Transformers are huge in China, and I don't mean just the devices used to transfer energy between circuits. The alien robot car disaster movie may not have earned more money in China than the US (you can watch the movie free on Chinese websites), but its got enormous buzz. Every Chinese (boy) I know under the age of 25 in Beijing has seen it, and -- gasp -- even paid to watch it on the big screen instead of on bootleg. Director Michael Bay even started his own Chinese language blog to tie in with the release.
Part of the reason for the film's popularity is that Transformers -- which began as a set of toys (made in China of course) before quickly becoming a TV cartoon -- exploded on the scene here in the late 80s, just in time to catch the first generation of kids born under the one-child policy, for whom television was a novel and ground-breaking form of entertainment. And the educational children's programming that flooded CCTV at the time was no match for Optimus Prime, Megatron and company. (Party bureaucrats also could not halt the show, which, in early 1989, they blamed for promoting excess consumption and, ahem, violence.) China's changed faster than an Autobot since the 80s, and while there's not much looking back on those rough years, Transformers is a perfect nostalgia trip. It doesn't hurt that the Hollywood blockbuster eye-candy of the movie -- which is really fun, for the record -- stands out in a mostly drab film landscape. (Unlike a number of big Hollywood films, Transformers only lost some dialog to the government censors.)
But the Transformers craze in China is more than meets the eye. Underneath the hood -- no, right on top of it -- the movie is the biggest car ad the world has ever seen. And China is well on the road to becoming the world's biggest car market, thanks in no small part to Transformers-partner GM. The message of the movie, especially at its final scene (which totally resembles a 30-second spot, btw) is one that speaks loud and clear to its car-hungry audience in China: cars are not just symbols of personal freedom, they exist to protect us, and can even save the world.
Every day, 20000 new cars hit the roads in China. And every day, 200 people are killed by automobiles -- rivaling disease as the biggest killer of children. Cars are of course also the fastest growing source of pollution in urban areas, where 600,000 are estimated to die from darkened skies by 2020. The sheer number of cars is also choking movement in Chinese cities; last month, the mayor of Shenzhen exasperatedly pleaded with citizens to stop driving.
But right now, the movie's underlying message is one that Beijing -- with its involvement in the auto business -- is all too eager to embrace. No wonder Jackie Chan's Rush Hour 3 is being banned (well, it isn't actually about Beijing's awful traffic).
As Liang Congjie, the founder of one of China's first NGOs, puts it, "If each Chinese family has two cars like American families then the cars needed by China, something like 600 million vehicles, will exceed all the cars in the world combined. That would be the greatest disaster for the whole of mankind."
But audiences are likely to miss the movie's other, most poignant message: cars may be able to "save" us, but they can also destroy us.
(There are perhaps some valuable take-aways in the movie for China, among them the importance of technological innovation, an area in which the country, and especially its green car sector, is lacking.)
What we need now -- and certainly what the world's one-time bicycle kingdom needs -- is a transformation of the way we use, make and think about cars. "We cannot let the humans pay for our mistakes," says Optimus Prime. But we are already paying for them.
P.S. There's also a movie for the kids.
: : Read our coverage of China's car market and its effects: China's Public Enemy No. 1 (Times 20000 Per Day), Dude! Where Can I Park My Car in China?, China's Cars Come in Green: Dispatch from the Shanghai Auto Show, and Keep Them Pigeons Rolling
: : The car site on web portal Sohu.com is running a Transformers essay contest. BAA, the country's biggest auto club, also has its own Transformers page. Hexun and Henan News discuss the tie-in and the impact the movie will have on the car market.
: : More on China's Transformers craze (Beijing Review)
: : Clever but horrible: three-way tie-in in this Burger King ad.
: : This week, China's two biggest automakers announced a partnership.