“High School Musical: China” (2010)
by A.J. Hakari
Once upon a time, there was a movie studio named Disney. This media giant was built on the foundation of “more” — from the yearnings of its animated princesses to a merchandising blitzkrieg that hasn’t let up since the Hoover Administration, not being satisfied with what you have was instilled in everything that bore Uncle Walt’s name. Thus, not content on conquering the hearts and wallets of fans across the globe with domestic features alone, Disney created a “World Cinema” banner, whose output would target viewers of specific foreign markets. Among the first in this wave would be High School Musical: China, a retooling of the Disney Channel’s inexplicably popular 2006 smash. But rather than present a unique, culturally-infused take on an American-made story, this flick rehashes the same shallow characterizations and insufferable pop soundtrack, all while somehow leaving even more plot out of the mix.
Ning Ning (Ma Zi Han) is an impossibly optimistic teenager perkily taking on the next chapter of her life. She’s recently transferred to a fairly affluent private school, where her folks hope she’ll get a good education before studying abroad — but this being Disney, a musically-inclined kink makes its way into said plans. Instead, Ning Ning falls in with a group of classmates who have a shared love of getting together and performing karaoke. One student in particular, basketball star Poet (Junning Zhang), captures her affections, and when an inter-school singing competition is announced, it’s only natural that they enter as a duo. But forces soon converge to stop these kids from going on with the show, from Ning Ning’s disapproving parents to Princess (Gu Xuan), a spoiled schoolgirl who schemes to hog the spotlight all to herself.
Those with a subtitle allergy can rest assured that High School Musical: China establishes its stereotypes as efficiently as its American counterpart. The opening credits number features each of the actors warbling about the one personality trait they’ll be incessantly hammering into your soul for the remainder of the film (“I’m the rebel!” “I’m the hip-hop guy!” “I’m the soulful hunk who’ll be on more Tiger Beat covers than the rest of these suckers!”). As you can tell, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, as High School Musical: China abides by the original movie’s pattern of substituting such trivialities as plot and character development with motivational poster-deep tunes about “being yourself.” It’s as empty and vacuous as family entertainment can get, coasting by on its positivity and lack of offensiveness. But just putting on a happy face doesn’t instantly make something good, especially in this film’s case, when all the smiles in the world can’t distract you from the fact that its plot is nonexistent.
This entire franchise is notorious for trying to generate conflict out of the most contrived, phony-baloney reasons possible (oh, sweet mother of Christ, these two people might have interests outside of their arbitrarily-ordained cliques!), but High School Musical: China takes the cake. This movie straight-up pretends there’s tension when there’s none in sight, making a simple gathering of chums out to be the be-all, end-all of their young lives. The interest Ning Ning, Poet, and their friends have in singing seems casual at best, shown to us as just something they like to do when school’s out. But the way they drone on about it, it’s made to give the impression that performing is in their blood, a concept that doesn’t even come close to getting off the ground. Not to knock the cast, who all look like an energetic bunch (and should get the hell out of the Disney racket on the double), but all of the characters end up coming across as vapid teenagers who are, like, soooo artistic, man. The lack of variety in the soundtrack doesn’t help matters either, as the constant refrain of hollow anthems espousing individuality is only broken up every so often by an amusing song about respecting your elders and how awesome math is (I’m disappointed didn’t a ten-minute “eat your peas” ballad wasn’t included).
I’ve yet to see any other result of Disney’s World Cinema experiment, but I pray they’re nothing like High School Musical: China. The United States has had a tough enough time on the world stage as it is, so we don’t need to add encouraging other nations to produce inane, overly-sanitized mush like this to the list of offenses. I suppose, however, that High School Musical: China has served at least one purpose: Chinese audiences will know what it was like for Americans to suffer through this same homogenous tripe.