The universal language of certain kinds of happiness.
Everyone loves La La Land. This much is somewhat true, as Damien Chazelle’s whirlwind musical hit the theaters in China on Valentine’s Day, and cleared a solid $12.5 million, which pushed it past Rob Marshall’s Chicago in total international box office gain. Its popularity in the world’s second-largest box office is curious to some: its largest competitor, xXx: Return of Xander Cage, which opened on Monday, boasted a star, Vin Diesel, with a large following in China following the fantastical success of the Fast & Furious series over there. (Its latest installment, Furious 7, turned out to be the highest grossing film of all time over there.) Ryan Gosling, one of La La Land’s two glittering stars, has never appeared on screens in China before; a reason, perhaps, for the two-day press tour of Beijing he took with Damien Chazelle late last month.
If La La Land nets the little statue that says Best Picture on it, it will reverse the recent trend of the Academy celebrating movies that “no one’s seen.” Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman, for instance, barely hit north of the $100 million mark, and last year’s big winner, Spotlight, hit less than $90 million. A criticism was to be found in these movies and many of their peers in categories that were not special effects, that they “captured the imagination of Academy voters [but] not the American public.” The Oscar-bait movie was something that normal people wouldn’t want to see; no less a figure than Samuel L. Jackson declared: audiences want to “come in here and escape that in a big dark room.” The last Oscar-netting movie to be widely beloved around the world, Chris Lee of Forbes claimed, was the final installment of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
La La Land, which will probably win because every movie tangentially about Hollywood similarly nominated has won, is also a movie that people like to emphasize makes them happy, and not just grumpy people in Variety who claim that it basically saved their father from grave illness. The movie’s appeal, at first, does not strike one as particularly universal: the twin pursuits that it celebrates, homogenized jazz and tinsel town success, feel like the art forms of a very particularized version of America, not terribly remote from the aesthetic concerns of a Woody Allen movie, routinely celebrated by the Academy through the veil of some metaphor. Yet La La Land feels different, and the massive amount of both financial and critical success it has garnered so far seems to indicate so. Perhaps it is because the movie is precisely not these things: its bald refusal of even chic subtlety in its plot or art direction lend it an interesting kind of mass appeal.
“Ordinary people can see the bittersweet reflection of their own stories in the movie,” raved Xu Fan, in China Daily, the state-run English-language newspaper, “the struggles, striving, disappointments, joy and mourning for an unreachable past.” And over in the vox populi of the country’s popular online movie websites like Mtime and Douban, La La Land has a higher aggregated score than any movie currently in wide release. “City of Stars,” the movie’s theme song, has already garnered 60 million listens since being released on Chinese video-streaming websites. It’s worth also noting that Chinese audiences have been historically wary of musical films: Phyllida Lloyd’s Mamma Mia, historically the largest grossing musical of all time, was never released outside of Hong Kong, while even prior Oscar-fare like Les Miserables took in less than $10 million in Chinese theaters.
Over in India, where the world’s second largest population resides, the Times of India makes a similar point about the welcoming vagueness of La La Land: “beaming with optimism and soaked in nostalgia…It reminds you who you were before failures made you practical,” Renuka Vyavahare writes. In comparison, prior Best Picture-winners like The Artist or Birdman ‐ both fantastical and pat allegories to movie-related creative struggle like La La Land ‐ are commended with words like “arresting” or “daring,” as if these were things to be looked at in an art exhibit.
The only other Best Picture nominee, of the current lot, to be released in both marketplaces is Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. Science-fiction is a traditionally universalizing genre, one whose universalizing appeal a movie like Arrival especially tried to play upon, but the movie’s grim and untrusting world has only sold somewhat well, putting on “a desperately unconvincing performance,” per Variety, in China and “a good start,” per DNAIndia. A review in the Times of India celebrated its “atmosphere of global dread,” a world away from the nostalgia-soaked optimism of Chazelle’s feature, though both movies feature romances with happy endings laying at their end. Earnest nostalgia is only a great thing without an inch of context, which is why even an inspiring box office smash over here like Hidden Figures isn’t expected to rake much in overseas. The universal language that Chazelle discovers in his third movie reminds me somewhat of a mid-career Jeff Koons sculpture, the ones that look like balloons but are made of shiny and stainless steel. Both massively popular and loathed by an unkempt few, his expensively made work eschews the centuries of painters and sculptures desperate to incorporate the pain of their work inside their brushstrokes. La La Land radiates much of the bombastic color that Koons adored, particularly an affinity for the color yellow. But like ornate sculptures that look uncannily machine-made, La La Land is about pleasure because it isn’t about pain. Its scenes of struggle are neatly wrapped up in musical detours that its promotional team has been at pains to not emphasize. It’s a movie about the finished product, a metaphor for nothing besides itself. Hell, people love that stuff.