AMERICAN CELEBRITIES AND FOREIGN ACTORS IN CHINA

AMERICAN CELEBRITIES IN CHINA

In recent years, according to to the Los Angeles Times, Beijing has seen a steady parade of top American performers, some of whom appear here without being paid. Actress Meryl Streep and director Joel Coen visited in November 2011 as part of a U.S.-China Forum on the Arts and Culture, sponsored by the Asia Society and Aspen Institute. The following month, rapper will.i.am gave a free concert in Beijing to promote a program to bring American students here for Chinese studies. "This is the market. This is the future," said Chinese American entertainer Allan Wu, who performed with will.i.am. "Instead of the Wild, Wild West, you've got the Wild, Wild East. It is a gold rush." [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2012]

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American Celebrities Condemned by Rights Groups for Working in China

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “But accepting Beijing's terms has its perils as well. Bob Dylan, who performed in Beijing and Shanghai in April, shortly after the arrest of dissident artist Ai Weiwei, was skewered in editorials around the world, accused of failing to live up to his 1960s persona as the bard of protest. Critics were incensed that he played a program that had been preapproved by the Ministry of Culture and omitted such iconic protest songs as "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "Blowin' in the Wind."

"The idea that the raspy troubadour of '60s freedom anthems would go to a dictatorship and not sing those anthems is a whole new kind of sellout," wrote the New York Times' Maureen Dowd. At the time, Dylan responded on his website: "As far as censorship goes, the Chinese government had asked for the names of the songs that I would be playing. There's no logical answer to that, so we sent them the set lists from the previous 3 months. If there were any songs, verses or lines censored, nobody ever told me about it and we played all the songs that we intended to play."

Hollywood movie studio Relativity Media was threatened with a boycott by rights groups after it shot a scene for a comedy, "21 and Over," in Linyi, a city in Shandong province, where local officials have been holding the blind activist Chen Guangcheng under house arrest and brutalizing his supporters. The company has said it didn't know that when it added the scene at the behest of a Chinese financial partner.

Hollywood Stars That Have Run Afoul with Chinese Authorities

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Performers and production companies that don't tread carefully can find themselves in trouble with Chinese officials, or conversely find themselves criticized by human rights groups for being too soft. Beijing doesn't exactly maintain a blacklist, at least as Americans might know the concept from the McCarthy era. But there are many Hollywood stars who are unwelcome here, more often for behavior off screen than on. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2012]

Richard Gere is persona non grata for his longtime activism on behalf of Tibetan independence. Sharon Stone's films have not been shown since her offhand remark at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival suggesting that a devastating earthquake in China that year was "karma" in retribution for the treatment of Tibetans.

Steven Spielberg was one of the first Hollywood directors to work in China, going to Shanghai to shoot 1987's "Empire of the Sun," which featured a young Christian Bale. But Spielberg also fell from grace after withdrawing as an artistic advisor to the 2008 Beijing Olympics in protest of Chinese policy in Sudan. His films are still shown here, but he hasn't been invited back.

Shanghai film critic Wu Renchu says the Chinese government is more forgiving of offenses by foreigners than by Chinese. "These bans last for a couple of years; ultimately it is a money-driven economy and they will end up putting business first," Wu said.

As with political purges, directors and actors can be rehabilitated. Disney was on the blacklist after the 1997 release of "Kundun," a biopic about the Dalai Lama. But it is now building a Disneyland in Shanghai. Even Jean-Jacques Annaud, the French director who made "Seven Years in Tibet," another drama about the young Dalai Lama, has been invited back this year to shoot "Wolf Totem," based on a bestselling Chinese novel.

Christian Bale Tries to Meet Chen Guangcheng

In December 2011, CNN reported: Christian Bale scuffled with guards as he was denied a chance to meet Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese lawyer and civil rights activist who has been under house arrest in China for over a year. Bale, who stars in the Chinese film "The Flowers of War," went on an eight-hour drive with a CNN crew to visit Chen in the city of Linyi, where he's been held in his own home since September 2010. When Bale approached Chen's house, he was met by an escalating number of guards as he protested being prevented from entering Chen's house. Punches were thrown and shoving ensued as Bale, along with the CNN camera crew, tried to push his way through to the house. [Source: CNN, Huffington Post, December 16, 2011]

"I'm not being brave doing this. The local people who are standing up to the authorities and insisting on going to visit Chen and his family and getting beaten up for it and my understanding is getting detained for it---I want to support what they're doing," Bale told the CNN crew.

