SHANGHAI – Dressed in a bloodstained Chinese Army uniform and a cap with a red star in the center, Wang Huaifu and his comrades gesture with guns in front of a row of soldiers triumphantly waving torn scarlet flags.
Wang is the lead actor in the patriotic “Battle of Shanghai” acrobatics show, a visual re-creation of the 1949 battles between the communists and the Kuomintang for control of Shanghai.
“Today’s China and Shanghai did not come to be as it is easily. It was fought for,” said 35-year-old Wang, who stars as a commander.
From movie screens to theater stages, China’s entertainment industry has turned red ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Tuesday.
China’s film sector wields huge power and is expected to become the largest cinema market in the world by 2020, driven by strong box office growth and rising ticket prices, according to consultancy group PwC.
Ever since it seized power in 1949, the ruling party has used media and entertainment as propaganda tools to spread patriotism, which is rooted in the core of communist ideologies.
But experts say patriotic entertainment has had to adapt to appeal to China’s urbanized and cosmopolitan young adults, who have become huge fans of Hollywood blockbusters.
“We are not trying to proceed with the spoon-feeding, rigid type of education,” said Dong Zhengzhen, scriptwriter of “Battle of Shanghai.”
“We should let the young people feel and consciously absorb through the charm of art itself.”
The historical drama “My People, My Country” — based on seven memorial moments since 1949 — draws on “narrative and production techniques more commonly associated with Hollywood,” said Nicole Talmacs, China cinema scholar at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.
The film “downplays the stiff didactic approaches to ‘history-telling’ that previous anniversary films have resorted to,” Talmacs said.
The historical drama will roll out in almost 40 countries, including the United States, Canada and Australia the day after its debut in China — partly due to Chinese media moguls’ aggressive acquisition of cinema chains worldwide.
“Chinese patriotism is no longer a localized affair,” said Talmacs.
While China’s entertainment industry tries to appeal to wider audiences, censors have recently whittled out and replaced shows with those that push the communist cause.
In July, the National Radio and Television Administration’s development research center released a list of 86 TV programs that “eulogize the motherland, the people and the heroes” for TV stations to play during the key political year.
It also banned costume serials and dramas that have “strong entertainment elements” during the run-up to the anniversary.
Costume dramas — such as the hugely popular series “Story of Yanxi Palace,” which drew 18 billion views — used to be abundant in China but are frowned on by the authorities for celebrating a lavish, scheming lifestyle under empirical rule.
And in June, the premiere of the Chinese war epic “The Eight Hundred” was canceled after an association of retired party cadres deemed it “inappropriate” because they said it glorified the Kuomintang.
Instead, stirring artistic offers are being rolled out in a wave to “firmly grasp the correct political direction, public opinion and value orientation,” the top media body said in mid-September.
The China Film Producers’ Association has called on the cinema industry to use films to “vigorously promote patriotism as the core of the national spirit.”
Movies such as “Liberation,” “My People, My Country” and “Chairman Mao 1949” are filling the country’s movie theaters.
“The Bugle from Gutian,” a film reflecting events that established the principle of the CPC having absolute leadership over the army, hit cinemas on Army Day in August.
“I was very touched,” said audience member Liu Hexin, after watching it in Beijing. “There had been so many predecessors shedding their blood for the beautiful life we have today.”
Since the young crew of “Battle of Shanghai” was not alive 70 years ago, Dong and other directors on the show arranged visits to cemeteries where soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army are buried, as well as history classes.
“I think culture is the most powerful tool (for conveying messages) because literature and artworks can cultivate roots and souls,” said Li Chunyan, the show’s chief director.
As streets, subways, and screens across the country turn red ahead of the anniversary on Tuesday, Wang said he will celebrate the PRC’s 70th year on stage.
“I hope to spread the positive energy and spirit to more people … so that I can be worthy of playing such a hero like the commander,” he says.