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An antidote to Hollywood: nationalist blockbusters

The BRICS countries are keen to assert their power in the world, but at the same time contribute to the ideological erosion of the era of liberalization. This can be seen in the production of what can be called nationalist blockbusters, particularly from China and Russia, which are hugely popular domestically but negligibly in the international market. If Hollywood blockbusters often produce a narrative of US hegemony throughout the world in which they are consumed, the nationalist blockbusters produce regional counter-narratives to these US productions, while often mimicking Hollywood product in the blockbuster form. A survey of these nationalist blockbusters shows that war films - unlike their Hollywood big brothers that have a message of US-led universalism, foregrounding liberty and independence - build community, often through suffering and sacrifice, and display a clearly nationalist message, often steeped in gendered history. In terms of geopolitics and the politics of challenging West-centric history, the nationalist war film - what could also be called the sub-imperial blockbuster - could be seen as a cinematic push for geopolitical multi-polarity or even as an sub-imperial stance, an ambition, it could be argued, shared at least by China and Russia.

The regional nature of the nationalist blockbuster has to be understood through the film market. Both domestic and Hollywood blockbusters circulate in most BRICS markets; however, domestic productions circulate and accrue capital minimally if at all in the US and the rest of the world.This is part of a greater system, in which the emerging BRICS markets, with their growing middle classes, are highly sought after by global media operators. China, now the world’s biggest box office, is being penetrated by and referenced or perhaps better put, interpellated in several Hollywood blockbusters. For example, the 2016 Disney animation Zootopia, about a society of animals that was hugely popular in China, had versions in which some characters were tailored for specific markets; a newscaster figure was a panda in the version released in China and a jaguar in the Brazilian one. Under the pressure of such competition, local BRICS producers feel a need to turn to national and communitarian narratives to ensure commercial success.

The domestic production of nationalist blockbusters serves to counter Hollywood product at the box office and, if some patriotism is injected, so much the better in the eyes of the administration that supports the projects. IVolf Warrior 2 (2017), the highest grossing film in mainland China until then, is about a former PLA-special forces soldier who performs Rambo-like heroics against mercenaries in Africa, an entertaining take on China’s geopolitical interests. Nationalist blockbusters are good business: Stalingrad (2013), a CGI-dominated take on the 1942 battle, was Russia’s greatest box-office success for years. In 2019, T-34, another nationalist blockbuster set in World War II, surpassed it. True to blockbuster form, Stalingrad had a huge budget by Russian standards, costing about S30 million. It had all the features of the typical blockbuster: a special-effects driven film, in classic narrative film style, incorporating various genres such as action and romance, done with a large budget. The battle of Stalingrad, the main event of the ‘Great Patriotic War’, received the epic treatment demanded by its status in the Russian historical imagination, being the first Russian film to be shot and exhibited in IMAX 3-D.

Collaboration with Hollywood and inter-BRICS investment is happening between the BRICS countries. Indian and Chinese investors back Hollywood films and studios and Bollywood and Greater Chinese stars appear in Hollywood films and vice-versa. The Indian film industry collaborates with the other above-mentioned film industries, in recent years particularly with the Chinese, this collaboration going much further than the tradition of popular Hindi films being shot in foreign locations. These BRICS co-productions go towards meeting the wishes of cultural policy makers, who have outlined collaboration between the countries in the media industries in general at the 2015 BRICS Media summit in Beijing and the film industry at the 2016 BRICS film festival in India. Here again it should be remembered that these top-down initiatives or recommendations have been preceded by many intra-BRICS films, often by independent filmmakers.

State cultural institutions wield great power over the industry in the BRICS countries, where film production is still heavily subsidized or dependent on the state, as in Russia and China, who have clear strategies for the production of blockbusters. The Guardian reported in 2002 on the initiative of the Russian government, just a few years after Russia’s economy started to grow after the 1990s, to grant 1.5 billion roubles over two years to film production, with the condition that preference would be given to films of a patriotic and historical nature, along with children’s cinema (Walsh, 2002). Since 2002, this blockbuster project of the Russian state has gained momentum. The follower of Goskino (which was placed under the Ministry of Culture in 2000), the Kino Fund, initiated in 2009, is bound by its rules to finance blockbuster films. Since 2010, the fund has made grants from its $100 million budget to finance the highest grossing domestic films, which are usually hagiographies of famous Russians and narratives with a positive light on the country. Most of the financing for Stalingrad came through government institutions and state-backed companies, the Kino Fund contributing S13 million.

