Hollywood has encountered pitfalls in its rush to film in China, writes Michael Bodey
HARVEY Weinstein is one of cinema’s few brand- name producers. The former head of the Miramax studio collected Academy Awards as freely as ticket stubs, thanks to films including Shakespeare in Love , Chocolat and Chicago .
Even after selling the studio he created with his brother Bob, and moving on to the smaller the Weinstein Company, his reputation as Hollywood’s most volatile megalomaniac still precedes him. Which makes the decision by the Chinese Government last month to cancel Weinstein’s permit to shoot ‘‘ an Asian Casablanca ’’ — the new film Shanghai — in China all the more intriguing. The World War II period feature stars John Cusack, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe and Chow Yun- Fat and promised to be another step in easing cultural trade between Hollywood and the Asian giant.
How could Weinstein rail against a regime that is inscrutable and impervious to criticism, bullying, haranguing or other show- business tactics? He couldn’t. He politely offered his respect to China and went location- scouting in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand.
Weinstein had to pull his punches because he has raised a $ US285 million ($ 310 million) fund devoted to making films in Asia starring local actors. Upsetting China so early would send all the wrong signals as he tries to make that cash pile work.
But what signals would work in China? Its move to pull the film permit from Shanghai , and for six other upcoming Western films, was an imperious reaction to the controversy surrounding Ang Lee’s film, Lust, Caution .
That was filmed in China but couldn’t be shown there in full because of two explicit — by Chinese standards, at least — sex scenes. Even more embarrassing was the flood of mainland Chinese citizens who went to Taiwan or Hong Kong to see the film.
Consequently its young star, Tang Wei, was black- listed by the Chinese Government, although her co- star, Tony Leung, is too big a name to be censured.
Since then, other events have rattled Chinese authorities, including the Tibetan uprising and a Shanghai music concert in which Icelandic singer Bjork shouted ‘‘ Tibet! Tibet!’’ at the end of one song. The Chinese Ministry of Culture later said that one moment had not only broken the law but ‘‘ hurt the feelings of the Chinese people’’.
Before these upsets, the cultural bridges between China and the West appeared to be mending, albeit cautiously. Of course, there are mutual benefits in trade between China and the West, particularly with regards to Hollywood.
Hollywood wants access to the great untapped market: 1.3 billion Chinese. China wants to be accepted as a global cultural citizen and, ultimately, farm some commercial spoils.
Already there is lingering resentment at the manner in which some cultural- exchange programs and Western goodwill have been exploited by the Chinese, in film and television.
China appreciated what easy PR these film relationships could provide
Sections of the Australian film industry, particularly the post- production sector, have been savvy at building relations. There have been cultural- exchange programs, a relatively free trade of cinematic expertise between the two countries, and oodles of post- production work from Chinese films including Hero and House of Flying Daggers , which were processed by Australian companies.
And China was willing to engage. It appreciated what easy PR these relationships could provide. Most obviously, the easiest publicity was opening the door for filmmakers to China’s doubtless visual splendour.
John Curran’s adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil is a gorgeous- looking drama filmed in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangxi. A deal struck between the Warner Bros studio and the Chinese authorities allowed the production access to remote locations in exchange for some editorial control. The Chinese asked for changes concerning the Chinese treatment of British expats in Maugham’s story.
‘‘ It’s still very touchy,’’ says its star, Naomi Watts. ‘‘ The China Film Board wanted us to be representing their country well, making sure we didn’t exploit them or misrepresent them. We had some hiccups towards the end with the postproduction and editing; they had some opinions about some things, definitely.’’
The production’s labours to film primarily in a remote area of China, the Lijiang River, pay dividends. The film is a visual and aural feast. Indeed, it is hard to remember any film set in China that hasn’t been visually spectacular. Even the early rural dramas of Yimou Zhang, such as Ju Dou, were striking on the screen. They contrasted beautifully with the over- the- top historical China we’ve seen in The Last Emperor, House of Flying Daggers , Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and other films.
The attraction of filming in China is obvious. Yet one wonders whether anyone, Hollywood included, will have unfettered access to China in our lifetime. Access always comes with caveats.
Even so, many were blinded by the potential of handing the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing. They expected that spotlight to force Chinese authorities to open up.
Only months before the Games, the opposite is occurring. Nevertheless, the Beijing Olympics affords the country an opportunity to develop what may be considered soft cultural partnerships. One of these is a package of five short films commissioned to celebrate the preparation for the Games.
Three years ago, Beijing invited five directors — Giuseppe Tornatore from Italy, Majid Majidi from Iran, Patrice Leconte of France, Daryl Goodrich of Britain and Hong Kong’s Andrew Lau Wai Keung — to make a short film each, telling a story concerning the preparation for the Olympics. They have just screened on China Central TV.
The results of different cultural eyes training their sights on the China experience will be interesting. You would hope it’s not the last example of it.
Hiccups: Australian actor Naomi Watts stars in John Curran’s adaptation of The Painted Veil , filmed in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangxi