In the international film world, few invitations are as prestigious as being selected as the opening-night film of the New York Film Festival. (Last year it was "Pulp Fiction.") When Zhang Yimou learned that his "Shanghai Triad" was the first Chinese movie ever picked for the opening slot, it was considered the biggest honor of his career. Zhang was happy. The Chinese government was happy. And the festival was happy thaf Zhang was coming to the glittering first-night gala at Lincoln Center.
Unlike such earlier Zhang films as "Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern" and "To Live," all of which had been banned in China, this intimate and ravishing gangster movie set in 1930s Shanghai with superstar Gong Li as a heartless nightclub chanteuse passed muster with the party bureaucrats. But a week before the opening, Richard Pena, the chairman of the festival's selection committee, received a call from the Chinese Consulate in New York. They were not happy. They'd discovered that the festival was also showing "The Gate of Heavenly Peace," a documentary examining the events that led to the 1989 protest and crackdown at Tiananmen Square. They told Pena the film was an insult to China, andunless it was removed from the festival, they would be forced to withdraw "Shanghai Triad." The festival had no intention of buckling under to the Chinese request, nor could the Chinese back up their threat to withhold "Shanghai," which is owned in the United States by its distributor, Sony Classics.
Beijing's solution? Punish Zhang Yimou. The director was "advised" not to come to the festival. He was not "forbidden," but to a man whose entire career has been a tightrope walk between celebration and ostracism, there could be no difference. Zhang sent a cautiously worded statement to be read on opening night: "Unfortunately, I cannot be here with you. If I were, I would stand on the podium and say the only two expressions I know in English: 'I love you all and thank you'." Within China, the bureaucrats are denying everything. "Mr. Zhang's health isn't good," a spokesman at the Shanghai Film Studio told NEWSWEEK.
To say that the Chinese have not mastered the art of public relations is an understatement. In an instant, they have turned the documentary they want no one to see-and which they, of course, haven't seen either--into a cause celebre. And it deserves to be: this extraordinary three-hour film, which will be shown on PBS later this year,is a deep, powerful and rivet-ingly complex study of Tianan-men-and, ironically, it's far more evenhanded in its account of the massacre that killed more than a thousand protesters than the Chinese government might suspect. (I should disclose that I'm on the New York festival's selection committee.)
The American filmmakers, Carma Hinton and her husband, Richard Gordon, are particularly well informed. Hinton, who lived in China until she was 21 (she's the daughter of William Hinton, the author of "Fanshen" and "Shenfan," classic studies of a rural peasant village under communism), spent five years shuttling between China and her home in Boston researching the film. She's devastated that Zhang, whom she's known for 10 years, is "getting burned" for her movie. "It's really stupid, immature and infantile. And they haven't even seen it! They can't even afford to see it because of the stifling political process in China. They have to make this weird pre-emptive strike to prove how vigilant they are. And punish a filmmaker who's representative of some of China's finest achievements."
"The Gate of Heavenly Peace" will prove controversial in the West as well, for it shows that the student movement was divided against itself, with some of its most influential leaders hoping for carnage. The student leader Chai Ling, shortly before the crackdown, announces in an interview that "only when the square is awash with blood will the people of China open their eyes." The film suggests that if the moderate elements had prevailed over the extremists, and strategically abandoned the square, the massacre might have been avoided. It shows as well how the more radical students played into the hands of the government hard-liners, who were then able to purge the reformers sympathetic to the students. The film in no way excuses the brutality of the Beijing regime, but it casts crucial new light on this watershed event. "I'm not with people who want to see things go really bad in China so that there'll be a revolution," Hinton says. "I see a potential for Chinato move to the moderate. I'm hoping things will develop in a gradual way."
The politics of moviemaking in China are a confounding mixture of progress and reaction. After decades of turgid propaganda films, a new wave of filmmakers revitalized the moribund industry, creating what many consider a golden age of Chinese cinema. Zhang, Chen Kaige ("Farewell My Concubine") and Tian Zhuangzhuang ("The Blue Kite") were the most famous members of the group known as the Fifth Generation (the first class to graduate from the Beijing Film Academy after the fallow years of the Cultural Revolution). Their films, gar-landed with festival prizes and Oscar nominations, were produced in the wake of the economic reforms instigated by Deng Xiaoping. The leader's famous announcement that "to get rich is glorious" opened the way for a huge wave of foreign investment and coproduction deals. But the films the West hailed were precisely those the government clamped down on.
