respect me.”
“If having a good relationship with other countries means you have to portray bad images of other countries, I don’t think that’s very diplomatic. I think it’s a very bad deal.”
Cecily Huang is a producer in ABC’s Beijing bureau.