What Can “Bridge of Spies” Reveal to the Chinese About the Limits of Chinese Cinema?

By Ying ZhuDecember 30, 2015

What Can “Bridge of Spies” Reveal to the Chinese About the Limits of Chinese Cinema?
CHINESE CINEMA has been a hot topic in recent years for its smashing domestic box-office records. The ever-expanding market promises to eclipse North America’s to become the world’s number one, and thus has Hollywood running to stake a market claim by fawning on Chinese film regulators and audiences. Meanwhile, in its battle to win the hearts and minds of the world, the Chinese state is aggressively tapping cinema, Hollywood or Chinese, to do its soft power bidding. This is creating jitters in the West, as Hollywood studios frequently appear to be on the Chinese Communist Party’s short leash.

To spread the Chinese cinematic gospel abroad, Wang Jianlin, Chinese real estate tycoon and owner of the world’s largest theater chains (including AMC), is building an $8.2 billion Oriental Movie Metropolis that boasts one of the world’s largest and most technologically advanced feature-film-production facilities in an attempt to shift the gravity of cinema from Hollywood to Chinese Huallywood. The record shattering box-office performance of a few domestic pictures this past summer added further fuel to the bullish talk about the coming victorious rise of Chinese cinema.

Has Hollywood become irrelevant aside from supplying a few tentpole blockbuster pictures at the whim of the Chinese state? The American film industry single-handedly built up China’s film market with a steady supply of blockbusters two decades ago when dipping cinema attendance turned the Chinese film industry toward Hollywood in search of a magic bullet. Though absent for decades in China after the newly founded People’s Republic of China put a ban — not without fearing a rebellion in response — on American film imports in 1950, Hollywood dominated the Chinese film market during the Republican era (1912–’49). Upon its return in 1995, Hollywood instantly resuscitated a dying Chinese film market, bringing audiences back to the good old Yankee pictures.

As the whisper in the classic Field of Dreams has it, “If you build it, they will come.” The domestic film market has been built; now the Chinese film industry is ready to claim it and to further establish Huallywood as an alternative to Hollywood. Is the world ready to embrace Chinese cinema? Not so fast, judging by the limited appeal of Chinese film globally and Hollywood’s continued status perching high on the cinematic totem pole.

The business of filmmaking is indeed booming in China, but not necessarily the artistry of Chinese cinema, which pertains to the innovative and imaginative form of storytelling that can yield memorable films of cross-cultural appeal and recognition. Recent Chinese cinematic fast food with the likes of Guo Jingming’s Tiny Times franchise and Monster Hunt are hardly masterpieces in the caliber of first-class world cinema. In comparison to the exhilarating outburst of waves of new cinema of the 1980s, Chinese cinema in the 2010s has yielded few memorable pictures of genuine delight.

Meanwhile, while outsourcing much of its production and exporting most of its tentpole blockbuster fare, Hollywood has reserved a spot for A-class quality films of cinematic feast and genuine human touch. One recent instance is Bridge of Spies, a cinematic masterstroke helmed by Hollywood’s consummate dream weaver Steven Spielberg, with delicious ingredients from the Coen brothers, who rewrote the original screenplay. The result is a film at once earnest and ironic, sweet and sinister, conventional and iconic, patriotic and cosmopolitan — a dexterous exercise in genre-bending and auteur-mixing. The film attests to the enduring charm of a classical Hollywood cinema with boundless grit, wit, and class — something that is thoroughly lacking in Chinese cinema.

Bridge of Spies is a throwback to a Cold War spy thriller and the tantalizing world of espionage, where frenemies accorded each other with a mutual nod if not due legal process. The film makes a hero out of a mundane New York insurance attorney charged with the thankless task of providing legal service to an alleged Soviet spy agent, Colonel Rudolf Abel, played by the brilliant British actor Mark Rylance. Tom Hanks, the quintessence of American integrity, plays the attorney James Donovan. Donovan takes his job seriously, to the astonishment of a CIA agent pressuring him to break attorney-client privilege, and to the amazement of a judge seeking a guilty verdict. The court soon finds Abel guilty, to nobody’s surprise. Swimming against the tide of popular sentiment, Donovan takes the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that Abel is not a traitor but a soldier loyal to his own country; never mind that the Soviet Union is a sworn foe of the United States. America should show its moral courage by treating his client fairly, Donovan argues to the Supreme Court. To the CIA agent, Donovan hardly conceals his contempt as he lectures him that it is the Constitution that makes them both Americans. Though the war on terror is eroding both moral and legal codes in the US, the respect for human dignity and the protection of the Constitution are reminders of a fundamental decency of American society, two qualities that are left wanting in China.

To spare his client from the death penalty, Donovan further reasons with the judge by applying the principle of “probability,” his very trade in the insurance business. What if down the road the Soviets capture an American spy? Won’t it be wise to preserve Abel’s life just in case? Abel would come in handy should there be a spy swap in the future. Donovan hones his insurance salesman skill as he lays out the probable scenario; the bemused judge is sold. Predictably, there soon emerges an American pilot shot down while flying a spy aircraft into Soviet territory and is held captive. The task of trading for the American spy falls to Donovan.

