Avatar & China: Idealism, Optical Illusions

This week a reminder of Chinas incredible pace of development comes in the form of the new James Cameron movie, Avatar.

I’m in a theater only a few minutes walk from my apartment, watching Avatar in 3D. The theater is large and luxurious, the sound is booming, and I’m warm and comfortable even though it’s freezing outside. I got here late so I’m seated in the front row, which means I hear gasps of awe and delight by the hundreds as lush 3D scenery pops off the screen.

As the first subway line in Chengdu prepares to go into operation and China unveils the worlds fastest train, I’m constantly reminded of how quickly China is changing.

Has It Always Been This Way?

After five years, you’d think that I’d have come to peace with this observation long ago, but the truth is that like many people, I have a romanticized perspective on China. Every once and a while an event like watching Avatar in 3D is a slightly jarring reminder that in a lot of ways, Chengdu (a “second-tier” city in China) isn’t far behind my home of Washington, DC.

Chengdu is known for it’s history, culture, and charm, not it’s 3D Hollywood blockbusters. But following James Camerons visit to China, Avatar is taking the country by storm. Hollywood studios have come to rely on droves of new fans (and dollars) in countries with eager movie-goers like China and Russia – and judging by the gasps of joy coming from behind me, this is a theater full of delighted customers. With its awe-inspiring visual effects, Avatar undeniably wowed the theater. But I wonder if, while wearing goofy googles and watching Avatar in 3D, they have succinct moments of this realization as I do.

As the credits roll on this epic 160-minute film begin to roll, I get out of my first row seat not feeling a bit of discomfort. The theaters seats, even this close to the massive screen, are really comfortable.

When I exit the theater complex I notice the street littered with the citys discarded refuse, waiting to be collected by cleaners who come in the middle of the night. The city sleeps as an army of migrant labor workers wearing bright orange suits collect the citys trash, tossed carelessly to the ground by the citizens of Chengdu. The street cleaners collect a monthly wage of $60 for cleaning up the half-eaten popcorn bags of people who watch Avatar in 3D. As they drop their trash on the street in plain view of others, they aren’t acknowledging their responsibility to keep the streets clean because there are poorer people who are charged with that duty. They don’t question it, those are just the rules.

China’s Stark Contrasts

Rickshaw driver in alley
Chinese alley

On my walk home I pass a rickety building which looks ready to collapse. It sells fake name-brand luggage and it’s directly across the street from an opulent shopping mall with Prada and and Ralph Lauren stores. Further down the same street cracks in a crumbling wall turn into a lively alley where glasses clink and dice roll in the summertime – but in a year, this alley and these people will be gone. Gone because the land will be sold to someone who will develop it into a profit-earning tax machine.

There’s only accurate way I can think of to describe China in moments like these: a land full of stark and fascinating contrast that trumps the best that Hollywood has to offer.

Still, you should really see Avatar, it’s incredible.

11 thoughts on “Avatar & China: Idealism, Optical Illusions”

  1. I saw Avatar in 3D as well in a state-of-the-art Chinese theatre. I was also duly impressed with the whole setting and display. Most memorable will certainly be how my Chinese friends pointed out the movie’s obvious American themes where the corporation tries to impress their cultural values and opportunities upon the less developed other race.

  2. I was resisting Avatar, but it seems like I should really go see it with everybody talking about it – even in Chengdu!

    Those migrant workers picking up the trash each night is definitely a memory that stuck with me about contemporary life in China. Is it the same in other cities like Beijing and Shanghai?

    • The hype is considerable (even here), but it lives up to it. Make sure you see it in 3D.

      I’m seriously considering seeing it again!

  3. the message of the movie really did hit home all over the world — a message that is basic and one we’ve heard before WE ARE KILLING OUR MOM — but the beauty of the movie really did it … again … in a new way.

    • It’s true, it is formulaic; but, the artistry and special effects of the film alone put it in a different class than Dances with Wolves or Last Samurai. Avatar is a feat for the technical obstacles it overcame, not for its story telling prowess, although I enjoyed that too. How they made Avatar.


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