The Chinese government partially funded the production of "The Flowers of War," in which Bale stars as an American who finds himself in the middle of the infamous Rape of Nanking, a mass murder and rape spree carried out by Japanese soldiers in 1937. Bale was in China to promote the film,

"He's been following the story and he was just really moved by the story and what this man's trying to do and it's impossible [to see him]," Bale's representative told The Huffington Post, "and he thought, he was there for work, and he would try and see if he could help. [It was] just really being moved on a personal level and that is what he chose to do."

After Christian Bale tried to meet with Chen Guangchenhe Chinese Communist Party sent Bale a pointed message: You will not work in this town again. "If he wants to create news, I don't think that would be welcome in China," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said of Bale, who had been in Beijing for the opening of his film "The Flowers of War." [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2012]

People who know Bale, who has been more involved in environmental than political issues, believe he was trying to counter the perception that he had been co-opted by the Chinese government by appearing in "The Flowers of War." A spokeswoman for the film said Bale would not comment, and his publicists did not return telephone calls. The film, directed by Zhang Yimou, one of the government's favorite directors, has been criticized as an overly propagandistic depiction of the Japanese occupation of Nanjing in 1937.

Jonathan Kos-Read, China’s Main Token White Guy Actor

By the late 2000s, it seemed like almost every television drama had a Western character played by a Western actor. Kerry Brogan, a Mandarin-speaking actress from Newton, Massachusetts, for example m appeared in 40 Chinese moves and television productions, including the “Grassroots King”, a saga set in the turbulent years before World War II. One Chinese producer told AP, “Our audiences are no longer satisfied to watch foreign characters played by Chinese in a wig.”

Jonathan Kos-Read is an actor from suburban Los Angeles who has parleyed his good looks, fluency in Mandarin and passable acting skill into a film and television career in China. Megan K. Stack wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Kos-Read, 37, is a self-described “token white guy?...His self-started acting career spans more than a decade, spinning across some of the headiest years of China's rapid economic growth and social evolution. He is famous now, particularly, he says, among the grandmother set, who know him by his Chinese name, Cao Cao. Making his living as a white man for hire, Kos-Read is taking on a heavy and problematic mantle. White-skinned foreigners loom in Chinese history as colonialists, occupiers, opium-pushing tricksters. China kicked out the foreigners and sealed itself off from the world; China reopened and now the world has come flooding back.[Source: Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, January 16, 2011]

Describing a typical role played by Kos-Read, Stack wrote: “The rich, arrogant foreigner comes to China for business, but he ends up falling in love with what the script invariably calls an “Oriental beauty.” He pursues and tempts her for a few episodes, but in the end the virtuous lady makes the proper choice of staying true to her Chinese love interest.” "Occasionally she'll stay with me," Kos-Read said. "But if she does, she'll either live in unhappiness, or she'll die." [Ibid]

Kos-Read told the Los Angeles Times he decided to take Mandarin will at New York University. "It struck me how cool it would be to be that guy who speaks fluent Chinese, to be that cool guy. That was still rare enough then as to be almost nonexistent," he said. "I thought, 'Hey, I could go to China and be awesome---to be the guy who goes to the weird foreign country and integrates himself into the culture and gets it.'" After graduating in 1997 he flew to China with a tourist visa and slim job prospect that disappeared soon after arriving. After that he got a room in a student dorm in and a job teaching English and set about improving his Mandarin. [Ibid]

Watching foreigners on Chinese television her was struck by how amateurish and “funny looking they were and their Mandarin was "crap. "I thought, you know, man, I'm better than them," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I went to acting school, I speak pretty good Chinese and I may not be a 10, but at least I'm an 8." Kos-Read landed his first role in 1999 after answering a classified advertisement. It was a low-budget, art house movie, and he played a tag-along American documentary filmmaker who followed young, disaffected urban bohemians into the countryside. Since then, he has appeared in period dramas, romantic tearjerkers and more wrote Stack. [Ibid]

