The wave of anti-Confucius sentiment following the removal of Avatar from 2D screens reveals a backlash against official maneuvering.
In the ongoing holiday movie season, there is an "I-hate-Confucius" undercurrent. It has boiled to the surface and become a form of "counter-terrorism". In Chinese, the homonym for Confucius and terrorism are both "kong".
Not that Confucius is a terrible movie. The biopic is in the same vein as those Jesus movies produced in the West. You cannot depict a saint-like Amadeus, the music prodigy, as all giggles and antics. It has to be a one-dimensional portrayal. But public reaction has been largely negative. In one online survey, 67 percent of respondents gave the movie a thumbs-down; while in a much larger survey, the same percentage gave Avatar the thumbs-up.
Herein may lie the secret: The backlash against Confucius was caused predominantly by the forced removal of Avatar from 2D theaters. The damage is more psychological than substantial: First, 2D is not the most popular form of Avatar screenings; second, the James Cameron sci-fi adventure monopolized the China market for almost 20 days before a Chinese contender stepped in - not a low-budget art-house flick, but one with digitally enhanced battle scenes and a verifiable A-lister in the central role.
It is surprising that so many Chinese film lovers, this time, are against protectionism. They lamented the partial withdrawal of Avatar, something I predicted in an early column, though for a different reason - that the government might be uncomfortable with the parallels of China's forced relocation woes in the real estate market. They espoused the notion that all movies, domestic or imported, should be given equal opportunities and let ticket-buyers be the judge. There were even sporadic calls to boycott Confucius. Those who did swarm into the theater during the first weekend did not have many good words about it. Rather, they held a grudge.
Hu Mei and Chow Yun-fat did not help things. Hu, the director, claimed that government intervention in clearing out the market for her was "heart-warming". Chow, the star, guaranteed a three-hanky experience. Had they said they believed their movie would stand on its own strength and welcomed the competition, they might have tipped the balance a little. Now, Hu is saying all the negative reviews were the result of "an organized smear campaign".
It is high time Hu learned the PR clichs and assumed a less defensive stance. A good word for your rival won't kill you, my dear Ambassador to Ancient China, it'll only make you look good.
More startling than Confucius, the movie, falling victim to this act of market tinkering, is Confucius the giant. Amidst the outpouring of anger and frustration toward movie industry manipulations are the voices that point to the thoughts of Confucius as a negative force in Chinese history.
It is strikingly reminiscent of the May Fourth Movement - China's Enlightenment - in the early 20th century. It was at this time that revolutionaries denounced Confucianism and embraced Western ideals of science and democracy. And it runs counter to the current trend of promoting Confucius and his teachings as a quintessentially Chinese alternative, that may help win hearts and contracts across the world.
Just a year ago this situation was unimaginable. Then, you said one bad word about Confucius and you risked a "flame war" that would incinerate you. Scholar Li Ling titled his study of The Analects, "The Dog That Lost His Home", and netizens were outraged, unaware that it was actually Confucius' description of himself. Zhang Yiwu, another scholar, said Zhang Ziyi, the movie star, was doing a better job advancing Chinese culture overseas than Confucius, and netizens turned him into a laughing-stock. What serious scholars could never achieve in demystifying, and whom former chairman Mao Zedong, Lu Xun and all the revolutionaries failed to topple from the pedestal, the film authorities did with one simple stroke - by throwing a boomerang at Pandora, the flying island populated by athletic blue men, and instead hitting the man they had crowned with a halo.
Popular psychology seems to be something acutely lacking among a certain segment of China's celebrities and public service managers. They seem to be as simple-minded as a maverick Hollywood hero - focusing on one goal and never mind the ramifications. They wanted to protect China's home-grown film industry, so they pushed aside foreign competitors. It must have seemed the right thing to do, but today's youth - film audiences are mostly young - seem to place an emphasis on quality rather than the origin of production.
The same is true of managing controversial online content. While most people have no qualms shielding minors from unhealthy websites, they are uncomfortable with an all-encompassing monitoring system such as Green Dam. The filtering of bawdy jokes on the mobile platform is also backfiring, throwing erstwhile sympathizers of censorship into champions of personal rights.
The relentless campaign against online porn is surely welcomed by parents, but manifests an upsetting ignorance of child psychology. Say, I'm a 14-year-old. Every website I surf has an announcement, prominently displayed, offering rewards for reporting pornographic content. What do I do? I would be titillated about searching for such content. Before, I had to do it stealthily lest I got caught by my parents; now I can proudly declare I'm on a hunt for bad guys. Besides, I may satisfy my inner urge while denying others the same gratification. It's like burning the bridge and then calling it shoddy construction. This gives play to all the basest instincts in one act.
Publicity officials should know there is an invisible line between hyping and excessive hyping. An inordinate amount of eulogizing or condemnation, usually, will first make the audience numb, and then may incite the opposite response. We have long passed the age of innocence, when too much of a good thing is still a good thing.
I have had the opportunity of interviewing several government-ordained heroes. After talking to them, I found they were far from the monumental images painted of them elsewhere in the press. They are mostly down-to-earth and heroic in a quiet way. Why not publicize them as who they are, instead of who the authorities want them to be? Their real selves moved me, but the grandstanding images in the press did not interest me at all.
Nobody can sit down and talk to Confucius. He has been dead for almost 2,500 years. Subsequent rulers down the centuries basically framed him, making him into a spiritual leader teaching subjects the virtue of docility. Confucius was a great philosopher, but he was one of dozens of greats in his era. But just like our parents, he has been made so preachy that he has become a symbol of authoritarianism, someone to be rebelled against and overcome.
Let Confucius be Confucius. We'll have an infinite source of wisdom rather than just a vague idol to marvel at. We'll have a screen adaptation that stands or falls on its own merits and does not affect anything - other than, perhaps, the filmmakers' careers.