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Killing with kindness

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2012-04-07 15:35

Killing with kindness

Donnie Yen (right) and Zhao Wenzhuo make a public appearance together on Jan 19 at the launch of the action movie Special Identity. The production later decided to go on without Zhao. Ren Fengtao / For China Daily

Bad blood between two public figures spills over to the general populace, testifying to the dangerous obsession with hushing up disputes and putting on smiley faces.

They made a public appearance together, smiling and waving their fists in unison.

They said they were going to work for the common good.

There was not a trace of discord even though both of them are in a position to succeed the older generation of head honchos who are retiring.

Then, one of them was kicked out of the core group. He attempted to make a direct plea to the public. By doing so, he said he risked never working again in the profession.

The other retorted tersely. Most of his peers took his side without openly denouncing the ousted guy. But the public is divided. Vociferous condemnation from both camps lingered on for a long time ...

Of course, I'm talking about the volcanic feud between two kung fu superstars, Donnie Yen and Zhao Wenzhuo. (What? You thought I was referring to something else?)

You see, Jackie Chan and Jet Li are getting old for ass-kicking fight sequences.

Killing with kindness

At 60 and 48 respectively, their reign as kung fu emperors of Chinese cinema is gliding to a smooth end.

Even though they never faced off in their prime, they did attempt a token gesture of reconciliation in the form of The Forbidden Kingdom, the 2008 Hollywood action fantasy that served to tantalize more than satisfy with a definite answer as to who ruled Chinese kung fu.

Donnie Yen, 48, started his film career in Hong Kong in the early 1980s. Zhao Wenzhuo, 40, entered in the early 1990s.

Both were groomed to follow in the footsteps of Chan and Li. Zhao had more luck than Yen in the initial phase, but both were eclipsed by their forerunners - until now.

In a sense, it is an ingenious idea to pit Yen and Zhao against each other in a project that has them playing opposite roles.

An attempt to blur onscreen hostility with off-screen rivalry is difficult to pull off, and it exploded before filming was finished - in a way totally beyond the control of any producer.

Showbiz rivalries are common. Think of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Hollywood's golden age.

What's unique is China's culture of presenting a harmonious facade even when competition is cut-throat.

On reality television, contestants are so chummy, calling each other brothers and sisters and giving unremitting hugs, that one may assume they are all competing for the title of Mr or Miss Congeniality.

Truth is, showbiz is more competitive than most professions. Although there is no stipulated quota for the A-list, only a handful of positions are available for a given genre, say, the action hero.

Once it is dominated by a few existing superstars, newcomers would have to wait for a decade or two, as was the fate of Donnie Yen and Zhao Wenzhuo.

And you do not unseat the "king" by guerilla tactics.

The reigning king or emperor in the genre may flop disastrously, but his staying power is much longer than his equivalent in Hollywood because the Chinese public tends to cling to the old and is notoriously risk-averse for the young.

Since superstars have far more choices for plum roles and a significant majority of Chinese filmgoers are magnetized by star power, a star who has gained the top-tier status may never fear losing work again.

On record, they invariably cite the love of acting as their only raison d'etre for being in showbiz.

But everyone knows fame begets fortune, and the stakes are so high that people are willing to do everything to get into the envious coterie of top earners.

Casting couch scandals are no longer novelties. Some actually pay big money to be in certain productions, usually playing supporting roles. And a select few can have their sugar daddies underwrite big-budget projects and surround themselves with big names.

There is nothing wrong with the desire to get ahead, though.

Even the ethically dubious practices in the process do not really threaten public order because onscreen talent, or the lack thereof, has nowhere to hide. It is the hypocrisy that poisons the public mind, especially the credulous and the young.

The effort to conceal normal competition creates a false impression of harmony and unity.

Not only do actors battle for roles, but also, those who have different roles in the same production fight for more screen time.

Stepping back further, you may see those in different films struggling for exposure at screenings.

A black comedy ensued when three major releases, all starring Ge You, found themselves in the same time slot at the 2010 year-end holiday season.

Of course, one should promote those films in which one has vested interests.

But in China's film industry, some have stepped over the line and launched clandestine smear campaigns against competitors, such as films slated for the same period.

Paying for positive reviews is destroying the credibility of film criticism, and hiring anonymous agents to attack opponents is even more unsettling.

It's not that other countries have pristine showbiz but that China's is hampered by an overemphasis on outward unanimity and a lack of channels for normal debates.

To not bruise giant egos involved, the industry would go out of its way to fawn on power players, who are despotic by necessity if not by temperament.

All the while, these celebrities assume an almost condescendingly endearing persona to the public.

Compare it with James Cameron, who never apologizes for his hot temper on the set - but never denies it either. Had his image been handled by a Chinese publicity machine, his behavior would be sold as "strict discipline" and "pursuit of perfection", which are not exactly incorrect but add a thick gloss of virtuousness.

At the risk of being accused of schadenfreude, I dare say the kind of outbursts of acrimony as seen between Donnie Yen and Zhao Wenzhuo is not bad - at least not as harmful as sweeping every hint of disagreement under the rug.

It is quite natural that those with varying interests clash.

The trick is to create platforms where people clash over issues but maintain respect for each other.

In China, we go to such great lengths to save face that, once the face is broken, the outcome is irreversibly disastrous.

Not only will Yen and Zhao never work together again, but those who aligned themselves to one or the other will find it hard to be under the same roof with the opposing camp.

What started as regular bickering for kung fu supremacy has evolved to be a litmus test for loyalty - loyalty that is based more on guanxi than on knowledge about the stars in the brawl.

That is why the most striking thing in a US presidential election, at least to me, is the gracious speech of defeat by the losing party.

Over here, it would be get-even time.

Well, US has that, too, but usually agitated from the base.