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Why ‘Titanic’ is (Still) China’s Favorite Movie

With its 3D re-release, "Titanic" is once again one of the best-loved blockbusters in China. So what do people love about this 90s love story?

05·09·2012

Why ‘Titanic’ is (Still) China’s Favorite Movie

With its 3D re-release, "Titanic" is once again one of the best-loved blockbusters in China. So what do people love about this 90s love story?

05·09·2012

As anyone who’s ever had the “favorite movie” conversation with a group of 20-something Chinese (or been inexplicably forced to sing “My Heart Will Go On” at KTV) knows, James Cameron’s “Titanic” was big in China – and I mean big. When it was released in 1998, it garnered a record-breaking $44 million at the Chinese box offices, and left a generation of teenage girls swooning over the ill-fated Leo. Granted, “Titanic” was a hit the world over, but it seemed to have a special connection with Chinese audiences—as the world found out this April, when the 3D re-release earned a staggering $11.6 million on its first day in China (more than double its North American net) and $67 million in its opening week. To date, China has contributed almost a third of the 3D version’s worldwide box office net.

So what’s all the hubbub about? As a member of the “Titanic” generation (who saw both the original and the 3D version in theaters), I have but one explanation to offer: pure, brute nostalgia.

For people of my generation, who were around 11 or 12 at the time of its release, “Titanic” was our first major blockbuster. Not only was it a dazzling spectacle and a love story designed to melt the hearts of pre-pubescent swooners, it was, for us, one of our first tastes of adulthood and independence.

Despite the film’s ubiquity, it was generally agreed to be inappropriate for children (the nude scene had been cut, but it allegedly contained other “adult material”), and so rather than ask my parents, I bided my time, waiting for my chance. My opportunity came on a day in late April when, thanks to an early dismissal and our parents’ ignorance, we had a free afternoon at our disposal. It was then that I, along with two classmates, rushed off to the theater to get our fill of “Titanic”’s mysterious adult delights.

We left the theater dazzled—and completely distraught over the lovers’ eternal separation, so much so that I even conjured up an alternative happy ending for Jack and Rose in which they end up running into each other years later at a coffee shop (hands off Hollywood scriptwriters! – ed). I’d also been a loyal fan of Leonardo for years, and kept track of news about him since I saw his bit-part role in the sitcom “Growing Pains” when it was released in China in 1994.

But swooning teenage girls weren’t the only ones captivated by “Titanic”. Shortly after its American release, then-General Secretary Jiang Zemin, bizarrely, brought the film up at a group discussion at a party meeting. According to an old report from Yangcheng Evening News, Jiang commented, “We should not assume that capitalist countries always produce things lacking in spiritual value. Soon, a movie called ‘Titanic’ is to be screened (in China). With an investment of 250 million, it has seen a box office of over one billion so far, which is a successful case of risk investment. This movie portrays in great detail the relationships between money and love, the rich and the poor, as well as how different individuals respond when faced with the disaster…I recommend the comrades of the political bureau go see the movie. I do not mean to see it so that we can ‘better know our enemy,’ but that we should not assume that only communists are capable of doing good moral work.”

Teenage sentiments and ideological morality aside, there was another reason why Chinese people fell so hard for “Titanic”: the trope of tragic love story. While it may be viewed as somewhat overly dramatic in the West, tragedy is a common feature of most works of great narrative art in China, ranging from the classic romance “Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai” (梁山伯与祝英台) to the soul-crushing “To Live.”

Over the past 14 years, “Titanic”’s influence (not to mention impact) seems only to have multiplied, as evidenced by its box office reception… and the girl who sat next to me at my 3D viewing, sobbing quietly as Celine Dion’s voice soared over “My Heart Will Go On.” A big part of this, of course, is nostalgia—for much of the audience, the 3D version has rekindled the innocence not only of their own youth, but of a younger, less commercial, and less worldly China.

“This movie impresses me with the memories of the passing years rather than its special effects,” commented one audience member in an online report. “I have different thoughts on the movie watching it again after 14 years. The puppy love is beautiful, but how long in reality can the talents of a poor guy win the heart of a beauty?”

It’s a sentiment that’s especially relevant today, as China is busy having a collective heart attack over the idea that its women have begun prioritizing money over love—as exemplified by the woman on a dating show who in 2010 said that she’d “rather cry in a BMW than smile on the back of a bike.”

Remembering simpler times (or what people idealize into simpler times) has given many viewers a jolt from the kind of cynicism that has invaded a generation of young adults struggling for and against money, jobs and materialism.

“What I am watching is not 3D, but memories” (姐看的不是3D,是回忆), noted another commenter. “Forget the abridged naked scenes, the three-dimensional iceberg and the plot—my heart, that has been so long covered with dust, is shocked to life once again hearing those same lines by the same actors, and seeing the different responses to this disaster on the big screen.”

That commenter points to one aspect of China that remains as innocent now as it was in 1998—the “adult scenes” that our parents were then so afraid of. If you recall, one of the climactic scenes shows Jack sketching a naked Rose, who in the original China release was only shown from the back. Fourteen years later, viewers were again disappointed to be shown a chaste version of the scene—though we perhaps understood a bit better why our parents didn’t want to take us. Of her first viewing, my colleague Ling said the only thing she remembers is hearing the irritated voice of a kid asking, “Mom, why you keep covering my eyes with your hand?”

For a movie with a little less “I want you to draw me like your French girls” and a little more grit, check out “The Flowers of War.”