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Movies define Seattle's image in China as US capital of romance

By RAYMOND ZHOU (China Daily)

Updated: 2015-09-22 07:01:32


Movies define Seattle's image in China as US capital of romance

A poster of Nora Ephron's 1993 runaway hit Sleepless in Seattle. [Photo/China Daily]

Seattle is rarely the first US city that comes to Chinese minds. In fact, few people could probably tell Washington state from Washington DC.

Two romantic comedy films have irrevocably shaped the image of Xiyatu, as the city is known in Mandarin, among the Chinese public, and as a result it would not be a stretch to say Seattle is seen as the American capital of romance, somewhat akin to how the world perceives Paris.

In Sleepless in Seattle, Nora Ephron's 1993 runaway hit, Tom Hanks' character, Sam, moves with his young son from Chicago to Seattle for a fresh start after the death of his wife. The movie portrays the largest city in the Pacific Northwest not as a canyon of high-rises, but as a bohemian enclave of artists and designers, which possibly did not impress Chinese at the time.

This image may have been altered recently by the screen adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, which is largely set in the Seattle area and includes frequent aerial shots and the less-than-tasteful flaunting of wealth and kinky sex.

The narrative setup in Sleepless is almost Chinese to the core: Sam and Annie, played by Meg Ryan, fall in love before actually meeting each other in the flesh. Imagine all those Chinese couples in arranged marriages who were denied the right to face-to-face encounters before their wedding night. This story could have been their silver lining and inspiration.

By contrast, the Chinese movie Finding Mr. Right-the title in Mandarin translates as Beijing Meets Seattle-is very Hollywood in its dramatic arc. The 2013 sleeper hit employs the opposites-attract strategy: Boy meets girl and nothing works out, but we know they'll end up together because we've been conditioned by the genre.

Like with Sleepless, the boy and girl in this story are no youngsters in puppy love. Frank, played by Wu Xiubo, is similar to Sam in that he has a child from a previous marriage, but Tang Wei's Jiajia has nothing in common with Annie. She is a gold digger who is in Seattle to give birth to a child by her wealthy, married boyfriend. The father, who remains unseen, is a symbol of the nouveau riche, whose opulent residence stands in sharp contrast to middle-class living in the Emerald City.

For financial reasons, the movie was actually shot in Vancouver, while the generic English title does not even hint at the promotional power of a movie that made 500 million yuan ($78 million) at the box office in China.

The movie Finding Mr Right is predominantly set in Seattle and even references Ephron's classic when the female protagonist is questioned by a US immigration officer who waves her in as another Sleepless pilgrim.

The movie, also written and directed by a woman, is neither a remake nor a sequel to the 1993 classic, but it pays almost slavish homage by setting the final scene in New York's Empire State Building. If I were the mayor of Seattle, I would have persuaded director Xue Xiaolu to change the location to the Space Needle, which would have cemented the city's reputation as a magnet for true love.

It may not have been necessary anyway. There was reportedly a spike in the number of Chinese tourists in Seattle after the movie was released, and that enthusiasm is unlikely to abate anytime soon, with a sequel on the way next year.