Gao Xiaosong.
Gao Xiaosong.
Image: Getty Images / Wang HE

It is one of the chillier days of the year in Beijing on the Saturday afternoon I visit Gao Xiaosong. I arrive early at “Linked Hybrid”, a sprawling, futuristic block whose eight apartment towers are linked by soaring sky bridges. A concierge eyes me warily as I mill around the lobby in my puffy coat, waiting for the appointed hour.

I imagine he is watching me closely because I have told him the apartment number and assume he knows I’m meeting a celebrity. But when Gao greets me upstairs, I realise this was probably incorrect: the flat is barely furnished, the living room empty except for a single electric massage chair.

With his pudgy figure, pockmarked cheeks and scraggly goatee, Gao himself is not exactly glamorous — but I am not fooled; the 49-year-old is firmly embedded in China’s entertainment elite. He’s been a popular singer-songwriter, a film director, and a Malcolm Gladwell-style public intellectual. These days, though, his role has taken him far from China. Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba and China’s richest man, has told him to conquer Hollywood.

As chairman of the strategic committee at Alibaba Entertainment, Gao is charged with learning the secrets of making compelling TV and movies — a mission with huge ramifications for Hollywood and China. Only the US outspends China in TV production; last year the Chinese audience for movies hit a record high, with box office takings at Rmb61bn ($9.1bn). But Gao says that when it comes to quality, the country still has a lot to learn.

“Sometimes I’m embarrassed,” he says. “Even a crap movie can earn a lot of money. At the moment, Chinese movies really aren’t worthy of accepting Rmb60bn from the common people. We can do better with this money.”

After so much time away from Beijing, Gao seems to crave home comforts. The table is set with the simple necessities of hotpot: the classic meal of stewed meat and vegetables cooked on the table. “I grew up in Beijing, and I always feel that if you’re hosting guests in the winter, it’s not much fun to go outside,” says Gao. “It’s better to host at home.”

Though he is now often served hotpot at restaurants in elaborate banquet style, Gao grew up on rather more modest versions of the dish. “When I was a kid, there were no vegetables in winter, only cabbage,” he says, recalling the austere Beijing of the 1970s, before Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms set the country on a course for explosive growth. “In October or November, every family bought a few hundred kilos and put them in the courtyard or the corridor. Those big, coarse cabbages — it’s hard to make them taste good.”

As the hotpot warms, Gao offers a choice of wine, beer or Maotai, the premium brand of Chinese baijiu, or white spirits. I hesitate, recalling rueful baijiu experiences from the past, but sensing that the trajectory of our conversation may turn on this decision. I choose Maotai. Gao produces a bottle with his own name and face printed on the label (“It was a gift,” he says wryly. “Not ideal.”)

But the apartment lacks proper baijiu glasses, which are like a smaller version of a sherry glass. Gao phones his driver to ask him to pick up some, while pouring the first round into wine glasses.

While China’s economic and geopolitical influence has grown dramatically over the past 15 years, its cultural influence around the world lags by comparison. Gao points out that when he started his career as a singer-songwriter in the early 1990s, there were no record companies in the whole of China. “The history [of China’s entertainment industry] is short, so we need to proceed slowly,” he says.

South Korea, he thinks, might serve as a model. With the help of Korean government subsidies beginning in the late 1990s, Korean films, TV shows and — most famously — the country’s glossy K-pop groups have been exported to Asia and beyond. It’s an inspiring vision, but would require China’s studios to make better films. I ask if censorship explains why Chinese movies have failed to captivate world audiences. Gao is emphatic that the real issue is a lack of skill and experience. And Hollywood, he argues, has its own informal censorship regime.

“In Hollywood, many things can’t be filmed. The villain can’t be a person of colour. He will definitely be a white man like you. It can’t be a woman or an Asian . . . My experience is that political correctness in Hollywood is possibly the most powerful censorship in the world. But despite this strong pressure,” he adds diplomatically, “Hollywood still makes great movies.”

In fact, Gao insists that limitations on content stimulate rather than stifle creativity. Growing up in the 1970s, he was raised on a diet of Soviet cinema — proof, he suggests as he reels off a list of movies, that modern masterpieces can be produced under censorship.

The electric pot begins to bubble. Gao conveys meat into it with his chopsticks, and I contribute mushrooms from my side of the table. The shiitakes are fibrous and need time to soften.

Why are American TV dramas so good? Because only Americans watch them. So they’re really daring — getting naked, bare bottoms, cursing’

Gao is supremely well-connected, so it’s no surprise that he had known Ma for almost a decade before he started working with him in 2015. “Jack Ma is the first person I met in my life who has the character and temperament of a true leader,” he says, starrily. “When I’m with him, I have the feeling that I’m witnessing history.”

At the start of each year, Ma asks Gao for a list of books to read in the coming year, although he’s usually too hard-pressed to read a fraction of them. “This year, he asked for another list of books, so I just went ahead and bought 10,000 books and had them sent to his house,” says Gao, who is currently writing an authorised history of Alibaba to mark the company’s 20th anniversary. Gao also composed the theme song for Gong Shou Dao, a short film in which Ma stars as a kung fu master, squaring off against martial arts legends including Jet Li and Donnie Yen. Ma himself recorded the tune in a duet with pop diva Faye Wong.

As one of Ma’s most trusted lieutenants, Gao is at the heart of a vast corporate conglomerate, but it was not always so. As a student in Beijing in the late 1980s, he dabbled in heavy metal and grew his hair long “because girls liked that type”. Gao describes China’s music scene at the time as divided between hard rockers — the likes of Cui Jian, who wrote anthems of disillusionment and was forced into temporary retirement after singing to students at Tiananmen Square — and propaganda songs performed by military troupes.