Blacklisted: The official policies change from year to year, and sometimes day to day, leaving these filmmakers buffeting in the wind. Consider the case of Tian Zhuangzhuang. His 1995 "The Blue Kite" was a startlingly frank depiction of the Cultural Revolution's tragic impact on one family. The film he made was signicantly different from the script he'd submitted for approval--a common subterfuge among filmmakers. When the film won first prize at the Tokyo Film Festival, the Beijing delegation stormed out, and Tian became the bad boy of Chinese cinema. He was lambasted in the press, ostracized by producers and had to resign from the studio where he'd worked for 10 years. In an April 1994 crackdown, Tian was blacklisted with six young filmmakers (the so-called Sixth Generation, whose funkier, low-budget movies qualified them as the Chinese underground). All were forbidden to work in China.
Yet a year later, Tian was ensconced at the Beijing Film Studios, overseeing production of 30 to 85 new movies a year, and assigned to bring in those once reviled Sixth Generation filersmakers. What had changed? "The studios responded to the market," Tian explained in March. "They knew they couldn't turn out the same drivel they'd been making for 40 years." Tian first had to resolve "The Blue Kite" episode with some ceremonial kowtowing. "I admitted I was wrong in not following censorship laws and promised to abide by them."
Profits, not politics, are driving these latest twists of fate. In the past, the big studios in Beijing and Shanghai sold their films to the state for a fiat fee. Now the studios are free to negotiate directly with the theaters, enabling them to reap greater profits. That is, if they can provide movies the Chinese public wants to see.
What the Chinese want to see, however, is "The Lion King" and "True Lies," or Harrison Ford in "The Fugitive." These Hollywood heavyweights are three of 10 imports recently released in a profit-sharing agreement with the U.S. studios. So far, the only flop has been "Forrest Gump": apparently the plot confused Chinese audiences, who found the nitwit Gump an uninspiring hero.
This taste for Hollywood (supplemented by a thriving black market in videotapes and laser discs) is dousing the appetite for home-grownproduct: ticket sales for Chinese films have been slumping, driving theater owners to open sideline businesses such as karaoke lounges. The challenge facing the Chinese studios is how to make films that will lure the home audience back without offending the authorities.
Communists, like Hollywood capitalists and American politicians, prefer happy endings and family values. Zhang's "Ju Dou" and "Raise the Red Lantern"--which were eventually unbanned--were apparently deemed too dark and tragic. Chen's "Farewell My Concubine" was objectionable not just for its harsh look at the Cultural Revolution but because it depicted homosexuality, which isn't supposed to exist in a socialist paradise.
In 1994 Zhang had to apologize for sending "To Live," a less-than-rosy-Red view of Mao's China, to the Cannes festival. As punishment, he was prohibited from making movies with foreign money for two years--which threw a wrench into "Shanghai Triad." He had to drop his French backers and take on the Shanghai Film Studios as producers. On the set, he said, "I feel I'm being watched all the time."
Then, in the midst of filming, he and Gong Li--his creative and romantic partner through seven films-split up. In one version of events, she dumped him to take up with a rich Chinese Singaporean businessman. In another, he left her because because she wanted to have children (he has a daughter with his first wife). "Shanghai Triad" may be their swan song as the Von Sternberg and Dietrich of China--and the movie itself, in which she dons a Marlene Dietrich-like tuxedo to sing in a smoky nightclub, can be read as a veiled parable of their relationship. It's also possible, with some effort, to read a political subtext into this tale of warring gangster clans, but the true pleasures of this sumptuous movie are on its dazzlingly stylish surface. It's the sort of deeply felt genre movie Hollywood would love to make itself (it's like a much improved version of "Billy Bathgate")--just what China is hoping can hold back the Hollywood tide.
Zhang has long since discovered that nothing is quite what it seems in the Chinese movie world. There are rules for everything, but enforcement is another matter. Not long ago, Zhang returned to the city of Xian, where he began his careen Though "To Live" was banned throughout China, videotapes had been circulating freely, and there were even posters in theaters that had shown the movie. To his amazement, he discovered everyone there had seen it.