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June 21, 2021

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Semantics aside, patriotic movies endure

Heroic movies and TV dramas about the founding of the Communist Party of China have abounded over the decades. This year, as the Party celebrates its centenary, what new light can be shed on such a much-scrutinized event?

For decades, many Chinese audiences, especially younger ones, held a stereotype of such films as dry, boring propaganda that entertained parents or grandparents who had no other choices.

The founding of the Party, thoroughly covered in school textbooks, was always cloaked in stories of “great, bright and righteous” leaders. That history became the fodder of a patriotic film genre called zhu xuan lu, or literally “melodic themes.”

According to the Xinhua Chinese Dictionary, movies of “melodic themes” are those of revolutionary historical significance or those with subjects propagating mainstream social values as reflected in the lives of ordinary people.

“Melodic theme” is sometimes translated into English as “mainstream movies,” but that term tends to imply profit motive, which isn’t the primary impetus of these Chinese films.

Chinese TV drama and film makers this year discussed the subject at Shanghai film festivals and reached a consensus: “Melodic theme” movies can be profitable and even become blockbusters.

The debaters did disagree on specific terms, however. Should this film genre be called “melodic themes,” or “mainstream cinema” or “new mainstream?” Some worried that the phrase “melodic themes” might turn away audiences.

“It is a uniquely Chinese genre, but that doesn’t mean such movies don’t exist in other countries,” said director Zheng Dasheng, who received a master of fine arts degree in filmmaking at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is best known for his 2017 arthouse movie “Bangzi Melody.”

Zheng cited Christopher Nolan’s film “Dunkirk,” wherein the British director delved into World War II event. Historical — check. Mainstream social values — check.

Zheng, 53, said he prefers to compare his latest film “1921,” named in honor of the Party’s founding year, with the superhero Marvel series that delivered dozens of blockbusters.

“These revolutionary pioneers are our superheroes from 100 years ago, who braved missions impossible to make great things happen,” Zheng said. “We tell their exciting story from an updated contemporary perspective, so why not consider the story as a mainstream movie? As filmmakers, we approach it as we would approach any other subject — to tell a dramatically intriguing story with good aesthetics.”

Zheng was speaking with Shanghai Daily two days after the successful premiere of “1921” at the opening of the Shanghai Film Festival. The venue was filled with young fans who cheered at the movie’s main characters — Party founding members in their 20s. The movie framed them in an international context, fused with elements of espionage movies.

Blending in modern genre elements is one way that film and TV makers are injecting such productions with new energy.

Fu Dongyu, chief director of the currently screening “Faith Makes Great” TV series, calls his production a “poetic symphony.”

Each 30-minute episode tells a different story, told by 14 directors in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Most of the series protagonists are unfamiliar names to mass audiences. They are ordinary people who contributed something of significance in the past 100 years.

One is a male training partner attached to a female judo team, whose daily job is to be thrown to the ground by women athletes. Another is a nurse who left family to fight at the medical frontline in Wuhan during the coronavirus pandemic. And yet another is a war correspondent and photographer operating during the Japanese invasion of China.

“Many people think of productions of ‘melodic themes’ as a product of a particular historic era, but that’s too simplified,” Fu said.

Fu said we should ask ourselves the following questions. Have we over-conceptualized “melodic themes” in the past? Have we elevated such productions to such a height that they no longer resonate with audiences?

“My understanding of ‘melodic theme’ is that it expresses a shared emotion, a common aspiration and the dream of a nation,” he said. “Only then that can it resonate with audiences.”

This “Forrest Gump” approach, portraying historically significant events through the perspective of ordinary people, is popular among Chinese TV and filmmakers.

“We have found a method since ‘My People, My Country,’ which is to present a background of historic grandeur and great achievements through the perspective of grassroots people,” said Fu Ruoqing, vice president of China Film.

The 2019 film he mentioned was the third-highest grossing movie of that year, with a box office of over 3 billion yuan (US$465 million).

Fu said China Film will release more than 10 productions of “melodic themes” by the end of the year, all of them taking the same approach.

The biggest winner at the Shanghai TV festival also portrayed ordinary people. “Minning Town,” which delves into China’s efforts to eliminate poverty, garnered four awards, including best drama.

Netizens sent the series trending, with some expressing disappointment that the lead actress didn’t win an award. Trending hashtags included “never expected to cry over a melodic theme drama” or “let’s have more melodic theme dramas like this one.”

The other big winner at the festival was “The Age of Awakening,” which took three awards, including best script.

The 43-episode TV drama recounted the story of the Party’s founding from the perspective of fierce debates among intellectuals between 1915 and 1921, discussing remedies to “rescue” China. The series has attracted more than 300 million views online at its midway point.

“Melodic themes” movies are indeed mainstream movies because the social values they propagate represent positive energy,” said Liang Jing, producer of “My People, My Country.”

She added, “Such movies exist in many countries and are very successful commercially. We still have lots of potential to explore.”


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