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Arrival: China in the Eyes of Hollywood

movie big mouth

I want to start a conversation by talking about the most highly anticipated science-fiction film of the year called Arrival, which is based on Ted Chiang’s novella Story of Your Life. Like La La Land, the film had its world premiere at Venice Film Festival, where it received a nomination of Golden Lion. Then, the film received eight Academy Awards nominations last month and won the Best Adapted Screenplay at the annual WGA awards.

As far as the central themes of communication and time are concerned, Arrival is at once a dizzying yet illuminating experience, thanks to director Denis Villeneuve’s superb craftsmanship and vision, as well as the carefully polished performance of the cast led by Amy Adams. On the most fundamental level, Arrival is really the kind of science-fiction I particularly adore—the kind that takes the premise of a science-fiction but actually offers philosophical ruminations on the bigger questions of life. Some of the good examples of this sub-genre, which I termed “Science-Fiction not about Science,” include Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982), Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997) and Gattaca (dir. Andrew Niccol, 1997).

So here, in Arrival, you won’t see Dr. Louise Banks “science the s**t out of this” in her approach to understanding an alien language. Rather, the emotional arc of the story is something unmistakably human- about embracing future path that one already knows. Moreover, as a humanities student, I am more than glad to see, maybe for the first time, another fellow humanities major be treated as someone of value and eventually save the world, with a scientist as her sidekick.

But the issue that I hoped to address today has nothing to do with the production value of the film—it is something that has really upset me, not just in this film, but has appeared over and over again in mainstream Hollywood movies in recent years.

I found the portrayal of the major force of antagonism—the militant China that threatens to start a global war—stereotypical and offensive. The most important turning point of the movie is Louise’s future vision of the ballroom banquet scene, in which General Shang—the Commander-in-chief of China’s Liberation Army—approaches Louise and thanks her for calling his private number. Just as the audience almost scream collectively, “WHAT?!” we are transported back to the present tense. Louise really hurries to go to find a sat phone and make a call to General Shang, and delivers a cheesy message of his wife’s dying words. With that message, Shang stands down, and so does the rest of the world, and the film is almost over. I want to call this resolution a deus ex machina, but surprisingly, I discover that most of my American friends are not in agreement with me.

I find the situation—and, in fact, the entire representation of China—lacks a basic understanding of the country’s language, society and politics today. In the ballroom scene, Shang approaches Louise and in his words of gratitude, he says that Louise has done something not even his superior has done—that Louise has changed his mind. But the truth is, supposing Shang really has a superior (say the chairman of CCP), then there is no way the superior cannot change his mind under China’s top-down system of governance. Furthermore, Shang seems to speak English much better than Chinese, and his wife’s dying words, written in Chinese, are more like quotes from a primary school student’s composition in terms of the sophistication of the language. I am fully convinced that such a message will not make anyone change his mind on the most crucial military mission of the country. (Frankly, I highly doubt if anyone would understand Amy Adams’ articulation in her highly-accented Chinese).

Unfortunately, Arrival shows us yet again Hollywood’s fascination with the images and cultural emblems that other countries represent. In this film, China takes the political symbol of a belligerent and hostile foe under the rule of military dictatorship, vilified and blamed for almost causing a global war and the end of human civilization (which is politically-correct, I guess), but the film’s careless treatment of the Chinese language and society just ironically demonstrates how cheap this idea the film is selling.

In my previous article on Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall, I lament how a respectable Chinese filmmaker is willing to follow the Orientalist fad of Hollywood and reduce the sophistication of China’s heritage to mere cultural symbols. In fact, the love for representing China has suddenly sprung up in many of the Hollywood’s most successful projects in recent years. Most famously, Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron, 2013) and The Martian (dir. Ridley Scott, 2015) introduce China as a powerful ally that plays a key role in helping their heroes get back home. Both films are from directors that I intensely admire, but neither film shows the seriousness and respect that filmmakers should pay to responsibly represent a country or a people on screen.

Perhaps you have noticed that you are able to see China much more often on screen than ten years ago in the movie theaters—X-Men: Days of the Future Past, Transformers 4, Now You See Me 2…While I admit that the inclusion of Chinese characters, landscape and cultural motifs may have brought more diversity to Hollywood, I sincerely hope that this can provide a meaningful discourse on a different culture, rather than just a cheap tactic to pander to China’s giant box office.

Robin Wang is a Trinity sophomore. His column, "movie big mouth" runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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