Abominable: Surprised No More as China is Changing the Way We Watch Movies

Angelo Wijaya
4 min readOct 15, 2019

“In Hollywood, should they change the villain from Chinese to Mexican so the movie can sell into China’s billion-dollar market?”

— asked Humphrey Hawskley (2018) in his book, Asian Waters: The Struggle over the Asia-Pacific and the Strategy of Chinese Expansion.

The Map of the South China Sea with the so-called Nine Dash Line in Abominable (2019). Source: ABC News Australia.

Watching Abominable (2019) is indeed such an experience. A romanticized China is on display, depicting a(n Americanized) Chinese society in an unnamed Chinese city. The story revolves around lead figure’s journey with a Yeti to the Everest. Yi, the lead figure, journeyed through China with her friends, Jin and Peng. All of them are depicted as Chinese.

The villains, on the other hand, do not look Asian. They are Mister Burnish (an old man who was once an adventurous guy) and Dr. Zara (a lady scientist with a long, orange-ish, curly hair). While Yi, Jin, and Peng are trying to take “Everest” (the Yeti) back to the Everest, Mister Burnish and Dr. Zara are trying to take Everest the Yeti to the public, as a discovery.

The movie unveils “untouched” or rather, less explored destinations in China. Bilingual texts can be found in every corner of the movie — English and Chinese Mandarin.

It all was interesting until it got political.

In one of the scenes in the movie, a map of the South China Sea is displayed. A subtle nudge to China’s “neighbors” is thrown there — as China calls most of its Southeast Asian counterparts as “neighbors”.

The movie, produced by DreamWorks Animation, shows the Nine Dash Line. A line demarcating China’s claim on the South China Sea, a contentious piece of sea with more than 4 different countries claiming sovereignty and ownership on it.

Among the Southeast Asian countries that lay claims on the South China Sea are Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, and Vietnam. While the Philippines calls the sea as “the West Philippines Sea”, Vietnam calls the piece of sea as “the East Sea”.

And because of the map, Vietnam is now revoking the permit to play the movie in the country, nation-wide. Vietnamese officials are angered by the fact that the movie goes political.

But the fact that movies are now shifting towards this direction (in a way trying to favor China), is not new. It has been going on for years. Even Vox made a video covering the topic on November 2016, entitled “How China is changing Hollywood”.

The main argument in the video is clear. The number of people in China who goes to cinema to watch movies is growing. This means more revenue (or at least a potential to tap more revenue from growing number of people). And Hollywood puts business more than anything. Even the politics.

So it is not surprising to see the shift in the movies that we are watching these past few years. And what can we expect in the future? More movies like this.

What can we do?

As entertainment is going to be affected, it is important to teach the younger generation about the importance of critical thinking — the art of questioning all the things that we see in movies, online, and basically, everywhere.

Although it is understandable for Vietnam to ban the movie out of its cinemas, we do not see the same trend in Indonesia. The scene was not even censored by the Indonesian censor committee — a committee known to be ridiculously strict when it comes to “sensitive” contents.

What we need is more consciousness when enjoying entertainment.

China to make its own Hollywood?

What we are witnessing right now, is China, slowly trying to employ its soft power — and its slipping into our movies, through Hollywood. It is quite unclear whether China will be able to build its own Hollywood.

While India has its very own Bollywood, Japan and Korea (and to some extent Taiwan and Hong Kong) successfully influenced the world through J-Pop, K-Drama, etc. In recent years, there were questions whether China will try to influence the world through its soft power by creating its own Hollywood or deploying its own C-Pop.

But seeing what is happening lately, it is becoming clearer that, maybe, China does not need to create its own Hollywood. Just by nurturing its growing number of people at home who watch Hollywood movies — and making sure that they keep produce revenue for Hollywood, they can become confident that Hollywood will not piss the Chinese government off — and try to make slight “adjustments”, even when it means to get slightly political.

“Industries and governments need to factor China into almost all their decisions.” — Humphrey Hawskley (2018), Asian Waters: The Struggle over the Asia-Pacific and the Strategy of Chinese Expansion.