In Hollywood in the 1990s, China was an oppressive place. Red Corner opens with Gere gazing up at security cameras in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, ground zero of the infamous bloodshed of early June, 1989, seared into many Americans' memories. Brad Pitt, too, had been blacklisted from China, ostensibly for starring in the 1997 feature Seven Years in Tibet, in which his character becomes friends with the young Dalai Lama.
Hollywood has also tended to churn out political activist A-listers, some of whom have had uneasy relationships with the Chinese government. Actress Mia Farrow contributed to director Steven Spielberg's defection in early 2008 from the Beijing Olympics advisory committee over China's involvement in Sudan; Christian Bale, while filming in China in 2011, tried to visit then imprisioned Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. As an industry whose craft is telling stories, however woeful and inadequate at times, Hollywood stands squarely within the proud tradition of American idealism that revolts against oppression and celebrates individual freedoms.
But things are changing. The apocalyptic 2012, released at the height of the financial crisis in 2009, depicts the Chinese as ingenious saviors who assembled massive arks to house the few humans selected to carry on the human race. Oliver Platt, playing a White House staffer, even slips in the line "Leave it to the Chinese. I didn't think it was possible. Not in the time we had." Men in Black 3 digitally cropped scenes of New York's Chinatown that were considered unflattering, and the highly anticipated Iron Man 3 is also expected to include positive references to China.
The kowtowing occasionally descends into farce, as with the November 2012 release of the remake of Red Dawn, a Cold War-era cult classic, in which a band of American teens defeats an invading army of North Koreans. Except the enemies weren't supposed to be North Koreans, but rather Chinese; the producers changed the nationality of the invaders mid-filming, and digitally erased Chinese flags. As implausible as a Chinese invasion of the American Midwest sounds, it is far more realistic than one from North Koreans.
Beyond content adjustments, casting choices and shooting locations are being sinified. The Expendables sequel traded Jet Li for a Chinese vixen, Nan Yu, who is not Lucy Liu; Taiwanese pop sensation Jay Chou (who is not Jackie Chan) played alongside Seth Rogen in the reincarnation of Green Hornet, and Chinese starlet Zhou Xun has popped up in Cloud Atlas.
What was once Hong Kong's quintessential role as the establishing shot -- alerting theater audiences that they're now in China -- has now been overtaken by glitzy mainland metropolises. Tom Cruise's 2006 Mission Impossible 3 was perhaps the first major blockbuster to set a lengthy scene in contemporary Shanghai, portrayed as developed and futuristic. Since then, Will Smith has taken the Karate Kid 2 to Beijing, Transformers had sets designed to evoke Shanghai, and the newest James Bond and the dystopian future adventure flick Looper also threw down in Shanghai.
The era in which China could still be a menacing villain and stir political passions from the Spielbergs and the Geres appears to be ending. Even Brangelina are reportedly studying Mandarin. And the political drama surrounding disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai, ripe for Hollywoodification, will never see the light of day. Too bad, because the Bo Ultimatum is the Chinese Godfather waiting to be made. As Hollywood gathers for its biggest awards night Sunday, the industry seems to be biting its tongue. After all, the future, as Jeff Daniels quips in Looper, is in China.