In terms of production values, nationalist blockbusters (da pian, “big films’) top the finance charts in China as well. Flowers of War (2011), depicting the battle of Nanjing in 1937 and the ensuing Japanese atrocities, was the most expensive Chinese production at its time, with its $94 million budget only topped by Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall (2017). If the Hollywood blockbuster aims at a global audience, the Chinese nationalist blockbuster is mainly meant for the consumption of the country’s nationals, be they domestic or diasporic. Though if they can fill seats outside of their respective nation, the money and soft power are welcome and formal, narrative and other strategies, such as hiring international stars, attest to the producer’s intention to cross over internationally.

The Great Wall is a good example of how BRICS film producers go through great pains to get international exposure. The film tried to present itself as entertaining, spectacular and as politically bland as possible. Starring Hollywood A-lister Matt Damon, the film was set in a bygone (depoliticized) historical era and, in blockbuster fashion, its narrative offered a platform for a bundle of action sequences set in a romanticized, even touristy Chinese setting. Action film is a highly exportable form, as East Asians have shown time and again, yet the film failed outside China, while, domestically, like Flowers of War, it was a great success.

Even though nationalist blockbusters are some of the greatest successes in the countries’ film histories, it should be kept in mind that they are by no means a sure bet in the domestic market either. The largest budget ever for a Russian film, S55 million, was spent on Nikita Mikhalkov’s spectacular flop Burnt by the Sun 2 (2010), another blockbuster style film about World War II. The Founding of the Army (2017) by Hong Kong director Andrew Lau was a disappointment at the box-office in China, even though endorsed by the authorities. This film about the People’s Liberation Army was the third part of a state-supported epic blockbuster‘founding trilogy’, preceded by The Founding of a Republic and Birth of a Party (hagiographic narratives of Mao and the CCP),both of which did well at the box office.

For a long time, the Chinese administration has endorsed so-called zhuxuanlu or ‘main melody’, films buttressing the administration and its values, but progressively films have become entertainment-oriented. Like capitalism and authoritative government, market-oriented entertainment and nationalism also intertwine in Chinese films. In post-Soviet Russia, the return to nationalist narratives is a particularly notable development, as civic and other collectivist grand narratives were scorned for a long time after the fall of the USSR, as Seth Graham (2008) has noted. No doubt decades of globalization and the growth of the Russian economy has created the window of opportunity for the nationalist blockbuster, the same going for China and, as some scholars suggest, India.

The fact that a significant number of blockbuster films in Russia and China are nationalist is understandable, even without the obvious influence of state funding and other forms of support. Filmmaking is a particularly capital-intensive operation and when reaching up to the blockbuster standard, even more so. It comes as no surprise then that producers hedge their bets by making films on events or themes that are of interest and marketable to a national audience. The aesthetics, distribution and marketing, and ancillary strategies of the Hollywood blockbuster are imitated all over the world, especially in Brazil, Russia, India and China, which now have the necessary market conditions. These countries have large domestic markets and, in the case of China and India, big diasporic audiences as well; the ability to mobilize capital; state-backed film financing organizations (such as the Kino Fund in Russia); the technology, and the political desire, or even need, to produce blockbusters after a period of cultural deterritorialization and economic liberalization. In the BRICS countries this sort of film-making also obviously aligns with the country’s internal and external narrative of being on the rise (‘India Shining’,‘Chinese Dream’, etc.) and making their own mark on global economics and politics, and Western-centric global historical narratives, challenging selective Hollywood cinematic historicism, for example the way World War II is presented in global blockbusters such as Dunkirk (2017).

While in Russia the unstable 1990s saw the collapse of the film industry, the boom of the following decade under Vladimir Putin gave rise to new players in the film and television industries that crossed boundaries. Producers like Aleksander Rodniatskii became important figures (Strukov, 2015). Rodniatskii produced Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad (2013), but also art-house fare like Elena (2011) and the controversial Leviathan (2014) by Andrei Zvyagintsev.This role in both the spheres of the nationalist blockbuster and art-house film, as well as different platforms such as film and television, is emblematic of the necessary flexibility of the BRICS filmmakers or media operators. The torn intellectuals working at the television station in Cell Phone, discussed in the previous section, are a fictional representation of this.

