Avatar: Could James Cameron have had China's embattled home

owners in mind when he made the film?



China Daily, People's Republic of China

Twisting Avatar to Fit China's Paradigm


As James Cameron's newest film Avatar is viewed around the world, people are interpreting it to suit their own circumstances. For China's state-run China Daily, Raymond Zhou writes that the film's appeal to embattled Chinese home owners could be so great, that the authorities may be forced to stop screenings of the film.



January 8, 2010


People's Republic of China - China Daily - Original Article (English)

Film maker James Cameron: What is he trying to say with Avatar? It's a question being asked around the world.



BBC NEWS AUDIO: How to speak Na'vi, 00:04:16, Dec. 12 RealVideo

The best films, novels and plays have layers of meaning, and in these works people find their own points of reference by culturally "re-imagining."


Like a tsunami, director James Cameron's Avatar is sweeping cinemas around the globe. Here you have to book in advance or wait on long lines to see it - and the only shows with tickets available are for odd hours.


Groundbreaking special effects aside, the 3D film has themes of fighting colonialism, the indiscriminate use of military force and interracial relationships. But the moment the giant bulldozer appeared on screen, I had an "aha" moment: This movie is about today's China, or more accurately, there is a specific Chinese interpretation one can make.


Avatar is, or could be interpreted as, a parable about the battle of ordinary people against the all-engulfing greed of real-estate developers. In Chinese parlance, the Na'vi would be the equivalent of "nail housers," the people who refuse to give up the property they legally own. They protect their rights and houses - or in this case trees - and stick out like nails amid a field of debris.


I'm sure Cameron didn't draw his inspiration from the plight of China's "nail housers." He was obviously referring to the wars launched by George W Bush in the Middle East. And I'm not the only Chinese who has "twisted" this tale to fit our paradigm.


For example, when the Na'vi shoot arrows at heavy machinery that is crushing everything in its path, the scene that instantly came to mind was the Shanghai woman surnamed Pan, who used a homemade Molotov cocktail to thwart approaching bulldozers - albeit in vain. When the Na'vi hold a vigil reminiscent of the Olympic Opening Ceremony directed by Zhang Yimou, the sense of foreboding was so pervasive that I couldn't help but think of Tang Fuzhen, the Chengdu woman who resorted to self-immolation to protest her "forced eviction."


I wouldn't be surprised if the authorities put a stop to the screening of this massive blockbuster when too many people, as I do, read into it a connection to a reality that's too close for comfort. But they can't blame Cameron for "inciting unrest" among a restive populace unable to hold on to their rights of abode.



Such is the nature of cross-cultural messages. People of one culture read into the works of other culture unintended meanings. With reasonable arguments, such interpretations add layers to the work and bring added relevance to a new audience. This is far different from failing to understand the author's original intent. Most educated Chinese get the message that Cameron embedded in his fantasy tale; but that doesn't resonate with us as much as the angle of developers vs. landowners.


In my line of work I encounter such problems every day. I'm a consultant for several organizations in the business of importing foreign books, movies, TV shows and specials. Apart from the issue of name recognition, I ask myself and those who seek my advice: "Does it have a Chinese angle? Can the target audience relate to the issues?"


One work that clicked with Beijing audiences was Jane Eyre. Wildly popular when China opened its doors to Western influence in the late 70s and early 80s, this classic take about a young governess and a rocky romance with her employer was left on dusty shelves when the taboo over foreign books wore off.


Last year, the National Center for the Performing Arts hosted two runs of Jane Eyre. At the time it dawned on me that today, this is a tale that really hits home. Jane isn't beautiful, she's not rich; and the man who's willing to marry her has a castle. Yet she walks out of the wedding because he has a wife.


[Editor's Note: Actually at the wedding, Jane Eyre is informed that her groom-to-be, Edward Rochester, already has a wife so cannot marry her. When the groom suggests that they live together as husband and wife, Jane turns him down.]



Now, contrast this with Dwelling Narrowness, a recent TV show so popular that it was banned. Here, a woman uses her beauty to become a concubine for the sole purpose of obtaining a decent apartment. What would she think of Jane Eyre? Nuts, probably. In Dwelling Narrowness, Edward Rochester could have had an entire house of concubines.


You see, Jane Eyre is poignant because it's a perfect counterpoint to Dwelling Narrowness and the harsh reality it depicts. In both Avatar and Jane Eyre, you can detect the real issues that grip China: an emerging middle-class made up of people in their late 20s and early 30s blocked from affordable housing; and an army of property owners fighting a losing battle against developers and the interests they represent. More irony: property owners are robbed so that more houses can be built, forcing young people to buy them at prices so high that they are essentially wiped out for life.


With home prices skyrocketing across the country, housing is such a problem that even a domestic film release was recently reinterpreted through this prism. The Founding of a Republic, an epic made to celebrate the 60th anniversary of new China, was ruthlessly dissected by irreverent young writer Han Han. He pointed out that Madame Soong Ching-ling's support for the Communist Party hinged on her capacity to retain her mansion in downtown Shanghai, a point partly supported by a line in the movie uttered by a Communist leader to the effect that she could keep her house.


When I staged The Sound of Music in Beijing 12 years ago, one of my concerns was the seven children in the film. China has a family planning policy. Most urban families have only one child. Would they accept the story with one child instead of seven? Would that be outlandish?


No, I wasn't engaged in self-censorship. I was zooming in on the discrepancies that audiences may detect in the work. Even without the one-child policy, most Chinese families wouldn't want more than two. A horde of siblings isn't something that urban children - our target audience - take for granted.


Fortunately, the musical doesn't focus on the dynamics among siblings. The seven children in the story act just like schoolmates. Besides, the plot is already so familiar that many people probably didn't even think about it. But it was a legitimate point. Most families in America, sitcoms have three children.


A family sitcom with a single child would be a daunting task for scriptwriters. So how does one map out a storyline centered on the family for Chinese television?


A hit sitcom in China called Home with Kids tackled this dilemma with ingenuity. The wife had a previous marriage, so she has a son. The husband has a daughter from a previous marriage and also has a younger son born in the United States. So it's still a family of three children - all of whom were born legally.



Most people grow up in one culture and are trained to look at things from a particular angle. This way of thinking and doing things is what makes a culture unique.


But to broaden the appeal of a cultural work, it's often necessary to tone down this specificity so that people from other cultures can search and find something relevant to them. That means distilling the complexities and uniqueness into a few broad issues. Hollywood is a master at this. But it too often dumbs things down too much, leaving a few cut-and-dried clichs.


Avatar may not have much depth, but it inadvertently hits a nerve in a country where the bulldozer is both a threat and a sign of progress.

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