“It was all about society — either saying society is good or saying it’s bad,” he says of the music of the time. “I wasn’t paying much attention to society. I was paying attention to growing up, my life, my feelings.”

We take a second shot of baijiu, and I am emboldened to ask Gao for his thoughts on the Tiananmen Square protests, which took place 30 years ago this year. Gao studied radar engineering at Tsinghua University, China’s top science institution, before dropping out to attend Beijing Film Academy. The Tiananmen movement was also led by precocious students at elite Beijing universities.

Gregarious as he is, Gao declines to discuss his memories of those terrible days. Any member of China’s establishment — whether in politics, business, or media — knows better than to comment publicly on sensitive issues, especially the “three Ts”: Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen. This is especially true now, as President Xi Jinping has tightened control over dissent since taking power in late 2013.

For the past decade, Gao has hosted a succession of online talk shows aimed at an educated urban audience — broadly similar to the cohort that consumes podcasts in the US or Europe. “Previously no one thought people would pay to listen to intellectual talk, because if an intellectual gave a speech, not many people showed up, or his book might only sell 500 copies,” Gao says. “Now you have many intellectuals producing content, including a lot of professors, and people are actually paying for it.”

Gao’s particular talent is for semi-scripted banter that appears genuinely unconstrained, while never running afoul of China’s censorship apparatus. Xiaosong-pedia, which covered topics from Star Wars to Ming Dynasty concubines to CIA assassination attempts on Fidel Castro, received more than 900m views over its two-and-a-half-year run.

His fans hail him as an intellectual with an entertainer’s flair, while equally ardent detractors find him unbearably smug. “I find that Chinese people like intellectuals more than Americans,” he says. “Americans really like sports stars. If you meet a complete stranger but your hat says ‘49ers’, you immediately have lots to chat about. When Chinese sit down at the table, everyone wants to talk about history.”

I’m starting to warm up now from the baijiu and the steam emanating from the hot pot, as well as Linked Hybrid’s geothermal heating system. I unzip my thick cardigan, which had seemed indispensable an hour ago. Gao’s tone as we chat is the same mixture of wry wit and earnest auto-didacticism as on his show. We take another shot. Gao loads sliced daikon into the hot pot, and I toss in some oblong tofu slices. I ask Gao whether geopolitical tension between the US and China affects his ability to build relationships for Alibaba in Hollywood.

“At the beginning it was just, ‘Oh, the Chinese have so much money.’ This is Hollywood’s usual habit. Whether the money comes from the Middle East or Japan, it doesn’t matter. Money from anywhere is good money,” he says.

“Later, we started to feel a little bit of backlash. I was meeting with a TV station — I won’t say which one because it was one of the big ones — and they asked me, ‘You’re coming from China, are you going to bring all that censorship stuff here?’ But it’s not as serious as in politics. People are still willing to work with China. It’s not even mainly because we have money but because we have the market.”

Gao spends his days in Los Angeles meeting potential co-production partners, searching for media properties in which to invest, and scouting talent. “The globalisation of China’s entertainment industry definitely won’t take off from Beijing,” he says. “It will take off from Hollywood, because Hollywood itself makes global movies. Hollywood isn’t American movies; I’ve never believed that. It is global movies.”

Alibaba Pictures, which is listed in Hong Kong, posted a loss through the first nine months of 2018, but its fortunes may change this year. In February, Gao represented the company at the Academy Awards, where Green Book, which it co-produced, won the prize for Best Picture, before earning $17m on its opening weekend in China. Alibaba Pictures also co-produced The Wandering Earth, a nationalistic sci-fi film which has taken $700m at the Chinese box office since it was released in February, and has been picked up by Netflix for global distribution.

WATCH | The Wandering Earth trailer:

Gao is keen to point to the cultural exchange that has long existed between China and the west, especially for the generations raised during the years when the Communist party expunged traditional Chinese culture from the education curriculum. “Look at Zhang Yimou,” he says, referring to the director of iconic films such as Raise the Red Lantern. “Don’t be distracted by the traditional Chinese costumes. The bones of these movies are Shakespeare and Kurosawa.”

But he also thinks Alibaba can teach Hollywood about e-commerce and big data. Much like Amazon in the US, Alibaba has a treasure trove of data on Chinese consumption habits and preferences, which it can now use to support its move into media production and distribution.

What’s more, the company can leverage its entire online ecosystem to support its entertainment projects. For financing, it can use its own money through Alibaba Pictures or tap Yulebao, Alibaba’s entertainment-focused crowdfunding platform. Tickets are sold through Alibaba’s two online ticketing apps, Taopiaopiao and Damai. Youku streams TV shows and films that have finished their theatrical runs, while also offering an advertising platform for upcoming titles. Tmall, the Amazon-like e-commerce marketplace, sells spin-off merchandise.

Gao takes a clear-eyed view of the difference between art and commercial entertainment. None of the five films he’s directed have been big hits at the box office, but he thinks they stand up on artistic grounds. Hollywood’s desire to woo Chinese and other global audiences has led the industry to rely on comic book and action franchises — something Gao sees as an “inevitable compromise”. He reserves his warmest praise for US television dramas.

“Why are American TV dramas so good? Because only Americans watch them. For most of them there’s barely any overseas market. So they’re really daring — getting naked, bare bottoms, cursing. They’re willing to do anything. It makes me so happy,” he says.

The hot pot broth is mostly evaporated. As we take another baijiu, we toast Netflix — and its challengers.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019.

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