Throughout the ordeal, Donovan is seen as someone with a killer instinct for the best bargain possible. Here the Cohen brothers’ absurdist humor shines, and the result is a gamely heroic deed carried out not by a patriotic superman verging on the saintly, but by an otherwise boring insurance attorney following his professional drive, and conscience. Who would think that the business of insurance could bring such glamour and swagger? Tom Hanks plays Donovan in a half-amused manner, which helps to deflate the otherwise incredulous self-righteousness of a man who risks his life to preserve American integrity. A heroic act delivered via parody and irony is a cinematic feast that Chinese cinema, under the Party’s short leash, would have a hard time to pull off, particularly given the intensified state campaign to encourage patriotism and loyalty to the Party. A film about a spy swap amidst Cold War hysteria, where the main character’s loyalty is split between the country and the Constitution, is not something that Chinese cinema can entertain.

Bridge of Spies does retain a few characteristic Spielberg indulgences that come off as excessive. For instance, the scene in which Donovan watches East German escapees being gunned down while trying to climb the Berlin Wall is later echoed by the mischievous fence-climbing children back home in New York, which makes all too transparent whose side of history they’re on. Such heavy-handed moments are balanced out by a healthy dose of self-parody, which the ingenuous Coen brothers encourage. A cast of odd-looking actors with accents on the enemy side further illustrates how we often treat enemies as mere caricatures — a trademark of Chinese anti-Japanese war dramas. As for the Soviet spy, Spielberg shows us a calmly composed Colonel Abel so gripping that we wind up worrying about his fate more than we care about the safe return of our own. Imagine a Chinese film today about the Sino-Japanese War featuring a Japanese officer as a sympathetic character whose life carries more weight than the lives of fellow Chinese.

Elsewhere, Donovan’s seemingly xenophobic barbs as he chides his German Democratic Republican counterpart for a longwinded country name calls attention to the equally pompous “United States of America.” Here the film pokes gentle fun at both sides, and ultimately renders the efforts of nation-building and indeed the entire Cold War enterprise silly. This of course is a no-no in Chinese cinema. Many of the playful moments in Bridge of Spies would have gone to the cutting board, if it were a Chinese film, for disseminating unpatriotic views and challenging the Party authority.

Bridge of Spies further pokes fun at the material abundance frequently associated with the American way of life. There is a tongue-in-cheek moment when deprived young outcasts in East Berlin eagerly encircle Donovan as they eye his Saks Fifth Avenue overcoat. Donovan trades it for directions. The same irony is lacking in Chinese cinema, where glossy contemporary pictures are all too eager to display and indeed celebrate China’s newfound affluence.

That is not to say that Bridge of Spies lacks “positive energy,” to use Xi Jinping’s term. The film manages to reconcile Spielberg’s patriotic sentimentality with the Coen brothers’ cool detachment. The result is a display of American exceptionalism, and in turn the superiority of Hollywood film at its most compelling.

Meanwhile, the Party’s recent sanitizing effort to rid the Chinese screen of unwholesome images takes us back to 1934, when the KMT launched the Confucianism-based New Life Movement in an attempt to resurrect traditional Chinese morality as a countermeasure to Westernization and to Japanese encroachment. Though the KMT movement was decidedly against socialism and communism, both the CCP and the KMT played the same morality card to regulate the entertainment industry. Provocative European art films such as those by Lars von Trier or Michael Haneke, or even Ingmar Bergman, would be a no-no in today’s China. Nor would some of the recently surfaced Chinese underground art films ever see the light of the day under the current cultural climate.

So, yes, the movie business is indeed booming in China, but the country has yet to climb the cinematic food chain in terms of prestige, aside from a few dwindling independent films playing in overseas art houses, and despite the red-hot market and even hotter investment rush.

Wang Jianlin of Wanda today might be an industrial visionary akin to Universal’s Carl Laemmle Sr., who built Hollywood’s first vertically consolidated studio almost a century ago. But Wanda has yet to yield a film of the same caliber as All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930), a critically recognized antiwar picture that brought Universal two Academy Awards in 1930. These carefully crafted quality films that showcase the magic of storytelling at its most potent, innovative, and moving are not something Wanda’s global shopping and construction spree alone can produce.

As Anthony Lane puts it, “There is a curious sense of well-being in settling down to Bridge of Spies.” It is indeed comforting to be able to entrust oneself in the hands of Hollywood dream makers for two hours of pure cinematic joy. The same cannot be said about watching a Chinese movie, which has frequently become an arduous chore I dread to perform.


Ying Zhu is a professor of cinema studies at the City University of New York and author of Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television. She is currently writing a book on the history of Sino-Hollywood Relation.

LARB Contributor

Ying Zhu is a professor of cinema studies at the City University of New York and author of Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television. She is currently writing a book on the history of Sino-Hollywood Relation.


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