Hid­den dragon

Hol­ly­wood has en­coun­tered pit­falls in its rush to film in China, writes Michael Bodey

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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