The film industries in Brazil and South Africa, like that in Russia, have been fighting a losing battle against Hollywood for most of the recent decades. The film industry in Brazil in the early 1990s also collapsed when state financing was cut due to the neoliberal policies of President Collor de Mello. Also, as in Russia, the

Brazilian film industry has been able to recover, with a combination of government and business interests. Brazilian companies now get tax breaks for financing culture, including cinema, and a parade of corporate logos adorn Brazilian films before the opening credits start rolling. With the rise of these industries, Brazilian filmmakers, like their Chinese and Russian counterparts, have become more aware of the spectator as consumer.

In Brazil the new Cinema Novo (New Cinema), a Latin American movement, is more entertainment-oriented than the original Brazilian Cinema Novo that was politically radical but deemed by many critics as elitist. The ‘new Latin American’ films such as City of God (Meirelles, 2002) are in turn criticized for being commercial and reformist. Brazilian critics (e.g. Bentes, 2003: 124) argue that the new Brazilian cinema utilizes a ‘cosmetics of hunger’, as they go cinematically slumming - the concept a pun on the radical ‘aesthetics of hunger’ of Glauber Rocha (1939-1981) and Cinema Novo. The opposite argument comes from the critics who defend these films, emphasizing that, while commercial, they still foreground social problems and, unlike the more auteur and politically oriented films of earlier decades, are popular.

Cinema Novo directors of the 1960s and 1970s tried to cover revolutionary themes and vast political and philosophical questions, often with the use of allegory, setting their frequently formally adventurous films in the impoverished countryside and (later in the movement) in the disenfranchised parts of cities. Contemporary Brazilian cinema is more occupied with ‘realist accounts’ of Brazil’s social problems, often situated in the megacities and their favelas. There has been a change from an elite/utopian intellectual outlook to a genre - (often crime-) oriented commercial/ popular sociological one. As noted, Brazilian cinema has been commercially and critically successful and has been able to cross over to global audiences with films such as City of God, Central Station (1998) and the Elite Squad films.

As already discussed, the imitation of successful formulas and use of cross-border talent is not a Hollywood monopoly. Stalingrad featured internationally known German star Thomas Kretchmann and its music was composed by noted Hollywood composer Angelo Badalamenti. In China, the use of Hong Kong film talent in many recent mainland Chinese productions is an attempt to tap into Hong Kong cinema’s global reach. The Kung Fu craze of the early 1970s, followed by the successes of the ‘gun fu’ films of John Woo and wuxia epics like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon act as an inspiration and a formula to be followed. This list of crossover successes includes the films of Jackie Chan, who has done work in Hollywood, such as the Rush Hour series, as well as intra-BRICS productions such as the Sino-Indian Kung FuYoga (2017). As many Hong Kongers, Chan now works in the lucrative mainland China industry, another example of how martial arts is an important soft power vehicle for China. This is demonstrated by another China Hollywood collaboration, the remake of the Karate Kid (2010), understandably marketed in China with another name Kung Fu Dream.

Scholars have argued that a paradoxical conservative Hindu nationalist ideology that is neoliberally oriented is inculcated in post-liberalization popular Hindi cinema. Films that exhibit this trend, such as the trendsetter megahit Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge {Brave Heart Will Take Away the Bride) (1995) that was followed by many later emulations by directors such as Karan Johar, feature affluent cosmopolitan yet staunchly‘Hindustani gentlemen’.These dual characters are often NRIs that, unlike earlier representations are in the era of economic liberalization seen in a positive light, just as the romantic films moved away from stories featuring class conflict to strictly affluent surroundings. Even though these are not the sort of historical war and action films, such as the ones from China and Russia, these films in their homogenizing fabrication of the nation, family values, patriarchy and Hinduism could be seen to be the nationalist blockbusters of India.

Here one must note that India also has its share of war films that fit the contradictory qualifications of the nationalist blockbusters, such as the films of J. P. Dutta, produced after economic liberalization and the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Some war films from India such as Border (1997) and L. O.C Kargil (2003) represent the politics of the post-liberalization era, before which such depictions or even the naming of the enemy as Pakistani would have been avoided, and correlate with the patriotic Chinese and Russian blockbusters.A recent example of the Indian variant of the nationalist blockbuster is Kesari (2019) about the 1887 battle of Saragarhi in which a small Sikh detachment serving in the British army defended and died protecting a fort in Afghanistan against a superior Afghan force.

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