Roles Played by Foreigners in Chinese Films

Megan K. Stack wrote in the Los Angeles Times that through the years, Kos-Read has broken down his roles into six categories, with the aforementioned spurned lover topping the list as most common. The parts suggest the varied ways foreigners loom in the collective Chinese consciousness. Sometimes, the on-screen foreigner is a stroke of characterization. Kos-Read calls this figure "the symbol." "The main Chinese guy is an international player, but how do you show it? He has to have a foreign friend," Kos-Read explains. "Or, even better, a foreign assistant." [Source: Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, January 16, 2011]

“Then there's the subtle school of character dubbed "the cipher": the foreign visitor who extols one of his homeland's own alleged virtues ("In America, we stick together!") with the aim of indirectly nudging at attributes China might wish to adopt, as the screenwriter sees it,” Stack wrote. “The historical "villain" is, almost invariably, British or French. These figures crop up in period dramas. The American, Kos-Read insists, is rarely depicted as an evil being. [Ibid]

But there is "the fool," explained thus by Kos-Read: "I come to China disdainful. I don't get it. My character is like, 'China sucks, man.' But through my encounter with amazing China, my opinion changes. The white guy realizes how amazing China is." And then, finally, the role that's been falling to him now more and more frequently in recent years: the "real guy." "The guy who's a person before he's a foreigner, with motivations beyond being a foreigner," he said. [Ibid]

“When Kos-Read started acting in China, he says, screenwriters fell back on stereotypes to depict people from overseas, Stack wrote. “But the rapid influx of foreign workers and the growing sophistication of the film and television industry means that now most writers have had regular interactions with foreigners and are more apt to portray them with nuance and textured motivations, Kos-Read says.” [Ibid]

"There's the Uncle Tom question," Kos-Read told the Los Angeles Times, "How do I deal with playing bad guys in Chinese shows?" The answer, he insists, is that he doesn't take "crazy, ridiculous, evil foreigner" roles. Moreover, he argues that such roles are vanishing. "There was a lot of that before, and a lot less now." By the way, he adds, American filmmakers are hardly immune to the ills of stereotyping. "They make the same mistake. They treat Chinese characters as culturally driven automatons," he says. "It's disheartening." [Ibid]

Kos-Read is comfortable in China. He has no immediate plans to return to the United States. Stack wrote his income has grown as his profile has risen, and as Chinese film and television budgets have grown more generous. His wife is Chinese, and they have a daughter. [Ibid]

Young American Actor in China

Gabrielle Jaffe wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “He went to Hollywood High, his mother is a scriptwriter and his father an actor. Nate Boyd seemed destined to join the L.A. film industry, but after the circus of auditioning while he was in high school, he grew disillusioned. "I'd queue up with 300 people for one small part. The casting directors would look at five people at a time. You were just a number," he recalls. A couple of ad jobs and a few roles in student films aside, Boyd's acting career seemed over before it had begun. [Source: Gabrielle Jaffe, Los Angeles Times, June 10, 2012]

That was before he came to China. In 2006, while on an exchange program at Beijing University, he was asked to play a missionary in a reenactment scene for a documentary. Conditions on set were far from glamorous (he had to share a dormitory with 12 other actors), but he was filming on location in Tibet and enjoyed the adventure. [Ibid]

Boyd's acting career has come a long way since then. Now living in Beijing, the 30-year-old commands a rate of $1,200 a day, for mostly Mandarin-speaking roles in Chinese television dramas. As an increasing number of Sino-American co-productions are formed, he is landing more English-speaking parts in feature films. In Jackie Chan's "Chinese Zodiac," due late this year, he plays an auctioneer, and he recently shot a scene alongside Adrien Brody for "1942," in post-production. [Ibid]

