Obama loved The Godfather, Trump screened Finding Dory his first month in office, and North Korea’s late Kim Jong Il was cinema-obsessed. But what about China’s President? Does Xi Jinping unwind with a bucket of popcorn and a buddy comedy?
There’s no easy way to know. There are no public tours of the Chinese leaders’ compound Zhongnanhai, and there’s been no memoir or official biography.
In 2010, however, WikiLeaks published diplomatic cables summarizing a March 2007 dinner conversation between Xi—at that time, the Communist Party Secretary of Zhejiang Province —and U.S. Ambassador Clark Randt.
Exactly 10 years ago at Randt’s Beijing residence, the future President of China revealed that he was a fan of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (adapted from the Hong Kong cops-and-gangsters classic, Infernal Affairs). The cables said that Xi “particularly likes Hollywood movies about World War II,” declaring, “Hollywood makes those movies well, and such Hollywood movies are grand and truthful. Americans have a clear outlook on values and clearly demarcate between good and evil. In American movies, good usually prevails.”
But what has Xi said about Chinese directors? The Wikileaks cables told us that he was confused by Zhang Yimou’s court intrigue, Curse of the Golden Flower, lumping it together with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, dramas that “all are the same, talking about bad things in imperial palaces.” Xi told Randt: “Some Chinese moviemakers neglect values they should promote.”
“I much prefer Jia Zhangke’s films, like Still Life and I Wish I Knew,” he is supposed to have said, indicating that he was also aware that Jia’s social drama, Still Life had taken the top prize at the previous year’s Venice Film Festival.
In that same conversation, Xi also acknowledged the existence of The Blood of Yingzhou District the 2007 Oscar-winning HIV/AIDS documentary, noting that its director, Ruby Yang was Chinese-American.
Fast forward to 2012 when Xi, having become China’s vice president, visited Los Angeles, where he took in a Lakers game with DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had just announced plans for the Shanghai studio campus that now houses the Oriental Dreamworks joint venture. Xi, Katzenberg, and U.S. Vice President. Joe Biden touted a U.S.-China film deal opening the coveted Chinese market to more Hollywood films.
Over the years, Xi has also cited his admiration for The Godfather and The Deer Hunter, while excelling at dropping Western pop-culture references into various speeches and pronouncements: he once declared that balancing his work and personal life was a “Mission Impossible;” and then, explaining his anti-corruption agenda in 2015, Xi brought up to House of Cards, insisting he was not carrying out a personal agenda, Kevin Spacey-style.
Then, that same year, during his first state visit to the US as President, Xi mentioned during a speech given in Seattle that the city had become “almost a household name in China” thanks to a certain Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan comedy. Does that sound like a man who doesn’t care for the movies?