China’s film industry spent much of 2019 stuck in the doldrums. Other than the animated smash hit “Ne Zha,” the country’s production companies struggled to overcome a series of high-profile flops, tightened content restrictions, and fierce competition from Hollywood blockbusters. So when a trio of patriotic, so-called main melody films hit theaters just in time for this October’s National Day holiday, industry insiders could have been forgiven for holding their breaths.
They needn’t have worried. The People’s Republic of China’s 70th anniversary celebrations evidently had moviegoers in a patriotic mood, and the three films — “My People, My Country,” “The Captain,” and “The Climbers” — pushed the week’s box office receipts over 5 billion yuan (roughly $700 million), an increase of 132% over the same period last year. They were no one-week wonders, either: “My People, My Country” and “The Captain” are currently ranked in fourth and fifth place at the 2019 box office, respectively, with “The Climbers” in 14th place.
The term “main melody film,” or zhu xuanlü dianying, is used in China to describe a particular kind of movie, one generally in tune with the party’s goals. There is an ancient Chinese saying: “Words carry the Tao.” In the People’s Republic of China, main melody films perform an equivalent function: carrying the will and preferred social values of the Communist Party of China to the masses. By definition, a successful main melody film should exemplify China’s national spirit and unite the people in praising the historical achievements of the party, army, and the Chinese revolution.
A poster for the 1965 film “Tunnel Warfare.” From Douban user “boshao”
The term first entered the official lexicon during a 1987 national conference of feature-film studio managers, at which the head of the country’s National Film Bureau, Teng Jinxian, called on attendees to “highlight the main melody while persevering the diversification” of the film industry as a whole.
Teng’s formulation may have been novel, but the concept was hardly new. Most Chinese films produced in the decades after the PRC’s founding in 1949 — such as 1956’s “Battle on Shangganling Mountain” and 1965’s “Tunnel Warfare” — were sculpted to fit ideological requirements. What changed in the late ’80s was the emergence of a more active, self-aware, and upscaled main melody film.
A poster for the 1992 film “Zhou Enlai.” From Douban user “千寻亿选”
Over the next 15 years, until roughly 2002, filmmakers primarily focused on two kinds of main melody films: The first, including 1988’s “Kunlun Column” and the “Decisive Engagement” trilogy, centered on the China’s civil war and the country’s founding era; the second, exemplified by biopics like “Mao Zedong and His Son” and “Zhou Enlai” told the stories of great figures from the PRC’s past.
At the time, Chinese had access to far fewer entertainment options than they do now. Most of the films shown in the country’s cinemas were main melody films, and workplaces and schools often organized outings for employees and students to go and watch them. So in that sense, they were extremely popular, or at least widely seen. In hindsight, however, most main melody films from this period were blunt and heavy-handed, with little room for creativity. Artistically, they leaned into grand narratives and hero tropes, with mundane plots in place of story, and slogans in place of dialogue.
By the early 2000s, however, as China’s film industry grew more commercially oriented and private companies began backing some main melody films, they started incorporating more complex themes, using modern cinematic language, and adapting to the tastes of the country’s maturing film market. For example, 2007’s “Assembly” and 2009’s “The Message” scored hits with audiences with slick narratives that told PRC history from the perspective of ordinary people.
The current main melody film paradigm dates to 2014, when well-known Hong Kong director Tsui Hark’s “The Taking of Tiger Mountain,” based on a well-known Cultural Revolution-era Peking opera, hit on a formula that fully merged political ideology with the commercial blockbuster. In the years since, bombastic action fare like “Operation Mekong,” its spiritual sequel “Operation Red Sea,” and the “Wolf Warrior” series have proven the genre’s consistent popular appeal.
Stills from the Peking opera version (left) and 2014 film version of “Taking Tiger Mountain.” From Douban
The logic behind the new style is simple: Make main melody films look good, and then use them to transmit the party’s preferred values to audiences without them even noticing. From a commercial point of view, these movies’ production values stack up well against a typical Hollywood film, and so have no problem attracting younger viewers accustomed to Western blockbusters. Meanwhile, their fulsome praise for the motherland, the collective, the Communist Party, and the People’s Liberation Army not only satisfies regulators, but increasingly patriotic and nationalistic filmgoers as well.
Take “The Captain,” for example. It is first and foremost a competently made disaster film. Based on the true story of an airline pilot who safely landed a commercial flight after the cockpit window cracked and his copilot was partially sucked out of the plane, the special effects are excellent and successfully capture the fear and danger the passengers and crew must have felt.
But at the same time, the story takes pains to highlight its characters’ love for party and country. As the crew prepare the flight for takeoff, the captain — himself a party member — asks who else belongs to the CPC. A few raise their hands; these same individuals are later not-so-subtly shown playing a crucial role keeping everyone calm and collected during the ensuing emergency.
In “The Climbers,” the protagonists set out to summit Mount Everest. Their mission is not only a challenge to conquer nature, but also a matter of national honor. The climb is motivated by foreign forces’ suspicion of — and pressure on — China. Reaching the top becomes a test of national strength.
“My People, My Country” offers a somewhat different spin on the formula. Composed of seven vignettes by well-known directors and featuring an all-star cast, it retells several key events in the PRC’s history through the eyes of ordinary people. Unlike many other recent main melody films, it’s not a special effects extravaganza, but a collection of stories of regular, flawed people failing and occasionally shining.
A promotional image for the 2019 film “My People, My Country.” From Douban
“My People, My Country” was praised by Chinese critics for eschewing the tendency toward “false, big, and empty” spectacle found in other main melody films in favor of more relatable narratives, emotions, and dialogue. But the film still makes it clear that its characters all stand ready to sacrifice their egos for their country and the collective good.
At a time of rising nationalism and patriotism, main melody films have successfully navigated the country’s changing media landscape and won over a new generation of viewers — and reemerged as one of China’s most bankable film genres in the process. Just last month, news broke that producers were preparing to shoot a new film about the above-mentioned Shangganling Mountain battle. It remains to be seen how filmmakers will handle the politically charged battle scenes between Chinese and American troops, but if the past 30 years are any indication, no matter the trills and thrills added to the mix, they’ll still be playing the same old tune.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Images from Douban. Re-edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)