He's joined a lively community of ambitious showbiz expats tilling fertile soil here. Cooperation between the Chinese and American film industries has snowballed in recent years, with "Iron Man 3" only the latest in a long string of co-productions. In the last year, Disney, DreamWorks and Relativity have all formed permanent partnerships with Chinese media groups, and the Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda has just announced its acquisition of American cinema chain AMC. Meanwhile, the likes of Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and Kevin Spacey are appearing in Chinese films. While these stars have made passing appearances, the increasing entwining of the industries has led to a small but growing demographic of Western film professionals, like Boyd, making China their home. [Ibid]

They are drawn here by the chance to participate in a young, optimistic industry that is only just beginning and though chaotic and tough to navigate holds lots of promise and the chance for people to reinvent themselves. Compared with oversaturated Hollywood, it is also less competitive. Foreigners find their Western training better valued, and although they may make less money, what they do make stretches further. [Ibid]

But the inchoate nature of the industry also means that contracts and on-set rights are not up to U.S. standards. The lucky few find a talent agency or company willing to sponsor them for a business visa, but most try to sneak by on a tourist visa or go through expensive, dodgy agents to secure a business visa. It's a situation that's become even more precarious in the last month thanks to the Chinese government's announced crackdown on illegal foreigners. [Ibid]

While Boyd, for example, relishes the chance to work with Brody, he regrets that the parts he plays in Chinese TV series are often limited. "There are two roles for foreign guys: either you play a military officer during World War II or a study-abroad student chasing a Chinese girl," he says. "She of course rejects you because you don't understand her culture and instead chooses the Chinese guy," says the easygoing actor, now married to a Chinese woman, and laughs. [Ibid]

Young Chinese-American Actress in Hollywood

Gabrielle Jaffe wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Kara Wang, on the other hand, confronted a similar frustration in Hollywood. "The problem in L.A. is that you don't see Asians be the lead unless it's an ethnic film," says the Chinese American actress, 23, who grew up in Diamond Bar. "I was either auditioning for the token Asian girl role or I had to be the sexy, kick-ass, kung-fu chick that looks good in latex." [Source: Gabrielle Jaffe, Los Angeles Times, June 10, 2012]

Fluent in Mandarin, since relocating to Beijing last summer she has played a wide variety of roles, including a lady-in-waiting in a historical period drama ("a real challenge," she says, "it was like doing Chinese Shakespeare") and a fashionable Chinese gossip girl in a popular series. She's worked with leading director Chen Kaige on "Caught in the Web," which comes out next month in China, and acted opposite Bill Paxton in the upcoming co-production "Shanghai Calling."

But she had to resign from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) because the organization prohibits members from taking nonunion work and there are no unions in China. She has also had to say goodbye to the benefits that SAG membership entails. "The whole eight-hour rule, lunch breaks” in China, all that, flies out the windows," she says. [Ibid]

Western actors like Wang and Boyd can find themselves working on Chinese productions for up to 24 hours at a time. Worse still, while in L.A. actors are often paid by the hour, in China they are usually offered a lump sum with no guarantee of how much time they'll be needed on set. Even when working on co-productions, if hired here, they are considered "local talent" and are paid local rates. [Ibid]

For Wang, this is a price worth paying. "I've auditioned for people that in a million years I never would have been able to meet in L.A. I got to the last round for a part in Keanu Reeves' 'Man of Tai Chi.' There's a relatively small pool of English-speaking actors out here. But in L.A. everyone in the city wants to be an actor, so the competition is out of control."

As Wang points out, competition in L.A has become even fiercer in the gloomy financial climate. "People would rather invest in the fourth season of an established series than take a risk on something new, which means it's harder for new actors to get their foot in the door. When I speak to my friends back home about what they're going through," she adds, "I'm so grateful I'm in Asia."

It's not only actors who are being lured eastward by the promise of jump-starting their careers. With more than 500 movies shot here annually, there is huge demand for Hollywood expertise from producers and directors to set designers and visual effects technicians. It is hard to establish just how many of the 600,000 foreigners who now live in China are working in the movie business, but it is clear numbers have shot up in recent years. One casting agency claimed to have more than 1,000 English-speaking actors on its files, and a producer estimated that the number of foreigners working in the film industry has perhaps doubled in the last five years. [Ibid]

Image Sources: Wikipedia, Ohio State University: IMDB, Chinese B shots from Asia Obscura

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013


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