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China’s “Avatar” obsession

April 14, 2011
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Huh, you might be thinking, looks like this chick Photoshopped a picture of herself with one of those blue Avatar guys. Too bad she has nothing better to do. You would be wrong. This modern young lady did little more than hop into one of the many conveniently located photo booths in Shanghai, where she can not only take passport photos, but also give them fun and exciting backgrounds!  I kid you not. Here’s  the context for the image above:

Bizarre? Yes.  But in China, Avatar is all the rage, and pop culture with Chinese characteristics includes things like putting the Na’vi next to Obama in photo booth funpix options.  In fact, Avatar is so popular that it’s made its mark on one of the most important of life’s ceremonies here: the wedding. You don’t believe me? Check THIS out:

I know. It’s appalling. And yet, kinda cute somehow. Kinda innocent, or something. Or just really weird.

What do the Chinese find so compelling about Avatar? Obviously, like those in the rest of the world, the Chinese flocked to the film for its wonderland of CGI-candy. But for many Chinese, Avatar seemed to be about China. After all, the government has been wreaking havoc on the environment and forcing people out of their homes, off of their land, for the sake of economic development – which often means sucking valuable resources out of the land (“unobtanium,” anyone?). Check out this video about forced evictions to see some more parallels.

Avatar was hugely popular while it screened in China, and it raked in $73.2 million from China in just two weeks. Then, it stopped making money in China, because the 2D version was pulled off 2 million screens when the government got antsy. 3D and IMAX showings stopped about a month afterwards.  Reports the Huffington Post:

There is also sensitivity to the movie’s plot, which revolves around the forced evictions of the alien Na’vi race by humans – a story line that some have said draws unflattering comparisons to China’s own, often brutal removal of millions of residents to make way for property developers. Columnist Huang Hung penned a commentary in the official English-language China Daily, saying the film had struck a chord with Chinese viewers. “All the forced removal of old neighborhoods in China makes us the only earthlings today who can really feel the pain of the Na’vi,” she wrote.

The government claimed it was to protect the domestic film industry against foreign competition, but it was pretty clear that the real reason was fear. Anything that has even the slightest chance of causing political instability, or provoking an uprising from the nation’s poor is immediately censored here.

But the ban didn’t stop Avatar from spreading around the country through illegal DVD copies, and the Na’vi have still managed to become hugely popular pop culture icons here (as you can see above).

And actually, there’s a slight chance that Avatar’s popularity nudged the government to address it’s nasty habit of uprooting entire communities while offering little compensation. In January, the government pledged to stop such evictions. We’ll never really know if Avatar had anything to do with this… but there’s a chance the need for change suddenly dawned on some high-level official while watching the film.

One last picture for the road: a group of teenagers from Hunan Province:

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